Hyoscyamus niger is distributed throughout Europe, from Portugal and Greece to Norway and Finland. It is found in the Caucasus, Persia, throughout Asia Minor, Northern India, and even in Siberia. It has been naturalized in North America and Brazil, and in England is a common weed. Dioscorides (194) mentions it among medicinal plants, and under the name Henbane it has been employed in domestic medicine throughout Europe from the remotest times. Anglo-Saxon works on medicine in the eleventh century give it a place. During the Middle Ages the seeds and roots were much used. Its re-employment and introduction to modern regular medicine, after it had fallen into disuse, came through the efforts of Storck (617). Its qualities were well known to the Arabians, as is witnessed in numerous references thereto in the "Arabian Nights" (88), of which the following is a sample:
"Presently he filled a cresset with firewood, on which he strewed powdered henbane, and lighting it, went round about the tent with it till the smoke entered the nostrils of the guards, and they all fell asleep, drowned by the drug." (88) History of Gharib and his Brother Ajib, Vol. VII, p. 7.
Had Herodotus not said tree, it might have been accepted that the volatile intoxicant mentioned by him referred to this drug. Indeed, the presumption would not have disturbed an author who made errors more pronounced than the distinction between an herb and a tree, and who qualified his statement by "it is said." However, as shown in our article on Matico, that plant was originally described as "Soldier's Herb or Tree."
"Moreover it is said that other trees have been discovered by them which yield fruit of such a kind that when they have assembled together in companies in the same place and lighted a fire, they sit round in a circle and throw some of it into the fire, and they smell the fruit which is thrown on, as it burns, and are intoxicated by the scent as the Hellenes are with wine, and when more of the fruit is thrown on they become more intoxicated, until at last they rise up to dance and begin to sing." Herodotus (Macaulay), Book I, p. 99.
In this connection, through tradition probably, its uses in the same manner came to popular uses. The grandmother of the writer, afflicted with asthma, found her greatest relief in smoking stramonium leaves mixed with small amounts of henbane leaves. This was an heirloom of primitive medication transplanted to the Western American wilderness.