Information on Henbane

Common Name: Henbane
Scientific Name: Hyoscyamus niger
Irish Name: Gafann
Family Group: Solanaceae
Distribution: View Map (Courtesy of the BSBI)
Flowering Period

Click for list of all flowering by month
Henbane is not easily confused with other wild plants on this web site.

A distinctive, evil-smelling but handsome plant, Henbane is not too widely found in Ireland. Either annual or biennial, it grows principally on disturbed, bare and coastal, shingly land. It's a tall plant, reaching up to 80 cm high, and erect stout stems bear curved, one-sided leafy spikes of trumpet shaped cream-yellow flowers (20-30 mm). At the heart of each flower lies a deep dark-purple centre and an amazing tracery of purple veins spreads from this centre up into the five surrounding lobes. This plant blooms from May to August. Oval, pointed leaves form a rosette in the first year with upper leaves clasping the stem in the second year. The leaves and the stem are covered with sticky hairs and the entire plant has an unpleasant, sickly smell. A native plant, it belongs to the Solanaceae family.  

I first recorded this species in County Wexford in 2011 where I also photographed it. I am most grateful to Paul Green, BSBI Vice-County Recorder for Counties Waterford and Wexford who showed me the plant’s basal rosette in autumn of 2010.  

If you are satisfied you have correctly identified this plant, please submit your sighting to the National Biodiversity Data Centre

This species is classed as NEAR THREATENED in the Red Data List of Vascular Plants 2016.

All parts of Henbane are poisonous although it is now usefully cultivated as a source of alkaloids in the manufacturing of painkillers and antispasmodics.

Henbane (or hebenon) is thought to have been the poison used by Crippen to murder his wife and by Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, to murder Hamlet’s father. The ghost of Hamlet’s father recounted to his son:

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: so did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark'd about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust,
All my smooth body.
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch'd:

William Shakespeare (1564–1616)

However, the larvae of some Lepidoptera species such as the Cabbage Moth are known to eat Henbane.