Family: Solanaceae (Nightshade Family)
Common Names: Altersum, apollinaris, bily blin (Bohemia), diskiamos (modern Greek), dontochorton (Cyprus), gelbes bilsenkraut, belles bilsenkraut, hyoskyamos, obecny (Bohemia), Russian henbane, sikran (Morocco), yellow henbane
Hyoscyamus albus grows to a height of about 40 or 50 cm (19”). The plant grows vertically, although it often appears bushy because of its woolly light green stems, serrated leaves, calyxes and fruits. The soft flowers are light yellow on the outside and often have a dark violet interior. The seeds are usually white or ocher, but are sometimes grey, and the berries are orange or yellow. The plant thrives in coastal areas; it is found primarily in southern Europe (Spain, Italy and Greece) and in the Near East.
Yellow henbane holds a special place as the most commonly used magical and medicinal plant of European antiquity. It was mostly referred to as white henbane in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries before it became known as yellow henbane in the modern era.
The life-span of the plant is from one to three years and it is the hardiest and fastest-growing of the henbane family. Yellow henbane can grow in the poorest of soils, including sandy, clayey, or nutrient-poor varieties. The seeds need not be planted deep into the ground; loosely scattering them over such terrain invariably produces results. Occasional watering is necessary at first, but the plant should never be overwatered. It is heat-resistant and can also thrive in such adverse environments as the crevices of old walls and between rocks. Hyoscyamus albus is harvested while still in bloom and hung up to dry by its roots in a well-ventilated location for three to six weeks.
The tropane alkaloids hyoscyamine and scopolamine, in addition to apo-scopolamine, norscopolamine, littorine, tropine, cuscohygrine, tigloidine, and tigloyloxytropane, in concentrations similar to those found in Hyoscyamus niger, can be found throughout Hyoscyamus albus.
TRADITIONAL USE: Without a doubt, henbane, particularly this species, was the paramount means in ancient times of inducing a trance-like state. Many oracles and soothsayers made use of it to assist in cultivating their prophecies. It was known as the "dragon plant" of Gaia, the ancient earth oracle, the "Zeus bean" of the oracle of Zeus-Ammon of late ancient times and the Roman Jupiter, and the 'Apollo's plant" of Delphi.
Both alone and in combination with other teaching herbs, the seeds were burned and deliberately inhaled as ritual incense. The leaves were also used as an additive to wine. When the soothsayers and prophetesses ritualistically inhaled the smoke or drank the wine, they called upon a deity—usually Apollo. Once they were possessed by the god, they would speak out loud its messages. A priest “interpreted” their often unintelligible utterances.
In Morocco, yellow henbane (either just the seeds or the whole plant) is still used ritualistically as incense and is included in a mix of other herbs in psychoactive preparations. Peganum harmala is often included in this mix as well.
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: The herbage from the plant is sometimes mixed equally with hemp flowers (indica, sativa, or a combination), and dried fly agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria) in a smoking blend that is said to have aphrodisiac qualities. The seeds can also be burned and inhaled to produce the clairvoyant trance-like states once enjoyed by the oracles. Hyoscyamus albus was smoked in recent times in Egypt, Balucstan, and the Punjab.
The fresh or dried herbage can be added to wine and used for pains and cramps. In Morocco, common wisdom is that even a very small amount will produce hallucinations.
MEDICINAL USE: Hyoscyamus albus has been characterized as a species with great medicinal value throughout history. The "founder of medicine" Hippocrates highly praised the medicinal use of henbane. Under his direction in ancient Greece, seeds were added to wine as a treatment for fever, tetanus, and gynecological ailments.
On Cyprus, an analgesic plaster is still made from the crushed leaves, which are also added to tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) and smoked as a remedy for asthma.
In the Golan Heights of Israel, where the yellow henbane is commonly found, pastes and other concoctions containing the leaves are applied topically to treat skin ailments, open wounds, headaches, rheumatism, insect stings, and eye inflammation.
One cigarette of dried herbage can be smoked as a treatment for various respiratory ailments, including asthma, bronchitis, and coughs.
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: In ancient Greece, Hyoscyamus albus was well known to produce dramatic alterations of consciousness. Other reports mention a “divine kind of madness.” In ancient Greece “madness” was equated with inspiration, and it was divided into four parts, each with its own deity. Prophetic inspiration was ascribed to Apollo, mystical inspiration to Dionysus, poetic inspiration to the Muses, and love to the goddess Aphrodite. The ancient Greeks believed henbane had the capacity to subdue the waking mind, leaving room only for the divine. This sacred "plant of Apollo" is distinct from other species of henbane only in that it has been known traditionally to endow its recipient with the gift of prophecy.
Keeler, Martin H., M.D., and Francis J. Kane Jr., M.D. "The Use of Hyoscyamine as a Hallucinogen and Intoxicant." American Journal of Psychiatry Vol. 124 (1967): 852 - 854. Web. 6 Dec. 2009 <http://www.erowid.org/plants/datura/datura_journal1.shtml>.
Ratsch, Christian. The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press, 2005. Print.