The genus Hyoscyamus consists of about 20 species, all of which contain powerful narcotic tropane alkaloids, including scopolamine and hyoscyamine. (I photographed this growing out of an abandoned doorway in Chios, Greece.)
Hyoscyamus albus is an annual or biennial. The common English name is White (or Yellow) Henbane. The plant is also known by the following names: Altersum, apollinaris, bily blin (Bohemia), diskiamos (modern Greek), dontochorton (Cyprus), gelbes bilsenkraut, belles bilsenkraut, hyoskyamos, obecny (Bohemia), Russian henbane, sikran (Morocco).
The flowers are hermaphroditic. The plant can grow in a range of soils, but prefers good drainage and full sun. Here is a previous post (with photos) of Hyoscyamus niger (Black Henbane).
Before going into the medicinal and historical uses of the plant, it is worth noting that all parts of this plant are considered poisonous. Symptoms of poisoning include impaired vision, convulsions, coma and death from heart or respiratory failure. In short, don’t self medicate with henbane.
Henbane has a long history of use as a medicinal herb, and has been widely cultivated as a result. It is used extensively as a sedative and pain killer, specifically for pain affecting the urinary tract, especially when due to kidney stones. It is also a sedative and antispasmodic and used for the treatment of tremors and rigidity associated with Parkinson’s disease.
All parts of the plant, but especially the leaves and seeds can be used – they are anodyne, antispasmodic, mildly diuretic, hallucinogenic, hypnotic, mydriatic, narcotic and sedative. Henbane is also used to reduce mucous secretions, as well as saliva and other digestive juices.
Henbane was known as a “witches herb” during the middle ages and was one of the central ingredients used in an ointment that gave the hallucinatory sensation of flying. This gave rise to the witch on a broomstick archetype that lasts to this day.
From Entheology.org “In ancient Greece, Hyoscyamus albus was well known to produce dramatic alterations of consciousness. Other reports mention a “divine kind of madness.” In ancient Greece “madness” was equated with inspiration, and it was divided into four parts, each with its own deity. Prophetic inspiration was ascribed to Apollo, mystical inspiration to Dionysus, poetic inspiration to the Muses, and love to the goddess Aphrodite. The ancient Greeks believed henbane had the capacity to subdue the waking mind, leaving room only for the divine. This sacred “plant of Apollo” is distinct from other species of henbane only in that it has been known traditionally to endow its recipient with the gift of prophecy.”
And a few quick and interesting facts about henbane from the U.S. Forest Service website (of all places).
– The Greeks and Gauls poisoned their arrows and javelins with a decoction of henbane.
– Hamlet’s uncle Claudius poured a henbane tincture of the “cursed hebenon” into Hamlet’s father’s ear to murder him.
– Henbane was one of the most important ritual plants of Druids and the Vikings. Viking graves have yielded hundreds of seeds.
– Henbane is the most common plant on the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
See my previous post on Hyoscyamus niger for some more interesting historical information on Henbane, extracted from from Christian Ratsch’s The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants. And this lecture (transcribed to text) by Dr. Josep Mª Fericgla of the Universidad de Barcelona on the Traditional Entheogenic and Intoxicating Substances of the Mediterranean Area may also be of interest….