The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Hyoscyamus albus Linnaeus


Yellow Henbane




Solanaceae (Nightshade Family); Subfamily Solanoideae, Hyoscyameae Tribe, Hyoscyaminae Subtribe

Forms and Subspecies


Three varieties are usually distinguished: Hyoscyamus albus L. var. desertorum Hyoscyamus albus L. var. canariensis Hyoscyamus albus L. var. albus



Hyoscyamus luteus nom. nud.

Folk Names


Altersum, apollinaris, bíly blín (Bohemia), diskí-amos (modern Greek), dontochorton (Cyprus), gelbes bilsenkraut, helles bilsenkraut, hyoskyamos, obecny (Bohemia), Russian henbane, sikran (Morocco), weiß bülsen, weiß bülsenkraut, weißes bilsenkraut, yellow henbane, zam bülsenkraut165


A botanically accurate illustration of white henbane (= yellow henbane). (Woodcut from Gerard, The Herball or General History of Plants, 1633*)




Hyoscamus albus was the most commonly used magical and medicinal plant of European antiquity (Schneider 1974, 2:184*). Though it is commonly referred to as yellow henbane today, it was more commonly known as white henbane in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Much earlier it was described in detail by Dioscorides (4.69), who characterized it as the species with the greatest medicinal value. Pliny had similar things to say in his Natural History (first century):


The plant that is known to us as apollinarus and by some as altercum, and among the Greeks as hyoskyamos, is also ascribed to Hercules. There are several species of this: one [Hyoscyamus niger] has a black seed and almost purple-red flowers, is thorny at the calyx, and grows in Galatia; while the common species [Hyoscyamus muticus (?)] is whiter, bushier, and taller than the poppy; the seeds of the third are similar to those of the wild radish; all three species produce frenzy [insania] and dizziness. The fourth species is soft, woolly, and fatter than the other species, has a white seed, and thrives in coastal areas. This [Hyoscyamus albus] is used by physicians, as is the one with the reddish seeds. But sometimes the white seed also becomes red when it is not yet ripe, and this is discarded. In general, the plant is not collected anywhere until it has become dry. It has the property of wine, which is why it unnerves the senses and the head. The seeds are used both by themselves and pressed as juice. This juice is pressed separately, as is that of the stems and leaves. The root is also made use of; but this, in my opinion, is a hazardous medicine. It is known that the leaves as well confuse the mind when more than four are taken in a drink; but according to the opinion of the elderly, in wine they will dispel fever. From the seeds is produced . . . an oil that will confuse the reason even if dripped into the ear, and it is remarkable that those who have drunk of it are given medicines as if for a poison, and yet it itself is used as a medicine. (Pliny 25.17, 35–37)


In England, the tobacco (Nicotiana rusticaNicotiana tabacum) imported from the New World was identified as a species of henbane (Hyoscyamus peruvianus). In the seventeenth century, the word tobacco was a kind of synonym for herbs that could be smoked. The so-called little yellow henbane (Hyoscyamus luteus) that was grown in many English gardens and appears to sow itself was known as English tobacco (Gerard 1633, 356*). This is a clear indication that henbane, a European native, was once numbered among the smoking herbs and may have been used for ritual purposes (cf. Golowin 1982*).

Today, yellow henbane has only a negligible pharmaceutical significance in the production of tropane alkaloids (Sauerwein and Shimomura 1991).



Yellow henbane is found primarily in southern Europe (Spain, Italy, Greece) and in the Near East. It is very common in the Golan Heights of Israel (Dafni and Yaniv 1994, 12*). It prefers sunny locations close to the sea.



Hyoscyamus albus lives from one to three years and is the most easily grown of all henbane species. The seeds need only be loosely broadcast over sandy, clayey, or even poor soil. Water occasionally at first, but never overwater. This heat-resistant plant also thrives in crevices of old walls and between rocks. In the Mediterranean region, the plant flowers from April to May, while in central Europe (where it is grown as a cultivar), it flowers from June to September. The entire plant is harvested while still in bloom and hung by the roots in a well-aired location. Drying requires from three to six weeks.



The plant grows to a height of 40 to 50 cm. Although the stems are vertical, the plant often takes on a bushy appearance. The light green stems and serrated leaves are very pileous, as are the calyxes and the fruits. On Cyprus and in Greece, the plant flowers from January to July. The flowers have a light yellow color but often are dark violet on the inside. The seeds are whitish, ocher, or, less frequently, gray in color.

Psychoactive Material





Preparation and Dosage


The dried herbage can be smoked as a treatment for asthma, bronchitis, and coughs (in an amount equal to that contained in one cigarette). An aphrodisiac smoking blend can be produced by combining equal parts of the plant, hemp flowers (Cannabis indicaCannabis sativa), and dried fly agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria). A “prophetic delirium” can be produced by inhaling the smoke of burning henbane seeds. The fresh or dried herbage can be added to wine and used as a remedy for pains and cramps. For information about dosages, see Hyoscyamus muticus and Hyoscyamus niger. In Morocco, it is said that twice the amount that can be taken up by the fingertips is sufficient to produce hallucinogenic effects (Vries 1984*).


Yellow henbane (Hyoscyamus albus) is a southern European plant.


Ritual Use


Henbane, and in particular this species, was certainly the most important ancient means for producing a trance state and clearly was ingested by many oracles and soothsayers (sibyls, Pythias). It was the “dragon plant” of the ancient earth oracle of Gaia, the “madness-inducing” plant of the Colchic oracle of the witch goddess Hecate, the “Zeus bean” of the oracle of Zeus-Ammon of late ancient times and the Roman Jupiter, and the “Apollo’s plant” of Delphi and other oracles of the god of “prophetic madness”166 (Rätsch 1987).

The seeds, both alone and in combination with other substances, were usually burned as a ritual incense and inhaled, or the leaves were added to wine and drunk. When the soothsayers and prophetesses inhaled the smoke or drank the wine after their ritual ablutions, they called to the oracular deity, usually Apollo. When they had been possessed by the god, they would lose their human consciousness and proclaim the messages of Apollo through their mouths. Priests then “translated” (i.e., interpreted and proclaimed as the words of the oracle) their often unintelligible babbling, sighing, and groaning (Kerényi 1983; Maas 1993; Parke 1985, 1988; Roberts 1984).

In Morocco, the herbage or the seeds of sikram, “inebriant,” as the plant is known (cf. Hyoscyamus muticus), are still burned for psychoactive purposes or used as an ingredient in psychoactive incenses, usually in combination with the seeds of Peganum harmala (Vries 1994*).



Curiously, there are no objects from ancient times that can be interpreted as representations of yellow henbane.

Medicinal Use


The legendary physician Hippocrates (ca. 460–370 B.C.E.) praised the medicinal use of henbane. His students, the Hippocratics, administered the seeds with wine to treat fever, tetanus, and gynecological ailments. Donkey’s milk was listed as an antidote for overdoses.

