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Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade

Summary

The red berries are very attractive, very toxic but, fortunately, very bitter so it is implicated in only a handful of accidental poisonings.

Family

Solanaceae

Meaning of the Name

Solanum
Possibly from the Latin ‘solan’, ‘soil’ or ‘land’ with the suffix ‘an’, ‘belonging to’.

Fred de Vries, who writes for a Dutch newspaper about poison plants (his columns can be found here) has pointed out that some sources connect Solanum with the Latin for 'solace' or 'comfort' said to be a reference to the narcotic properties.

Randal H Alcock in his 1876 'Botanical Names for English Readers' says of 'Solanum' 'According to some altered from L. solamen, comfort, relief or solace; from the sedative qualities of some of the species. This is doubtful.' (My emphasis) But he doesn't offer any justification for saying this is doubtful nor does he offer an alternative explanation.

I have also seen it mentioned that the name comes, simply, from 'sol' 'sun' and these are plants of the sun but that seems an unusual way to name nightshades.

dulcamara
Usually translated as ‘bitterweet’ it is actually ‘sweet-bitter’ from ‘dulce’, ‘sweet’ and ‘amarus’, ‘bitter’.

Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade

Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade

Common Names and Synonyms

woody nightshade, bittersweet, poisonberry

This is not 'deadly nightshade' in spite of the number of times that Americans, in particular, label images of its flowers with that name. Deadly nightshade is Atropa belladonna.

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

Contains solanine, an alkaloid glycoside. It increases bodily secretions and leads to vomiting and convulsions. The strength of its actions is said to be very dependent on the soil in which it grows with light, dry soils increasing its effects.

Though the berries are very attractive the bitter taste is a disincentive for the majority of people, especially children.

Incidents

Between 1963 and 1979 there were 25 cases of poisoning mostly by children eating the berries. One of these involved a case of poisoning in a 2-year old boy who was picking blackberries with his father and ate a few of the berries from a woody nightshade plant entwined with the brambles. He suffered raised pulse and temperature as well as being hyperactive for two days. He was released from hospital after four and a half days once his pulse and blood pressure had returned to normal.

Though none of those cases proved fatal, in 1948, a 9-year old girl died after suffering stomach ache, vomiting, thirst, breathing difficulties and exhaustion. The post mortem examination showed bleeding in the intestines, damage to the liver and congestion of the lungs. The alkaloid solanine was identified in her liver and a large growth of Solanum dulcamara was found in an area where she was known to play.

A 1994 case report tells of a 4-year old girl in the USA who ate an estimated 50 berries. She was treated with physostigmine and discharged, well, after 36 hours.

In American Medicinal Plants, Charles F. Millspaugh calls it ‘falsely dreaded’ because he says that, in spite of numerous reported cases of poisoning, many people or animals who eat it suffer no ill effects at all. What cannot be known, of course, is if those reports had correctly identified the plant consumed. He does, though give one case, from the Lancet of 1856, of a four year old boy dying from eating the berries. He suffered no symptoms for eleven hours after ingestion but then was afflicted with vomiting, purging and convulsions before dying after twenty four hours.

Watch a Video about Solanum dulcamara

Folklore and Facts

Solanum dulcamara, woody nightshade

Solanum dulcamara berries,
'very unpleasant, of a strong savour’

Many books say that dulcamara means bitter sweet and comes from the taste of the berries being at first bitter but then very sweet. This view leads to its alternative English name, ‘bittersweet’. In fact ‘dulcamara’ should be taken to mean ‘sweetbitter’ as it comes from ‘dulcis’ meaning ‘sweet’ and ‘amarus’ meaning bitter.

Even modern books repeat the line that the taste is first bitter then sweet but John Gerard described the berries as being ‘of a sweet taste at the first, but after very unpleasant, of a strong savour’.

It is almost certainly true to say that any author who states that the berries become sweet after initial bitterness has never tried them. On the two occasions I have chewed, but not swallowed, a single berry, I found the bitterness to be extreme and prolonged chewing did not result in any sweetness. I am led to speculate that anyone who succeeds in being poisoned, such as the unfortunate girl in the 1948 incident, above, must have had some impairment of the sense of taste.