Hyoscyamus niger. Henbane.

Botanical name: 

Pl. 17. Hyoscyamus niger. [For the drawing which accompanies this article, I am indebted to Dr. S. Bass of Salem.]THERE is little doubt that the Hyoscyamus of this country is an imported plant. It is yet rare in most parts of the country, and appears to be strictly limited to the bounds of cultivation. Its seeds are very tenacious of life, and will spring up under favourable circumstances, after having been dormant for a long time. Hence the plant occasionally appears in old grounds which have been newly disturbed, as in grave yards, old gardens and cellars. About ten years since, a drain, which intersects the common in Boston, was opened for the purpose of repairs. In the following season a distinct row of very luxuriant plants of Henbane covered the whole of this drain, although none of them had been observed to grow in the vicinity the preceding year. The seeds, which produced these plants, had probably been buried for more than fifteen years.

This species, together with others of its genus, was well known to the ancients under the same name which it now bears. Its medicinal and deleterious properties were also understood by them.

In modern arrangements the Hyoscyamus in common with Datura, Atropa and other injurious vegetables of its kindred, is found in the class and order Pentandria Monogynia, and the natural order Luridae. Its Jussieuean order is Solaneae.

In this genus the corolla is funnel shaped and obtuse, the stamens inclined, the capsule two celled and covered with a lid.

The present species has the lower leaves sinuated and clasping, and the flowers sessile. It is biennial and flowers in June and July.

The whole herb has a glaucous or sea green colour, is hairy and viscid, and emits a rank, offensive smell. The stalk is one or two feet high, round, branching and rigid. The first leaves spread upon the ground, and have some resemblance to a young thistle. They are large, oblong, frequently contorted, clasping, cut into acute lobes, and pointed; the upper ones generally entire.

The flowers form a revolute, one sided spike at the end of the stem or branch, leaving, as they fall off, a straight row of capsules. The calyx has five short acute segments. The corolla is funnel shaped, irregular, with five spreading, obtuse segments, of a pale yellow or straw colour, with a beautiful net work of purple veins. Stamens inserted in the tube of the corolla, with large oblong anthers. Style slender, longer than the stamens, declined, with an obtuse stigma. Capsule two celled, roundish, covered with a lid, and invested with the persistent calyx, the segments of which extend beyond the calyx, and become rigid and prickly. The seeds are numerous, small, unequal, brownish, and are discharged by the horizontal separation of the lid.

From such chemical experiments as I have made with the dried leaves of the Hyoscyamus, I am inclined to believe, that their chief soluble portion is a variety of extractive matter. The watery and alcoholic solutions do not disturb each other, and the usual tests of tannin produce inconsiderable, or no alteration in either. Of various metallic salts which affected the solutions, the nitrate of mercury gave the largest precipitate in my experiments.

The Hyoscyamus has long been known as a narcotic poison. This character it uniformly exerts in regard to mankind, although many brute animals are exempt from its influence. [Horses, goats, sheep and swine are said to eat it without injury. Brute animals are frequently less susceptible of the influence of poisons than mankind. In the experiments which have been made on them to test the effect of doubtful medicines, the positive evidences of activity which they furnish, are in general more to be depended on, than the negative. That is, if an animal suffers from the action of any substance, a man would be like to suffer somewhat in the same way. Yet if the animal escapes with impunity, it does not follow that the man would be equally fortunate. There is scarcely any narcotic plant which is not devoured by some species of quadruped. Professor Pallas has stated, that the hedgehog can devour Cantharides by hundreds without inconvenience, whereas one of these insects may occasion serious trouble to a man. The following case happened under my own observation. A large eagle, (Falco ossifragus,) intended for a cabinet of natural history, was subjected to a variety of experiments, with a view to destroy him without injuring his plumage. A number of mineral poisons were successively given him without effect, even in large doses. At length a drachm of corrosive sublimate of mercury was inclosed in a small fish and given him to eat. After swallowing the whole of this, he continued, to appearance, perfectly well and free from inconvenience. The next day an equal quantity of arsenic was given him without any better success. So that in the end, the refractory bird was obliged to be put to death by mechanical means.] Dioscorides speaks of it as producing drowsiness and delirium.

The instances recorded of deleterious consequences, ensuing from the Hyoscyamus incautiously taken, are exceedingly numerous. In a number of cases the roots have been introduced by mistake among culinary vegetables, and have occasioned alarming symptoms in whole families at once. In a case cited by Wepfer, the monks of a whole monastery, in consequence of some roots being boiled among those of chicory with their food, were seized with raving delirium, accompanied by intense thirst, impaired vision and other violent affections. Dr. Patouillat has recorded in the Philosophical Transactions, vol. 40, the case of nine persons, who were affected with loss of speech, convulsions, and at length with violent delirium. These symptoms subsided on the subsequent day, when it was found that some roots of Henbane had been dug up in the garden the preceding day by mistake for parsnips, and boiled in the soup on which the family had dined. Sir Hans Sloane, in the same Transactions for 1733, has given an instance of effects equally dangerous, occurring in some children who ate the capsules of this plant, supposing them to be filberds. Even the odour of this noxious vegetable seems capable of exciting its characteristic effects. In a case cited bv Murray from the Gazette de Sante of 1773-4, some servants who slept in a barn, where the Henbane had been scattered for a defense against rats, awoke, with head-ach, dizziness and vomiting.

In instances where death has ensued from swallowing this plant, the stomach has been found to exhibit marks of inflammation, and dark or gangrenous spots.

The principal use which is made of Hyoscyamus in medicine, is as a substitute for opium, in cases where that article disagrees with the patient, or is contraindicated by particular symptoms. It appears to be free from the constipating qualities of opium, and in some instances it is found to fulfil the indications which call for an anodyne and soporific remarkably well. Among medical writers who have spoken favourably of its operation are Dr. Whytt, who employed it in various nervous diseases, and Mr. Burns, author of different obstetric works, by whom it is recommended as preferable to opium in certain puerperal complaints. Mr. Benjamin Bell states, that he found great advantage from its use in troublesome cases of chordee, after opium had failed to give relief.

It must be acknowledged however, that Hyoscyamus is far less uniform and equal in its operation than opium, and that although in some constitutions it mitigates pain, quiets irritation, and procures sleep; yet in others it produces unpleasant nausea, confusion of ideas, head-ach, and sleep which is laborious and unrefreshing. It is rather a secondary medicine, to be resorted to after the failure of opium, than one which we may confidently apply to at first, with reliance on its anodyne effects.

The Henbane was found efficacious in the disease of colica pictorum by Stoll and several others. Its external application in the form of a cataplasm of the bruised leaves has given relief in various tumors and painful affections.

For internal use the extract should be prepared in the same way as that of stramonium. From one to three grains of this extract is a suitable commencing dose, which may be gradually increased until its effects are perceived.

Botanical References.

Hyoscyamus niger, Linn. Sp. pl.
Woodville, i. t. 52.
Smith, Engl. Bot. t.. 591.
Pursh, i. 141.
Hyoscyamus flavus, Fuchsius, Hist. 791.
Hyoscyamus vulgaris, Bauhin, J. iii. 627.

Medical References.

Stoll, ratio med. iii. 13, 423.
Cullen, Mat. Med. ii. 271.
Fothergill, Med. Soc. Lond. i. 310.
Home, clinical exp'ts, 197.
Withering, Med. Comment. Dec. II, vi. 367.
Kinglake, Lond. Med. and Phys. Journal, v. 438.
BROWN, ditto, iii. 406.
Murray. App. Med. i. 655, &c. &c.

American Medical Botany, 1817-1821, was written by Jacob Bigelow, M. D.