Yellow henbane was one of the most important analgesics of antiquity. According to Galen (ca. 130–199 C.E.), it was the main ingredient in a soporific and sedative agent known as philonion, which consisted of five parts saffron (Crocus sativus), one part each of PyrethrumEuphorbium, and Spica nardi, twenty parts each of white pepper (Piper album = Piper nigrum) and henbane, and ten parts opium (cf. soporific sponge).

On Cyprus, crushed leaves are still used as an analgesic plaster. The dried leaves are smoked together with tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) as a remedy for asthma (Georgiades 1987, 2:56*). In the Golan Heights (Israel), various preparations of the leaves (decoctions, pastes) are used externally to treat skin diseases, open wounds, headaches, rheumatism, inflammations of the eye, and insect stings (Dafni and Yaniv 1994, 13*).



The entire plant contains the tropane alkaloids hyoscyamine and scopolamine, along with aposcopolamine, norscopolamine, littorine, tropine, cuscohygrine, tigloidine, and tigloyloxytropane, in concentrations similar to those found in Hyoscyamus niger.



The psychoactive effects of henbane were well known in ancient times and were characterized as mania, or madness. It should be noted, however, that the Greeks used the term madness to characterize not a pathological state but, rather, a dramatic alteration of consciousness:


Madness (mania): in kind there is but one madness, but in form it appears in a thousand ways. Its nature is a chronic condition of being out-of-oneself. . . . Even the inebriation of wine can heat one to insanity; even edible things produce frenzy, such as the mandrake [Mandragora officinarum] or henbane. But all of this does not fall under the name of madness; for it passes as quickly as it arrived. (Aretaeus, De causis et signis morborum chronicorum1:6)


This “madness” was regarded as a “divine alteration of the normal, orderly condition”:


[W]e divided the divine kind of madness into four parts, each with its own deity. We attributed prophetic inspiration to Apollo, mystical inspiration to Dionysus, poetic inspiration to the Muses, and the fourth kind to Aphrodite and to Love. We said that the madness of love was the best kind. (Socrates in Plato, Phaidros 265)


Because henbane sedates the externally oriented consciousness, humans are opened up to the divine: “If the divine madness of prophetic enthusiasm is to come over humans, then the sun of consciousness within them must set; the human light must disappear within the divine light” (Philos of Alexandria). In the same way, the “divining madness,” a kind of prophetic and clairvoyant state of consciousness (or a form of trance), was induced by the sacred “plant of Apollo” (cf. Pliny 26.140). Apart from this, the effects of this species of henbane are similar or identical to the effects produced by the other species.


This early modern illustration of white henbane (= yellow henbane) shows the characteristic flowers and fruit capsules. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)


“Now the effects of henbane, which were well known in ancient times, correspond to that which we know about Dionysian possession. Henbane causes states of delirium that are filled with visions and hallucinations and can develop into violent attacks of insanity; after this comes an irresistible need for sleep, which leads to very deep slumber.”




Commercial Forms and Regulations





See also the entries for the other Hyoscyamus species.


Kerényi, Karl. 1983. Apollo. Dallas: Spring Publications.


Maas, Michael. 1993. Das antike Delphi. Darmstadt, Germany: WBG.


Parke, H. W. 1985. The oracles of Apollo in Asia Minor. London: Croom Helm.


———. 1988. Sibyls and sibylline prophecy in classical antiquity. London: Routledge.


Rätsch, Christian. 1987. Der Rauch von Delphi: Eine ethnopharmakologische Annäherung. Curare 10 (4): 215–28.


Roberts, Deborah H. 1984. Apollo and his oracle in the Oresteia. Hypomnemata, no. 78. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht.


Sauerwein, M., and K. Shimomura. 1991. Production of tropane alkaloids in Hyoscyamus albus transformed with Agrobacterium rhizogenesPlanta Medica 57 suppl. (2): A108–9.


Hyoscyamus muticus Linnaeus


Egyptian Henbane




Solanaceae (Nightshade Family); Subfamily Solanoideae, Hyoscyameae Tribe, Hyoscyaminae Subtribe

Forms and Subspecies


One subspecies occurs in Morocco (Vries 1984*; 1989, 39*): Hyoscyamus muticus L. ssp. falezles (Saharan henbane).



Hyoscyamus betaefolius Am.

Hyoscyamus datura nom. nud.

Hyoscyamus insanus Stocks Scopolia datora Dun.

Scopolia mutica Dun.

Folk Names


Ägyptisches bilsenkraut, bhang, Cyprus henbane, Egyptian henbane, giusquiamo egiziano, Indian henbane, jusquiame d’Egypt, kohi-bhang, kohibung, mountain hemp, pitonionca (Greek, “dragon plant”), sakra, sakran, sekaran (Arabic, “the inebriating”), sikrane (Morocco), sikran sahra, ssakarân, traumkraut



Ancient Egyptians knew the henbane that grew among them as sakran, “the drunken one,” using a word borrowed from Aramaic (Kottek 1994, 129*). It is mentioned as a medicinal plant in a papyrus from the first century that was written in Greek. From that time until the present, the plant has been in use in Egypt as a medicinal and inebriating plant (Germer 1985, 169*).

In Arabia, the plant was used for criminal purposes. The powdered herbage, mixed with puréed dates (Phoenix dactylifera) or milk, was given to the intended victims, who then fell into a delirious state and were easily robbed (Morton 1977, 309*).

Today, Egyptian henbane is the most important of all Hyoscyamus species for pharmaceutical and economic purposes.

“Among the plant remains discovered in the animal necropolis at Saqqâra, which unfortunately could not be dated, were also parts of


H. [Hyoscyamusmuticus. It can be assumed that this poisonous plant as well was already part of the flora of ancient Egypt. Unfortunately, the medicinal texts from Pharaonic times do not contain any plant names that can be definitely construed as inebriants. Egyptian henbane was first mentioned as a medicinal plant in a papyrus written in Greek from the 1st century C.E. . . .


Today, this plant continues to be used as a medicine and inebriant in Egypt.”






(1985, 169*)




The plant prefers desert regions and occurs from Egypt to as far south as Sudan, and also in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northern India.



The plant thrives in dry, rocky soils and a desert climate. The seeds (when they can be obtained) are scattered over sandy clay soil and pressed down lightly. The seeds should be well watered; later, the plant often can tolerate short dry periods. Even when the leaves appear wilted because of a shortage of water, a few drops of water will quickly restore them. After it is harvested, the herbage should be hung by the roots in a shady, airy location to dry (the plant may require up to six weeks to dry thoroughly).

The plant is cultivated for pharmaceutical purposes in Egypt, the former Yugoslavia, Greece, Pakistan, and India.



The annual to biennial plant can grow as tall as 90 cm. The almost square stem is an important characteristic. Apart from this, it is quite similar to Hyoscyamus albus and Hyoscyamus niger (see there).

Psychoactive Material


—Leaves/herbage (folia hyoscyami mutici, hyoscyami mutici herba)


Preparation and Dosage


Either the fresh leaves are used as a poultice or the dried herbage and seeds are used internally. When taken internally, a single dosage should not exceed 0.25 g; the total daily dosage should not exceed 1.5 g. Because reactions to tropane alkaloids can vary significantly from one individual to another, it is difficult to provide dosage guidelines that apply to everyone. Anyone who wishes to experiment with Egyptian henbane for therapeutic or psychoactive purposes should exercise great care and begin with a very small dosage, which then can be slowly increased.

