Nightshade ointments are ancient medicine. The earliest mentions of these plants being used for pain, spasms, sleep, anxiety, and depression can be found in famous 2,000 year-old pharmacopeias of herbal medicine such as Dioscorides' De Materia Medica (which was used as the medical textbook for 1,500 years) and The Hippocratic Corpus (a collection of the medical writings of Hippocrates - ancient Greek physician and the "Father of Medicine").
Later mentions of nightshade ointments appear, transformed as witches' salves, in Puch Aller Verpoten Kunst, Ungelaubens Und Der Zaubrey (The Book of All Forbidden Arts) written in 1456 by Bavarian doctor Johannes Hartlieb, and a century later in the famous 1558 work Natural Magic written by Italian scholar and scientist Giambattista della Porta.
Physical evidence of the growing and use of medicinal nightshades for manufacturing healing ointments has been found in the archaeological site at Soutra just outside of Edinburgh, Scotland. Soutra was a monastic hospital operating from the 12-15th centuries.
Mandrakes from a transcribed manuscript of De Materia Medica from the 7th century
The last records of their use come from medical journals in the mid to late 1800s documenting attempts of using belladonna and henbane unguents to treat various ailments. These two medicinal nightshades were included in official pharmacy formularies at the time as it had just been discovered how to isolate the medicinal alkaloids from the plant material; atropine in 1831 and hyoscine (scopolamine) in the 1880s. Unfortunately the preparations made from alkaloid extracts were too strong for public use and fell out of favour. In the early 1900s the newly created FDA regulated the alkaloid extracts in the United States and Canada followed suit a decade alter. Nightshade alkaloids became the sole domain of pharmaceutical manufacturing, physicians, veterinarians, and scientific researchers and the whole plants themselves stopped being used for medicine and are now only cultivated as commercial crops for the pharmaceutical industry to produce extracts for injections and pills.
After five years of such research, then growing, harvesting, and experimenting with the medicinal nightshade plants of belladonna, datura, henbane, and mandrake, our herbalist Sarah Anne Lawless was able to discover the proper dosages of each part of the plant for external use and our nightshade ointment recipes were created. At the time she didn't realize she was the only known person to do this successfully since one unrepeated experiment by German folklorist Will-Erich Peukert in 1960. Before Peukert, attempts had not been made to recreate these ancient traditional remedies since the 1800s.
Once our herbalist was comfortable with their safety and the amount of testing behind each recipe, we started selling nightshade ointments in April of 2010 and have continued to make them since. When we first offered them we had no idea how many people the nightshade ointments would go on help. Sarah was attempting to recreate ancient recipes from dusty herbal grimoires out of academic curiousity and had no idea how important the medicine of Solanaceae plants would turn out to be. After almost a decade of making and selling these ointments we fully realized the antiquarian texts spoke truth: belladonna, datura, henbane, and mandrake are powerful medicines for acute and chronic pain, muscle spasms, surgical procedures, sleep issues, anxiety, and depression.
Our goal is to set a precedent by being the first to go through the process of adding the as yet unexplored external uses of each medicinal nightshade herb to Health Canada's Natural Health Products Ingredients Database. If we are successful, we will be able to register and license our nightshade ointments as traditional medicines and sell them freely in Canada and in local and international pharmacies and stores. The process can take years so wish us luck!
As medicinal nightshades are not in common use, the herbs themselves can be difficult to source on a regular basis. To resolve this we use herbs from a variety of sources: we grow our own, we wild harvested from our local area, we purchase from professional foragers, and we purchase from farmers. We only choose the best herbs available and use the same parts of the plant with every batch made so our ointments always has consistent quality and medicinal potency. To learn more about medicinal nightshades read our plant profiles. If you are a farmer or a forager see our jobs page for more information.
A Note on the Addition of Poplar Buds
In almost every historical mention of nightshade ointments, poplar buds (also known as balm of gilead) are found as another main ingredient. They compliment nightshades perfectly with their strong analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects. The effects of the medicinal nightshades can take up to two hours to set in, but the relief of poplar bud medicine is almost instant. We use poplar buds in all of our ointment recipes for this reason and also because they are a natural preservative which ensures our ointments are sterile and have a long shelf-life.
Our balsam poplar buds are locally and sustainably wild harvested in rural Ontario each spring by local foragers who solely focus on this medicinally potent tree. This ensures we are using the freshest, most potent, and highest quality ingredient available to us.
The only drawback is that people with salicylate allergies cannot use them as poplar buds are a natural source of salicylic acid.