Solanum dulcamara, also known as bittersweet, bittersweet nightshade, bitter nightshade, blue bindweed, Amara Dulcis, climbing nightshade, fellenwort, felonwood, poisonberry, poisonflower, scarlet berry, snakeberry, trailing bittersweet, trailing nightshade, violet bloom, or woody nightshade, is a species of vine in the potato genus Solanum, family Solanaceae. It is native to Europe and Asia, and widely naturalised elsewhere, including North America, where it is an invasive problem weed.
Bittersweet is a semi-woody herbaceous perennial vine, which scrambles over other plants, capable of reaching a height of 4 m where suitable support is available, but more often 1–2 m high. The leaves are 4–12 cm long, roughly arrowhead-shaped, and often lobed at the base. The flowers are in loose clusters of 3–20, 1–1.5 cm across, star-shaped, with five purple petals and yellow stamens and style pointing forward. The fruit is an ovoid red berry about 1 cm long, soft and juicy, with the aspect and odor of a tiny tomato, and edible for some birds, which disperse the seeds widely. However, the berry is poisonous to humans and livestock, and the berry's attractive and familiar look make it dangerous for children.
It is native to northern Africa, Europe, and Asia, but has spread throughout the world. The plant is relatively important in the diet of some species of birds such as European thrushes, which feed on its fruits and are immune to its poisons, scattering the seeds abroad. It grows in all types of terrain with a preference for wetlands and the understory of riparian forests. Along with other climbers, it creates a dark and impenetrable shelter for varied animals. The plant grows well in dark areas in places where it can receive the light of morning or afternoon. An area receiving bright light for many hours reduces their development. It grows more easily in rich wet soils with plenty of nitrogen.
Solanum dulcamara has been valued by herbalists since ancient Greek times. In the Middle Ages the plant was thought to be effective against witchcraft, and was sometimes hung around the neck of cattle to protect them from the "evil eye".
John Gerard's Herball (1597) states that "the juice is good for those that have fallen from high places, and have been thereby bruised or beaten, for it is thought to dissolve blood congealed or cluttered anywhere in the intrals and to heale the hurt places."
The alkaloids, solanine (from unripe fruits), solasodine (from flowers) and beta-solamarine (from roots) inhibited the growth of E. coli and S. aureus. Solanine and solasodine extracted from Solanum dulcamara showed antidermatophytic activity against Chrysosporium indicum, Trichophyton mentagrophytes and T. simil, thus it may cure ringworm.
Although fatal human poisonings are rare, several cases have been documented. The poison is believed to be solanine. Aggressive treatment of children ingesting limited amounts of ripened S. dulcamara berries appears to be unnecessary.
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- illustration by Kurt Stüber, published in Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany
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