The dried leaves and seeds are suitable for use as ingredients in incense and smoking blends. The herbage also can be used to brew beer (see recipe under Hyoscyamus niger).

In Morocco, twenty seeds from the subspecies falezles are taken orally in a date (cf. palm wine), chewed thoroughly, and swallowed to induce hallucinations. They also are used as an ingredient in majun(see Oriental joy pills) (Vries 1984*; 1989, 39*).

Ritual Use


It has been suggested that the magical Homeric nepenthes was Egyptian henbane (Millspaugh 1974, 488*). The ancient Assyrians sometimes brewed beer with henbane (Thompson 1949, 230*). According to Aelia (ca. 170–240 C.E.), when digging up this henbane, great care had to be exercised, similar to that taken with the mandrake (see Mandragora officinarum). Instead of using a dog to pull out the plant, however, a bird was tied to the plant (2:251).

It is very likely that Egyptian henbane was used as a ritual inebriant in ancient Egypt. Unfortunately, very little is known about this plant from late ancient times. It appears to have played a role in the cult of the dead; remnants recovered from the animal necropolis at Saqqâra have been definitely identified as henbane (Germer 1986, 169*; Manniche 1989, 20*). However, it has not yet been possible to equate the plant with a particular hieroglyphic name. For this reason, the use of Egyptian henbane is known only from the Greek literature. A Greek papyrus from the Egyptian city of Arsinoites (third century B.C.E.) contains a quite interesting recipe, although it does not state what it was used for:


Other [recipe]: for the plaster he mixed three parts of white gum, one part of [copper] oxide, one-half part burnt copper, as much henbane juice as copper. Stir these [things] until smooth, dissolve in water, use.


A recipe with which one “can put a person to sleep for two days” (presumably to induce prophetic dreams) has come down to us in the late ancient Leiden magical papyrus:


Mandrake root [Mandragora officinarum], one ounce, licorice, one ounce, henbane, one ounce, ivy [Hedera helix], one ounce, you pound these together. . . . If you want to do this with skill, for every portion give the fourfold amount of wine [see Vitis vinifera], you moisten everything from morning until evening, you pour it off, you allow it to be drunk; very good. (Griffith and Thompson 1974, 149 f.*)


The Arabs liked to spice their coffee (see Coffea arabica) with crushed henbane seeds. It is possible that the plant also played a role in the secret rites of the dervishes or Sufis. In the twentieth century, the Towara Bedouins of the Sinai Peninsula were still smoking the leaves to produce “an inebriation with delirium” (Lewin 1981, 177*).

In India, Hyoscyamus muticus (the effects of which are more pronounced than those of Hyoscyamus niger) is used in place of opium (see Papaver somniferum) as an inebriant (Macmillan 1991, 421*). In the Punjab and in Baluchistan, the leaves are smoked together with Cannabis indica (Lewin 1981, 178*).


Egyptian henbane (Hyoscyamus muticus) in bloom.



A stem of Hyoscyamus muticus, showing the ripe seed capsules.


“I say to you, sacred plant, tomorrow I will call you into the house of Phileas, so that you may check the flow of the hands and feet [= rheumatism] of this man or this woman. I implore you with the great names of Jaoth, Sabaoth, who is god, who holds the earth fast and can make the sea stand still in spite of the number of rivers that flow into it, who dried the wife of Lot and transformed her into a pillar of salt. Take into yourself the spirit of the earth, your mother, and her power, and dry the flow of the feet or the hands of this man or this woman!”






Today, Egyptian henbane is known in some counterculture circles as “dream herb” (Lindequist 1993, 463) and is smoked by itself or in combination with other substances (smoking blends).



The magical henbane has been a plant of the gods since early times. According to Josephus Flavius, the turban (mitra) of the highest priest of the Hebrews was adorned with a branch of henbane (Kottek 1994, 129*). Apart from this, no artifacts are known.

Medicinal Use


In Nigeria, the herbage is used as an antispasmodic, to treat asthma, and for seasickness. In Iran, the smoke produced by burning the seeds is used to treat toothaches (Morton 1977, 308*). Moroccans use the seeds of the subspecies falezles for the same purpose (Vries 1984*).



Egyptian henbane has the highest alkaloid content of any species of Hyoscyamus. The alkaloid content can be as much as 2% dry weight. Moreover, numerous methods have been discovered for increasing alkaloid concentrations in plants that are cultivated for pharmaceutical purposes (Misra et al. 1992; Oksman-Caldentey et al. 1991; Sevón et al. 1992; Sevón et al. 1993; Vanhala et al. 1992). The plant forms chiefly hyoscyamine with only traces of hyoscine (= scopolamine) and atropine (Misra et al. 1992). Also present are the tropane alkaloids scopolamine, aposcopolamine, norscopolamine, littorine, tropine, cuscohygrine, tigloidine, and tigloyloxytropane (Lindequist 1993). Amazingly, the flowers contain the highest concentration of alkaloids (2%), followed by the leaves (1.4 to 1.7%) and the seeds (0.9 to 1.3%). The lowest concentrations are in the stems (0.5 to 0.6%) (Morton 1977, 308*).



Of all the Hyoscyamus species, Egyptian henbane has the most profound inebriating effects. In India, some users are said to have developed feeblemindedness, tarantism, and exhibitionism (Morton 1977, 308*). Other symptoms of higher dosages include hallucinations as well as possible unpleasant side effects (mydriasis, dry mouth, disturbances of coordination, flight of ideas, delirium) (cf. Hyoscyamus niger).

Commercial Forms and Regulations


According to Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, the herbage (hyoscyami mutici herba) can be obtained from a pharmacy without a prescription (in Germany) (Lindequist 1993, 464). Egypt does not permit the export of viable seeds (Morton 1977, 308*).



See also the entries for the other Hyoscyamus species.


Lindequist, Ulrike. 1993. Hyoscyamus. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 5:460–74. Berlin: Springer.


Misra, H. O., J. R. Sharma, and R. K. Lal. 1992. Inheritance of biomass yield and tropane alkaloid content in Hyoscyamus muticusPlanta Medica 58:81–83.


Oksman-Caldentey, K.-M., M.-R. Laaksonen, and R. Hiltunen. 1989. “Hairy root” cultures of Hyoscyamus muticus and their hyoscyamine production. Planta Medica 55:229.


Oksman-Caldentey, K.-M., N. Sevón, and R. Hiltunen. 1991. Hyoscyamine accumulation in hairy roots of Hyoscyamus muticus in response to chitosan. Planta Medica 57 suppl. (2): A105.


Sevón, N., M. Suomalainen, R. Hiltunen, and K.-M. Oksman-Caldentey. 1992. Effect of sucrose, nitrogen, and copper on the growth and alkaloid production of transformed root cultures of Hyoscyamus muticusPlanta Medica 58 suppl. (1): A609–10.


