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Bittersweet Nightshade

Bittersweet Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara)Family: Solanaceae

Species: Solanum dulcamara

Related genera: Atropa, Brugmansia, Datura, Hyoscyamus, Mandragora, Nicotiana, Scopolia, Solanum

Names: This herb in the nightshade family is also known as Climbing Nightshade, Bittersweet, Woody Nightshade, Felonwood, Fellonwort, Poisonberry, Poisonflower, Scarlet Berry, Snakeberry, Trailing Bittersweet, Trailing Nightshade, Violet Bloom, Blue Bindweed and Amara Dulcis

Dulcamara consists of the two words dulce = sweet and amarus = bitter, hence ‘bittersweet’.

In Germany it is called also Bittersüßer Nachtschatten or simply Bittersüß. Further it is known by such pictorial names as Hundbeere, Mäuseholz, Mausholz, Natter(n)holz, Pissranken, Rote Hundsbeere, Saurebe, Stinkteufel, Süßstoff, Teufelsklatten, Waldnachtschatten, Wasserranke and Wolfsbeere.

Habitat and Habitus: Solanum dulcamara is native to Europe, Asia and North Africa. It is found growing wild in alluvial forests, but thrives also in dryer areas and on loamy soils. It is considered invasive in some regions, frequenting hedges, waysides, garden fences or also construction sites.

Hardy, perennial climbing, sub-shrub, growing branches of up to 7 m length. The stems turn woody whilst the upper green parts die back in winter and sprout anew in spring. The flowers are a vibrant purple with bright yellow stamina and occur form June to September, being pollinated by flies and other insects. The fruits ripen from August to October, in bunches of 5-10 berries, which are of a bright red color and contain sugar as well as bitterns from which the plant got its name dulcamara (see above). The leaves turn bright golden yellow in autumn. Altogether the plant adds a lovely contrast to any garden. Grow by the side or in the background of (raised) beds, nearby fences, dark-green yew or pivet hedges and at the foot of or around solitary standing trees.

Toxicity: All parts contain steroid alcaloides and saponines, e.g. Solanin, which is poisonous. The concentrations of these vary between different races of the plant, which develop depending on local conditions. The alcaloid concentration is highest in the unripe green fruits and lowest in the stems and ripe fruits (see also black nightshade and tomatoes). A lethal dose for a child is said to consist of 30-40 unripe berries. However the ripe and attractive red berries are poisonous too, so keep away from children.

Medicinal: Used are the stems (Dulcamarae stipes), which are collected either in spring, when the plant begins to flower or in autumn, when the plant sheds its leaves. Beta Solamarine and steroid saponines are thought to be responsible for the plant’s immune-suppressive, cortisone-like, anti-inflammatory and antipruritic effects, which play a roll in treating chronic skin irrations like neurodermitis or psoriasis. Other folkmedicinal uses are bloodcleansing teas, treating nausea, vertigo, rheumatism, chronic bronchitis and asthma.

Magical attributions and Folklore: Bittersweet nightshade is considered a Saturnian and Earth herb, but also has Mercury and Air attributes. It is traditionally used for  protection from baneful sorcery and the ‘evil eye’, as well as cleansing and healing. It is also considered a typical fairy herb. The red fruits and Saturnian aspects evoke female deities of a darker kind, who have links to the underworld and the souls of the dead (e.g. Naamah, Hecate and Persephone.) The bittersweetness places it for me in a similar context as wormwood and could also stand for the attraction and loss of a lover, the joys and pains of amorous affairs and romance as well as the harshness of a laborious or literal ‘dog’s life’. Harold Roth also mentions the herb might have a special quality of “healing bitter memories” and “bringing balance”. Since it inhibits immune overreaction and eases stress symptoms of various origins, a charm with bittersweet nightshade may be helpful for people who suffer stress and nervous tensions (e.g. from heavy work load or pressure to succeed) and in overcoming losses (e.g. the death of a loved one).

Plant Seal:

Bittersweet Nightshade
Bittersweet Nightshade

Sources and Further Reading

Heilkräuter Lexikon
The Poison Garden
Enzyklopädie der psychoaktiven Pflanzen, by Christian Rätsch
Weeds for Witches, by Sarah Anne Lawless
Climbing Nightshade at Alchemy Works, by Harold Roth
Pflanzliche Heilmittel gegen Neurodermitis
Wikipedia English, Wikipedia German

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