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What is Henbane?

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  • Written By: D. Waldman
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 29 October 2016
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Henbane is a poisonous plant that comes from the nightshade family of plants. Also known as black henbane and stinking nightshade, it is also classified as an herb, though its toxic nature tends to severely limit its cooking potential. Its leaves are green in color and slightly fuzzy, and the plant itself bears light yellow or pale purple bell-shaped flowers. The plant itself tends to have a rather foul odor, which is drastically more noticeable when it is in its blooming cycle. Henbane grows around the globe, but originated in Eurasia.

The earliest recording of henbane was found on a Sumerian tablet dating back to around 4,000 BC. The early Egyptians referred to the herb around 1,500 BC, noting it for its highly intoxicating qualities. During the Middle Ages, it was a common supplement added to alcoholic drinks to increase their potency. Throughout time, the plant has long been used by the shamans and seers of many different cultures and civilizations, most likely as a result of its mind-altering properties. Even still today, it tends to carry a rather mystical association with it.

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In small doses, henbane was often used for medicinal purposes in combination with items such as mandrake, belladonna, and deadly nightshade. These elixirs were given to people before medical procedures to help dull the senses. In essence, these mixtures were an early precursor to modern day anesthesia. When mixed too lightly, the tonic had a tendency to cause hallucinations, leading to its occasional use as a recreational tonic rather than a medicinal one.

If the henbane tonic was mixed at too high a concentration, the results could be deadly. This was sometimes done intentionally to create a fast-acting poison. The use of henbane, along with mandrake and deadly nightshade, in these concoctions also helped to solidify the plant's association with witchcraft and magic. In fact, it is a common ingredient in many fictional witch's brews and magical potions, as well as a staple item in the garden or pantry of many modern day witches.

Henbane's shady nature is also derived from many of the places that it is known to grow. Aside from rubbish piles, the plant is widely found in and around many abandoned monasteries and castles and is a frequent occupant of older graveyards. It is believed the particular compost-like nutrients typically found in these areas are what encourages the growth of the plant.

The modern day uses for henbane are generally medicinal in nature. Since the plant contains a number of chemical components that are, in fact, sedating in nature, it continues to be used for anesthetic purposes. The chemicals can also be used more specifically in painkillers and muscle relaxers.

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