———. 1993. The effect of fungal elicitors on hyoscyamine content in hairy root cultures of Hyoscyamus muticusPlanta Medica 59 suppl.: A661.


Vanhala, L., R. Hiltunen, and K.-M. Oksman-Caldentey. 1991. Virulence of different Agrobacterium strains on Hyoscyamus muticusPlanta Medica 57 suppl. (2): A109–10.


Vanhala, L., T. Seppänen-Laakso, R. Hiltunen, and K.-M. Oksman-Caldentey. 1991. Fatty acid composition in transformed root cultures of Hyoscyamus muticusPlanta Medica 58 suppl. (1): A616–17.


Hyoscyamus niger Linnaeus


Black Henbane




Solanaceae (Nightshade Family); Subfamily Solanoideae, Hyoscyameae Tribe, Hyoscyaminae Subtribe

Forms and Subspecies


The species can be divided into a number of varieties (cf. Strauss 1989):


Hyoscyamus niger L. var. α agrestis Kit.—flowers usually pale yellow

Hyoscyamus niger L. var. annuus Sims—annual, most commonly planted variety

Hyoscyamus niger L. var. chinensis Makino—Chinese variety

Hyoscyamus niger L. var. niger—wild form

Hyoscyamus niger L. var. pallidus (Wadst. et Kit.) Koch [= H. niger L. var. β pallidus Kit. )—biennial



Hyoscarpus niger (L.) Dulac

Hyoscyamus agrestis Kit.

Hyoscyamus auriculatus Ten.

Hyoscyamus bohemicus Schmidt (cf. Hyoscyamus spp.)

Hyoscyamus lethalis Salisb.

Hyoscyamus officinalis Cr.

Hyoscyamus pallidus Waldst. et Kit. ex Willd.

Hyoscyamus persicus Boiss. et Buhse

Hyoscyamus pictus Roth

Hyoscyamus sinensis Makino

Hyoscyamus syspirensis Koch

Hyoscyamus verviensis Lej.

Hyoscyamus vulgaris Neck

Folk Names


Alterco, alterculum, altercum (Arabic), apollinaris (Roman, “plant of Apollo”), apolloniakraut, asharmadu (ancient Assyrian), banj (Persian), bazrul (Hindi), beléndek (Anglo-Saxon), belene, beleño (Spanish),167 beleño negro, belinuntia (Gaelic), bendj, bengi (Arabic), bilinuntia (Celtic, “plant of Bel[enus]”), bilisa, bilsa, bilse, bilsen, bilsencruydt, bilzekruid (Dutch), bilzenkruid, black henbane, blín, blyn (Bohemian), bolmört (Swedish), bolonditó csalmatok (Anglo-Saxon), bulmeurt (Danish), calicularis, caniculata, cassilagine, caßilago, caulicula, demonaria, dens caballinus, dentaria, dente cavallino, dioskyamos (Greek, “god’s bean”), dollkraut, dordillen saett, dulbillerkraut, dulldill, dull-dill, dullkraut, endromie, erba del dento, faba iouis, faba lupina, faba suilla, fabulonia, fetid nightshade, foetid nightshade, gemeines bilsenkraut, giusquiamo (Italian), giusquiamo nero, gur (ancient Assyrian), hannebane, henbain, henbane (English), henbell, herba canicularis, herba pinnula, herbe aux chevaux, herbe aux dents, hisquiamum, hogbean, hühnertod, hyoscyamus (Roman), hyoskyamos (Greek, “hog’s bean”), Indian henbane, insana, iosciamo, iupiters beame, iusquiame, iusquiamo, iusquiamus, jupitersbohne, jupitersbon (Swiss, “Jupiter’s bean”), jusquaime noire, jusquiamus, kariswah (Newari), khorasanijowan (Bengali), khurasani ajavayan, khurasani ajowain (Hindi), khurassani jamani, khursani ajwan (Nepali), kurasaniajowan (Hindi), lang dang, lang-tang (Chinese), lang-thang-tse (Tibetan), meimendro (Portuguese), meimendro negro, milicum, milimandrum, nicotiana minor, palladia, parasikayavani (Sanskrit), piliza, pilsener krutt, pilsenkrawt, poison tobacco, pythonion (Greek, “dragon plant” or “plant of the Pythia”), rasenwurz, rindswurz, rindswurzel, saubohnen, saukraut, säukraut, schlafkraut, schwarzes bilsenkraut, shakruna (Aramaic), sickly smelling nightshade, sikran, stinking nightshade, stinking roger, swienekruud, symphoniaca, taubenkraut, teufelsauge, teufelsaugn, tollkraut, tornabonæ congener, totenblumenkraut, veleño negro, zahnkraut, zigeunerkorn, zigeunerkraut168



The ethnobotanist Wolf-Dieter Storl has conjectured that henbane was already in use in Eurasia for ritual and shamanic purposes in the Paleolithic period. When the Paleoindians migrated from Asia into the Americas via the Bering Strait, they brought their knowledge of the use of the plant with them. But because they were unable to find the plant they knew on the American continent, they substituted the similar and related tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum).

Henbane was used as a ritual plant by the pre-Indo-European peoples of central Europe. In Austria, two handfuls of henbane seeds were discovered in a kind of urn along with bones and snail shells; the find dates from the early Bronze Age (Graichen 1988, 69).

Ancient authors (Dioscorides, Pliny) were familiar with black henbane (see Hyoscyamus albus). It has been suggested that henbane was the magical Homeric nepenthes (Hocking 1947, 313). Carl Ruck believes that henbane, under the name hyoskyamos, was sacred to the goddess Deo-Demeter-Persephone, for her sacred animal was the sow, the “mother swine” (Ruck 1995, 141*)—perhaps being a “lucky swine” was a sign that a person had been allowed to ingest the plant.

In the Celtic regions, the plant was known by the name belinuntia, “plant of the sun god Bel.” The Gauls poisoned their javelins with a decoction of henbane. The healing properties of the plant were mentioned in medieval Anglo-Saxon pharmacopoeias. The plant’s name is derived from the Indo-European *bhelena and is said to have meant “crazy plant” (Hoops 1973, 284). In Proto-Germanic, bil appears to have meant “vision, hallucination” or “magical power, miraculous ability” (vries 1993). There was even a goddess (Asin) known as Bil, a name interpreted as “moment” or “exhaustion.” She is understood to be the image in the moon or one of the moon’s phases. She may have been a henbane “fairy” or the goddess of henbane and may even have been a goddess of the rainbow: Bil-röst is the name of the rainbow bridge that leads to Asgard. Bil would then also be the original word for “heaven’s bridge” (Simek 1984, 48 f.).


Illustration of lang-tang, or Chinese henbane (Hyoscyamus niger var. chinensis Makino), from an ancient Chinese herbal (Chêng-lei pên-ts’ao, 1249 C.E.).


In the fourteenth century, Guy de Chauliac described a narcotic inhalation of henbane for medicinal purposes. A similar fumigation was mentioned in The Thousand and One Nights (Hocking 1947, 313, 314). But the plant was often used as a fumigant for magical purposes. Albertus Magnus, in his work De Vegetabilibus (ca. 1250; 6.362 f.), reported that necromancers (conjurers of the dead) used henbane to invoke the souls of the dead as well as demons.

