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Solanum dulcamara L. 1753
pronounced: so-LAH-num dool-kah-MAH-ruh
(Solanaceae — the nightshade family)
common names: Bittersweet, Potato Vine, Woody Nightshade
Solanum is the ancient Roman name for the deadly nightshade; dulcamara is from the Latin amarus (bitter) and dulcis (sweet); bittersweet, the name often given to the plant because of the fact that the root and stem, if chewed, taste first bitter and then sweet.
This is a species of vine, native to Europe and Asia, and widely naturalized elsewhere, including North America, where it is an invasive problem weed. The Solanaceae family also includes not only the poisonous henbane and nightshades, but also the useful plants as potato, tomato, aubergine, capsicum and tobacco. Our plant was called the ‘woody’ nightshade by the old herbalists to distinguish it from the ‘deadly’ nightshade.
In England it is found growing in nearly every hedgerow, together with the belladonna, or deadly nightshade. Bittersweet is much more common, and, although both species have purple flowers, the belladonna has black berries, and not the red berries of the bittersweet. Although the bittersweet is poisonous to humans and livestock, it is not as deadly a poison as the belladonna. Strangely enough, bittersweet is edible for birds, who disperse the seed widely. As with most Solanum species, the foliage of both is poisonous to humans.
Bittersweet is a semi-woody herbaceous perennial vine that scrambles over other plants using its long, straggly, slender branches, and is capable of reaching a height of 4 m where suitable support is available, but more often 1–2 m high. The branches are at first green and hairy, but become woody and smooth as they grow older, with an ashy-green bark. The leaves are 4–12 cm long, roughly arrowhead shaped, and often lobed at the base with up to three pairs of little ears. The leaves are placed alternately on either side of the stem and arranged so that they face the light. The flowers are in loose, drooping clusters on short stalks opposite the leaves, and are 1–1.5 cm across, star-shaped, with five purple petals and yellow stamens and style pointing forwards. The flower clusters always face a different direction from the leaves. The fruit is an ovoid red berry about 1 cm long, soft and juicy (but don’t eat it, please).
The plant is used in naturopathy and herbalism. Its main usage is for conditions that have an impact on the skin, the mucous membrane, and the membrane around the joints. Although fatal human poisonings are rare, some have been documented. Bittersweet berries were, in the Middle Ages, worn round the neck in order to ward off the evil eye. The apothecaries of the time valued bittersweet highly. Its use in medicine and surgery goes back to classical times, and it was still commonly in use in Europe until at least the 13th century. The dried young branches from the plants were used medicinally for much longer, and were listed in the British Pharmacopœia up until the 1907 edition. The shoots were taken from the extremities of the branches after the leaves had been shed in autumn, and cut into short pieces 1–2 cm long, and dried. The unpleasant odour which emanates on cutting is lost in the drying process. The dried twigs are still used in infusions and tinctures by homeopaths and herbalists.
The larvae of the Soybean Looper Thysanoplusia orichalcea feed on the plant.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs takin in Picnic Bay 2007-2012
Page last updated 21st February 2018