Annual or biennial herb growing to 3 ft (1 m). Has delicate, slightly lobed leaves and bell-shaped flowers, pale yellow in color with fine purple veining.
Habitat & Cultivation
Native to western Asia and southern Europe, henbane is now found across much of western and central Europe, and North and South America. It is cultivated for therapeutic use in parts of Europe, including England, and in North America. The leaves and flowers are picked just after the plant has flowered, in the first year for the annual variety and in the second year for the biennial.
Leaves, flowering tops.
Henbane contains 0.045–0.14% tropane alkaloids, especially hyoscyamine and hyoscine, and flavonoids. Hyoscyamine and hyoscine are common to other members of the Solanaceae family, but henbane’s relatively high hyoscine content gives it a more specifically sedative action than its relatives thornapple (Datura stramonium) and deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna).
History & Folklore
Henbane has been used as a medicinal herb for thousands of years. Babylonian accounts and the Egyptian Ebers papyrus (c. 1500 BCE) record that henbane was smoked to relieve toothache. In Greek myth, the dead were adorned with henbane when they arrived in Hades.
Writing in the 1st century CE, Dioscorides recommended henbane for insomnia, coughs, congestion, heavy menstrual bleeding, eye pain, gout, and as a general pain reliever, and advised that the herb should be used within a year as it deteriorates quickly.
In the Middle Ages, henbane had the Latin name dentaria, denoting its use as a remedy against toothache. Henbane reputedly produces a sensation of lightness, as though one were flying, and it was one of the chief components of witches’ “flying ointments.”
Medicinal Actions & Uses
Henbane is used extensively in herbal medicine as a sedative and painkiller. Its specific use is for pain affecting the urinary tract, especially pain due to kidney stones, though it is also given for abdominal cramping. Its sedative and antispasmodic effect makes it a valuable treatment for the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, relieving tremor and rigidity during the early stages of the illness.
Henbane has also been used to treat asthma and bronchitis, usually as a “burning powder” or in the form of a cigarette. Applied externally as an oil, it can relieve painful conditions such as neuralgia, sciatica, and rheumatism. Henbane reduces mucus secretions, as well as saliva and other digestive juices. Like its cousin deadly nightshade, it dilates the pupils. Hyoscine is commonly employed as a pre-operative anesthetic and in motion sickness formulations.
Other Hyoscyamus species are used in a similar way. The North African H. muticus is traditionally smoked by Bedouins to relieve toothache. See also deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna).
Use only under professional supervision. Potentially toxic in overdose, henbane is subject to legal restrictions in some countries.