In the infamous bathhouses of the late Middle Ages, henbane seeds were strewn over glowing coals in order to heat up the erotic atmosphere. The smoke, mixed with steam, appears to have induced strong aphrodisiac effects (Rätsch 1990, 148*).

Henbane was already being demonized during the Middle Ages and associated with alleged witchcraft (Müller-Ebeling 1991): “The witches drank the decoction of henbane and had those dreams for which they were tortured and executed. It was also used for witches’ ointments and was used for making weather and conjuring spirits. If there was a great drought, then a stalk of henbane would be dipped into a spring and the sun-baked sand would be sprinkled with this” (Perger 1864, 181*). In a Pomeranian witchcraft trial in 1538, “a witch confessed” that she had given a man henbane seeds so that he would run around “crazy” (= sexually aroused). In a file from an Inquisition trial, it was noted that “a witch admits” having once strewn henbane between two lovers and uttering the following formula: “Here I sow wild seed, and the devil advised that they would hate and avoid one another until these seeds had been separated” (Marzell 1922, 169*).

Henbane was also renowned as a beer additive with potent effects (Marzell 1922, 170*). This use was forbidden by the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516, the first German drug law (Kotschenreuther 1978, 83*).

The ancient use of henbane has been preserved into the present day, especially on Cyprus and in North Africa, primarily in Morocco and Egypt. There, henbane, often mixed with Spanish fly (cantharis; Lytta vesicatoria), is used to treat diseases of the female sex organs and as an analgesic, aphrodisiac, and inebriant (when mixed with hashish; cf. Cannabis sativa) (Venzlaff 1977*).



Black henbane is the most widely distributed of all henbane species. It is found from Europe to Asia (Lauber and Wagner 1996, 804*) and grows wild from the Iberian Peninsula to Scandinavia (Morton 1977, 303*). It is common in North Africa (especially Morocco). In the Himalayas (Uttar Pradesh), it thrives at altitudes of up to 3,600 meters (Jain and Borthakur 1986, 579*). It has become naturalized in North America and Australia.



Propagation occurs via seeds that need only be pressed into sandy and clayey soil (in March and April). However, the likelihood of germination is greater when the seeds are allowed to germinate in seedling soil and then transplanted. Henbane also sows itself. Because the plant requires a nitrogen-rich soil, a pure nitrogen or calcium cyanamide fertilizer should be used. Do not overwater. The plant must be protected from potato beetles and henbane fleas (Psylloides hyoscyami) (Morton 1977, 304*).

Black henbane is grown for pharmaceutical purposes in central and eastern Europe (Romania, Bulgaria, Albania) and in India, although not as frequently as Hyoscyamus muticus. The plant material is collected or harvested during the middle of the flowering phase (June to August). The herbage dries very slowly.


The annual black henbane Hyoscyamus niger var. annuus, cultivated in northern Germany.



The ripe fruit panicle of black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger).



This flower, deep violet inside with fine violet veins outside, and otherwise yellow, is typical of black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger var. niger).



This bright yellow flower is typical of one variety of black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger var. α agrestis).




Depending upon location and climate, black henbane can be an annual or a biennial; the former is more common. This upright plant can grow as tall as 80 cm and possesses undivided, serrated, very pungent leaves.169 The alternate, quinquelobate flowers are in thick panicles. This Hyoscyamus species has the largest flowers of all the species in the genus. They are typically pale yellow with violet veins, but there is a unusual variety that has lemon or bright yellow corollas without veins. The black seeds are very small, and many remain in the fruit. In central Europe, the flowering period is from June to October. In the Mediterranean region, it begins in May and is usually over by July or August.

Black henbane is easily confused with Hyoscyamus muticus, although the latter has smaller flowers that lack the violet veins and is more pilose. Black henbane is most similar to the species Hyoscyamus reticulatus, which has corollas that are purple-violet with reticulate veins. Also similar is yellow henbane (Hyoscyamus albus), which can be distinguished by its smaller, pure yellow flowers and the smaller, almost round leaves with few serrations.

The Asian variety known as lang-tang was first described as Scopolia japonica L. or Scopolia sinensis Hemsl. (see Scopolia carniolica) and is still confused with these nightshades today (Li 1978, 19*).

Psychoactive Material


—Leaves (hyoscyami folium, DAB10 [Eur.], ÖAB, Helv. VII)

—Herbage without the roots (herba hyoscyami, hyoscyami herba)

—Seeds (hyoscyami semen); the seeds are listed in Chinese herbals under the name tian xian zi (Lu 1986, 80*)

—Henbane oil (hyoscyamus oil)

Preparation and Dosage


The chopped, dried herbage can be used as an ingredient in incense and smoking blends, for brewing beer, to spice wine, and as a tea (infusion, decoction). The seeds are most appropriate for use in incense recipes.

Dosages must be assessed carefully no matter what type of preparation is being considered. According to Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, the therapeutic individual dosage of prepared Hyoscyamus (with a standardized alkaloid content of 0.05%) is 0.5 g, and the daily dosage 1.5 g (maximum 3 g) (Lindequist 1993, 469). Apart from this, see the guidelines given for Hyoscyamus muticus.



Recipe for Henbane Beer


40 g dried, chopped henbane herbage (herbae hyoscyamus niger conc.)

5 g bayberry or another Myrica species (this aromatic ingredient is optional)

approx. 23 liters of water

1 liter (approx. 1.2 kg) brewing malt (barley malt)

900 g honey (e.g., spruce or pine honey) approx. 5 g dried top-fermenting yeast brown sugar

Boil the henbane and bayberry (if desired) in 1 liter of water (to ensure the necessary sterility). Leave the henbane in the water until it has cooled.

Sterilize the brewing vessel (plastic bucket) with boiling water. Then add the liquid malt to the bucket along with 2 liters of hot water and the honey. Stir until the ingredients are thoroughly dissolved. Add the henbane water together with the herbage and the bayberry. Stir thoroughly. Add cold water to make a total of approx. 25 liters of liquid. Pitch the yeast into the mixture and cover.

In order for the top-fermenting yeast to be effective, the wort should be allowed to stand in a warm location (20˚ to 25˚C.). Fermentation will begin slowly because the tropane alkaloids will initially inhibit the yeast. The main fermentation will be over in four to five days, and the after-fermentation will then begin. The yeast will slowly settle and form a layer at the bottom of the bucket.

The beer can now be poured into bottles. A heaping teaspoon of brown sugar can be added to each (0.7 liter) bottle to promote an additional after-fermentation. Henbane beer tastes best when stored before use in a cool place for two to three months.


Oleum hyoscyamin infusum (henbane oil) is obtained by boiling the leaves in oil. It can be used externally for therapeutic or erotic massage.

Ritual Use


The Assyrians called henbane by the name sakiru. They used the plant for medicinal purposes, as an inebriating additive to beer, and as an incense (in combination with sulfur) to protect against magic (Thompson 1949, 230*).

In ancient Persia, henbane was known as bangha, a name that was subsequently applied to hemp (Cannabis sativa) and other psychoactive plants. Like the still uncertainly unidentified haoma, henbane had a religious significance as a ritual drug. Many Persian sources describe journeys to other worlds and visions that were evoked by various henbane preparations. Prince Vishtasp, who has gone down in history as the protector of Zoroaster (= Zarathustra), drank mang, a preparation of henbane and wine. After doing so, he fell into a deathlike sleep that lasted for three days and three nights. During this time, his soul journeyed to the Upper Paradise. According to a later source, he drank a mixture of hom (= haoma) and henbane in wine. Another Persian visionary named Viraz also made a three-day journey into other worlds with the aid of a mixture of henbane and wine. At the end of the third night, “the soul of the righteous [= Viraz] had the feeling of being in the midst of plants and inhaling scents. It sensed an intensely scented wind that blew from the south. The soul of the righteous inhaled this wind through its nose” (Couliani 1995, 141*).


Beer brewed with henbane acquires a red color and recalls the witches’ beers (always described as red) that were consumed during the nocturnal Sabbats.



Botanical illustration of black henbane. (Engraving from Pereira, De Beginselen der Materia Medica en der Therapie, 1849)


“Sleeping within my orchard,

My custom always of the afternoon,

Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,

With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,

And in the porches of my ears did pour

The leperous distilment; whose effect

Holds such an enmity with blood of man

That swift as quicksilver it courses through

The natural gates and alleys of the body,

And with a sudden vigour doth posset

And curd, like eager droppings into milk,

The thin and wholesome blood.”



“But those who were best able to drink were aware that they should make themselves great; finally they all pranced around as if they had eaten henbane seeds.”






The Celts knew black henbane as beleno and consecrated it to Belenus, the god of oracles and the sun. It was burned as a fumigant in his honor. Druids and bards who inhaled the smoke were taken to the “other world,” where they could communicate with fairies and other beings.

Henbane also appears to have been one of the most important ritual plants of the Vikings. Iron Age Viking graves have yielded hundreds of henbane seeds. The grave of a woman on Fyrkat (Denmark) is widely known. The most important grave good worn by the woman was a leather bag filled with countless henbane seeds (Robinson 1994, 544, 547*).

The oldest ethnohistorical evidence of the Germanic use of henbane as a magical plant is contained in the nineteenth book of the collection of church decrees (Deutsche Bußbuch [German Book of Atonement]) of the Bishop Burchard von Worms (died 1025). In one confessional question, the following ritual was described in astonishing detail:


Did you do as certain women are wont? If they need rain and have none, they gather several girls and select from these a small maiden as a kind of leader. They disrobe her and take her outside of the settlement to a place where they find hyoscyamus, which is known as bilse in German. They have her pull out this plant using the little finger of the right hand and tie the uprooted plant to the small toe of the right foot with any kind of string. Then the girls, each of whom is holding a rod in her hands, lead the aforementioned maiden to the next river, pulling the plant behind her. The girls then use the rods to sprinkle the young maiden with river water, and in this way they hope to cause rain through their magic. Then they take the young maiden, as naked as she is, who puts down her feet and moves herself in the manner of a crab, by the hands and lead her from the river back to the settlement. If you have done this or have agreed to do this . . . (in Hasenfratz 1992, 87*)170


Such activities bring henbane into association with Donar, the Germanic god of thunder, weather, and storms. The Romans associated the plant with their god Jupiter, whom they equated with the Germanic god of thunder. In Switzerland, the folk name jupitersbon, “Jupiter’s bean,” is still used today.171 Of all the Germanic gods, Donar was the most enthusiastic drinker and the most able to hold his drink. Because of this, the strongly inebriating bock beers were consecrated to him. The beer of the thunder god was brewed with henbane, his plant. Because of the great demand for henbane, which is quite rare in Germany and northern Europe, ancient Germans planted henbane gardens specifically for the purpose of brewing beer. These fields of cultivated henbane stood under the protection of Wotan/Odin, Donar’s father, and were considered sacred. This history of many of the sites where these gardens once stood lives on in their names, such as Bilsensee (Henbane Lake), Billendorf (Henbane Village), Bilsengarten (Henbane Garden), and especially the Bohemian PlzeȈn (= Pilsen = henbane) (Römpp 1950, 271*).172

During the Middle Ages and the early modern period of Europe, henbane was generally associated with witchcraft and magic, and especially with oracles and love magic. Lonicerus noted, “The old women use this plant to make magic, they say that anyone who carries the root around with them will remain invulnerable.”

It was also believed that henbane smoke could make one invisible, and the leaves were smoked in a pipe for this purpose (Hinrichsen 1994, 107). If any plant was in fact a true ingredient in witches’ ointments, it was henbane (cf. Marzell 1922, 168*):


Henbane poison acts quickly, for it is absorbed by the skin. And something else. It works especially quickly and intensively when taken up through the mucous membranes. But since henbane was also smeared on the broomsticks that men and women rode upon nude, the effects were profound. Among the women, the effects were considerably stronger and were felt more rapidly, as the mucous membranes of the anus and vagina came into contact with the broomstick during wild movements and the effects were immediate. (Hug 1993, 140)


In modern occultism, henbane seeds were used as fumigants to conjure spirits, especially for necromancy, or the conjuration of the dead. The following recipe was used to mix a powder for use as a fumigant (cf. incense):


1 part fennel root/seeds (Foeniculum vulgare)

1 part olibanum (Boswellia sacra)

4 parts henbane (Hyoscyamus niger)

1 part coriander seeds (Coriandrum sativum L.)

1 part cassia bark (Cinnamomum cassis Presl)


It was said that one should take this incense into a ghostly, dark forest and light a black candle and the incense vessel on a tree stump. The powder was to be burned until the candle suddenly went out. Then one would see the spirits of the night appear in the darkness from out of the smoke. To dispel the spirits, a mixture of equal parts of asafetida (“devil’s dirt”) and olibanum should be burned (Hyslop and Ratcliffe 1989, 15*).

Henbane was and still is used for psychoactive purposes in Asia. The Pên-ts’ao Ching, a very ancient Chinese herbal, contains the following information about the subspecies known as lang-tang:


[The seeds], when [properly prepared] and ingested over a long period of time, make it possible for one to go for a very long way, are useful for the mind, and increase power. . . . Moreover, through them one can communicate with spirits and see devils. If they are taken in excess, they will make one stupid. (Li 1978, 19*)


The seeds appear to have been used together with those of Caesalpinia decapetala as a psychoactive incense (Li 1978, 20 f.*).

In southern Kashmir (on the border of the Himalayas), the leaves, mixed with tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), are smoked as a hallucinogen (Shah 1982, 297*). Unfortunately, nothing is known about the ritual or hedonistic context of this use.



Although henbane is an unmistakable member of the plant kingdom and has played a significant role in European culture and pharmaceutical history, no artifacts are known (cf. Hyoscyamus muticus). Similarly, the plant does not appear in depictions of witches from the early modern period. Henbane does occasionally appear as a floral element in the utilitarian art of the art nouveau movement. It is depicted on medicine thangkas used to illustrate Tibetan medicine.

Medicinal Use


The use of henbane smoke to treat toothaches (Rowell 1978, 263*) and asthma is widespread. In Darjeeling and Sikkim, henbane is used for these purposes and to treat nervous diseases (Biswas 1956, 71). In Uttar Pradesh, the plant is used to heal bones (Jain and Borthakur 1986, 579*). In Nepal, the leaves are smoked to treat asthma and used as a sedative and narcotic (Singh 1979, 190*). In traditional Chinese medicine, the smoke of the seeds of Chinese henbane (lang-dang-zi) is inhaled in treatments for coughs, bronchial asthma, rheumatism, and stomach pains.

In Europe, preparations of henbane have been used for medicinal purposes since ancient times as analgesics and antispasmodics (cf. soporific sponge) to treat stomach cramps, whooping cough, toothaches, lower abdominal inflammations, neuralgia, and, in the form of cigarettes, asthma (Rätsch 1995a, 114–21*). Such use continued into the twentieth century.

Hildegard von Bingen recommended the psychoactive herbage as an antidote for alcohol inebriation: “But so that a drunken person will return to himself, he should lay henbane in cold water, and moisten his forehead, temples, and throat (with this), and he will fare better” (Physica 1.110).

A modern German folk medicinal recipe for treating fungal diseases (such as that caused by Candida albicans) instructs, “[P]our boiling hot meat broth over a third part stinging nettles [Urtica dioica L., U. urens L.], a sixth part henbane, a sixth part ground nutmeg [see Myristica fragrans], a pinch of saffron [see Crocus sativus], a third part balm [Melissa officinalis L.], and allow to steep in the refrigerator for four hours, then drink daily of this for four weeks” (Natur, June 1996, 60).

In homeopathy, the agent Hyoscyamus niger is used in accordance with the medical description to treat such ailments as unease, agitated states, sleep disturbances, and spasmodic digestive disorders (Lindequist 1993, 472).

Pharmaceutical adhesive bandages containing henbane extracts have been developed to treat travel sickness. They are adhered behind the ear (a traveler who is wearing such a henbane bandage is always on a trip . . .).



The leaves and the herbage contain 0.03 to 0.28% tropane alkaloids. The principal alkaloids S-(–)-hyoscyamine (which is transformed into atropine by drying) and S-(–)-scopolamine are present in ratios of 2:1 to 1:1. Trace amounts of aposcopolamine, norscopolamine, littorine, tropine, cuscohygrine, tigloidine, and tigloyloxytropane are also present, as well are flavonoids (rutin) and coumarin derivatives (Lindequist 1993, 467).

The homeopathic mother tincture contains a minimum of 0.007 and a maximum of 0.01% alkaloids, calculated as hyoscyamine.



The parasympathicolytic effects of the drugs and of preparations of black henbane are due to the principal alkaloids hyoscyamine (or atropine) and scopolamine. Peripheral inhibition with simultaneous central stimulation is characteristic. The primary effects last for three to four hours. Hallucinogenic aftereffects may persist for as long as three days. The alkaloids can cross via the blood into the placenta and have also been detected in breast milk (Lindequist 1993, 469).


Illustration of Chinese henbane (Hyoscyamus niger var. chinensis) on a Tibetan medical thangka (detail).


“Henbane is the treasure flower of the Underworld.”










Among the unpleasant side effects are severe dryness of the mouth, locomotor disturbances, and farsightedness. Overdoses can lead to delirium, coma, respiratory paralysis, and death. However, only a very few instances of lethality are reported in the toxicological literature (Lindequist 1993, 470). For this reason, the actual lethal dosage is not known precisely. The plant is also toxic to grazing cattle, deer, fish, and many species of birds. Pigs appear to be immune to the effects of the toxins (Morton 1977, 305*) and actually appear to enjoy the inebriating effects. This may be the source of the ancient name hog’s bean.

Low dosages (0.5 to 1 liter) of beer brewed with henbane have inebriating effects, while higher dosages (1 to 1.5 liters) are aphrodisiac (henbane beer is the only beverage that makes one thirstier the more one drinks!). Very high dosages (more than 2 to 3 liters) can induce delirious and “inane” states, confusion, memory disturbances,173 and “crazy” behaviors.

“In Prussia, [the black henbane] is placed under the roof or in the posts of the stall on the evening of Midsummer’s Day to protect against the witches. . . . In Mecklenburg, a cow that has been hexed is fumigated with henbane (dulldill), which is plucked on Midsummer’s Day between 11:00 and 12:00 o’clock.”






(1996, 71*)


Commercial Forms and Regulations


The plant enjoys protected status and is included on the World Conservation Union’s Red List of endangered plants. The herbage requires a prescription and may be purchased only in a pharmacy. Henbane oil is available without restriction and may be purchased in shops other than pharmacies. Homeopathic preparations are subject to varying regulations (Lindequist 1993, 471).

“Horrible, stinking smoke of burned henbane swirls from a pan and lays itself upon the senses, as heavy as the hands of torment.”








See also the entries for the other Hyoscyamus species.


Graichen, Gisela. 1988. Das Kultplatzbuch. 2nd ed. Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe.


Hinrichsen, Torkild. 1994. Erzgebirge: “Der Duft des Himmels.” Hamburg: Altonaer Museum.


Hocking, George M. 1947. Henbane: Healing herb of Hercules and Apollo. Economic Botany 1:306–16.


Hoops, Johannes. 1973. Bilsenkraut. Reallexikon der germanischen Altertumskunde 1:284.


Hug, Ernst. 1993. Wolfzahn, Bilsenkraut und Dachsschmalz: Rückblick in ein Schwarzwalddorf. St. Margen, Germany: Selbstverlag Ernst Hug.


Klein, G. 1907. Historisches zum Gebrauche des Bilsenkrautextraktes als Narkotikum. Münchener medizinische Wochenschrift 22:1088–89.


Lindequist, Ulrike. 1993. Hyoscyamus. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 5:460–74. Berlin: Springer.


Makino, T. 1921. Hyoscyamus niger L. var. chinensis Makino (Solanaceae). Journal of Japanese Botany 2 (5): 1. (In Japanese.)


Meyrink, Gustav. 1984. Des deutschen Spießers Wunderhorn 2: Der violette Tod. Rastatt, Germany: Moewig.


Müller-Ebeling, Claudia. 1991. Wolf und Bilsenkraut, Himmel und Hölle: Ein Beitrag zur Dämonisierung der Natur. In Gaia—Das Erwachen der Göttin, ed. Susanne G. Seiler, 163–82. Brunswick, Germany: Aurum.


Schiering, Walther. 1927. Bilsenkraut: Eine okkultistisch-kulturgeschichtliche Betrachtung. In Zentralblatt für Okkultismus, 23-31, Leipzig. Repr. in Bauereiss 1995, 81–91.*


Simek, Rudolf. 1984. Lexikon der germanischen Mythologie. Stuttgart: Kröner.


Storl, Wolf-Dieter. 1996. Lecture on Bilsenkraut at the Rothenburg near Mariastein i.L. (Switzerland).


Strauss, A. 1989. Hyoscyamus spp.: In vitro culture and the production of tropane alkaloids. In Medicinal and Aromatic Plants 11, vol. 7 of Biotechnology in Agriculture and Forestry, ed. Y. P. S. Bajad, 286–314. Berlin: Springer. (Includes a comprehensive bibliography.)


Vries, Herman de. 1993. Heilige bäume, bilsenkraut und bildzeitung. In Naturverehrung und Heilkunst, ed. C. Rätsch, 65–83. Südergellersen, Germany: Verlag Bruno Martin.


Hyoscyamus spp.


Henbane Species




Solanaceae (Nightshade Family); Subfamily Solanoideae, Hyoscyameae Tribe, Hyoscyaminae Subtribe

The genus Hyoscyamus Tourn. contains some twenty recognized species, all of which are indigenous only to Eurasia (D’Arcy 1991, 78*; Symon 1991, 141*). Some of these species are very rare and therefore do not play any significant ethnobotanical role. The species are similar, some very similar, in appearance, and thus sometimes can be difficult to identify (Lu and Zhang 1986, 67). All species contain the tropane alkaloids hyoscyamine and scopolamine, along with aposcopolamine, norscopolamine, littorine, tropine, cuscohygrine, tigloidine, and tigloyloxytropane (Lindequist 1993, 461).


Hyoscyamus aureus L.—golden henbane, gold henbane

In the Bible, this henbane species (the most common of the five species that occur in Israel) is mentioned by the name shikrona (Zohary 1986, 187*). Today, it is quite common in the Golan Heights (Dafni and Yaniv 1994, 12*). In Israeli folk medicine, the seeds and leaves are burned and the rising smoke is inhaled to treat toothaches and tooth decay. A decoction of the leaves is used in the form of eyedrops to treat eye inflammations; the crushed fresh leaves are mixed with olive oil and applied to open wounds. The steam produced by boiling the leaves or the smoke of burning leaves is inhaled as a treatment for asthma and other diseases of the respiratory tract. A poultice made of crushed leaves mixed with flour is applied externally to treat headaches (Dafni and Yaniv 1994, 13 f.*).


Hyoscyamus bohemicus F.W. Schmidt

This “Bohemian” species is found from northern China through central Asia and into the Near East. In traditional Chinese medicine, the seeds are used in a manner similar to those of lang-tang (Hyoscyamus niger var. chinensis) (Lu 1986, 80*; Lu and Zhang 1986, 71). To date, we know of no ethnic psychoactive use of this species. However, it is quite possible that in central Asia the species may be smoked in place of Hyoscyamus niger. This species also is regarded as a synonym or variety of Hyoscyamus niger (Lindequist 1993, 464).


Hyoscyamus boveanus (Dun. in DC.) Asch. ex Schweinfurth

This species is found in the eastern desert of Egypt. The Bedouins call it saykaraan, a word borrowed from Arabic that means “to become inebriated” (see Hyoscyamus muticus). In former times, the leaves and flowers of this little-known henbane species were smoked as an inebriant by the Bedouins and Nubians (some of whom still continue the practice), sometimes mixed with tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) or other herbs (presumably Cannabis sativa). The plant is still sold in herb stands in the markets of the Nile Valley (Goodman and Hobbs 1988, 84 f.). This species is apparently synonymous with Hyoscyamus niger.


Hyoscyamus desertorum Boiss. (= H. albus var. desertorum)—desert henbane

The inhabitants of the Negev Desert and the northern Sinai smoke the dried leaves and seeds of this plant as a treatment for toothaches, chest pains, coughs, asthma, and hysteria (Dafni and Yaniv 1994, 14*).


Hyoscyamus x györffyi

This is a hybrid of Hyoscyamus niger and Hyoscyamus albus (Ionkova et al. 1994). It has no ethnopharmacological significance, although it does contain high concentrations of tropane alkaloids.


Hyoscyamus pallidus Kitaib.

The Assyrians appear to have used this Near East species of henbane to treat toothaches and as an inebriant (Thompson 1949, 216*).


Hyoscyamus physaloides L.

The Tungus roasted the seeds of this central and East Asian henbane species and brewed them into a drink. They drank this special “coffee”after eating, presumably for its inebriating effects (Rowell 1978, 263*). In Siberia, the entire plant, including the root, is used as an inebriant and opium substitute (see Papaver somniferum). The root apparently also was used there as a potently inebriating, hallucinogenic beer additive (Hartwich 1911, 522*).


Hyoscyamus pusillus L.

This species is found from northern China through central Asia and into the Near East, just as Hyoscyamus bohemicus is (Lu and Zhang 1986, 71). Likewise, its seeds are used in traditional Chinese medicine (Lu 1986, 80*). To date, we know of no psychoactive use of this species in any Asian culture. However, in central Asia it is quite possible that this species is used as an inebriant in place of Hyoscyamus niger. The ancient Assyrians appear to have used this henbane species as an analgesic and inebriant (Thompson 1949, 216*). In Arabic, the plant is known as sufairâ.


“Today, the inhabitants of Siberia at Jenissei still use the plant [Hyoscyamus physaloides] as an agent of pleasure. They chop the leaves and the root into small pieces and add this to fermenting or already finished beer. One glass of this beer produces an utter confusion. The drinker begins to speak without knowing what. His senses are dulled, and he loses any sense of proportion. When he walks, he imagines that he is encountering insurmountable obstacles. Every moment, he sees his close and unavoidable death before him.”







A strange and botanically unrecognizable species of Cretan henbane. (Woodcut from Gerard, The Herball or General History of Plants, 1633)


Hyoscyamus reticulatus L.

Like Hysocyamus desertorum, this species is found only in the Negev Desert, where the Bedouins use it for folk medicinal purposes (Dafni and Yaniv 1994, 17*). The inhabitants of the Negev smoke the dried leaves to treat toothaches, as a sedative, and as an inebriant (Dafni and Yaniv 1994, 14*). In Syria and Iran, the plant is known as bazr-i-banjkohi bangbanj barri, and benj. Physicians there use the seeds like opium (cf. Papaver somniferum) (Hooper 1937, 128*).



See also the entries for the other Hyoscyamus species.


Goodman, Steven M., and Joseph J. Hobbs. 1988. The ethnobotany of the Egyptian eastern desert: A comparison of common plant usage between two culturally distinct Bedouin groups. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 23:73–89.


Ionkova, Iliana, L. Witte, and A. W. Alfermann. 1994. Spectrum of tropane alkaloids in transformed roots of Datura innoxia and Hyoscyamus x györffyi cultivated in vitro. Planta Medica 60:382–84.


Lindequist, Ulrike. 1993. Hyoscyamus. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 5:460–74. Berlin: Springer.


Lu An-ming and Zhang Zhi-yu. 1986. Studies of the subtribe Hyoscyaminae in China. In Solanaceae: Biology and systematics, ed. William G. D’Arcy, 56–78. New York: Columbia University Press.


In former times, more species of henbane were recognized and illustrated than are botanically recognized today. This species had reddish flowers. (Woodcut from Gerard, The Herball or General History of Plants, 1633)