Bryony, White

Medical Herbs Catalogue


Bryony, White

Botanical Name: Bryonia dioica (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Cucurbitaceae

Synonyms: English Mandrake. Wild Vine. Wild Hops. Wild Nep. Tamus. Ladies' Seal. Tetterbury.
(French) Navet du diable.
Part Used: Root.
Habitat: The Cucumber tribe has a single representative among our wild plants in the Red-berried, common or White Bryony. This is a vine-like plant growing in woods and hedges, and exceedingly common in the south of England, rarer in the Midland counties, and not often found in the north of England. It is of frequent occurrence in central and southern Europe.

Description: The stems climb by means of long tendrils springing from the side of the leaf stalks, and extend among the trees and shrubs often to the length of several yards during the summer, dying away after ripening their fruit. They are angular and brittle, branched mostly at the base, and are, as well as the somewhat vine-shaped leaves very rough to the touch, with short, pricklelike hairs - a general character of the exotic plants of this order.

The leaves are stalked, with the stalk curved, shorter than the blade, which is divided into five lobes, of which the middle one is the longest - all five are slightly angular.

The flowers, which bloom in May, are small, greenish, and produced, generally three or four together, in small bunches springing from the axils of the leaves. Stamens and pistils are never found in the same flower, nor are the flowers which have them individually ever met with on the same plant in this species, whence the name dioica, signifying literally 'two dwellings.' The male flowers are in loose, stalked bunches, 3 to 8 flowers in a bunch, or cyme, the stamens having one-celled, yellow anthers. The fertile flowers, easily distinguished from the barren by the presence of an ovary beneath the calyx, are generally either stalkless (sessile) or with very short stalks - two to five together. The corollas in each case consist of five petals, cohering only at the base. The outer green calyx is widely bell-shaped and five-toothed.

The berries, which hang about the bushes after the stem and leaves are withered, are almost the size of peas when ripe, a pale scarlet in colour. They are filled with juice of an unpleasant, foetid odour and contain three to six large seeds, greyish-yellow, mottled with black, and are unwholesome to eat.

The whole plant is rather succulent, bright green and somewhat shining.

The name of the genus, Bryonia, derived from the Greek bryo, 1 shoot, or sprout appears to have reference to the vigorous an active growth of its annual stems, which proceed from the perennial roots, and so rapidlycover other shrubs, adhering to them with their tendrils. Bryonia dioica is the only British representative of the genus.

History: Under the name of Wild Nepit was known in the fourteenth century as an antidote to leprosy. It produces a large, tuberous rootstock which is continuous with a thick, fleshy root which attains an enormous size. Gerard says of it: 'The Queen's chief surgeon, Mr. Wiiliam Godorous, a very curious and learned gentleman, shewed me a root hereof that waied half an hundredweight, and of the bignes of a child of a yeare old.' This large, fleshy, pale-coloured root used often to be seen suspended in herb shops, occasionally trimmed into a rude human form. Green (Universal Herbal, 1832) tells us: 'The roots of Bryony grow to a vast size and have been formerly by imposters brought into a human shape, carried about the country and shown for Mandrakes to the common people. The method which these knaves practised was to open the earth round a young, thriving Bryony plant, being careful not to disturb the lower fibres of the root; to fix a mould, such as is used by those who make plaster figures, close to the root, and then to fill in the earth about the root, leaving it to grow to the shape of the mould, which is effected in one summer.'

The plant is still sometimes called Mandrake in Norfolk.

In this fleshy root is found a somewhat milky juice, very nauseous and bitter to the taste. It is of a violently purgative and cathartic nature, and was a favourite medicine with the older herbalists, well known to and much used by the Greeks and Romans prescribed by Galen and Dioscorides, and afterwards by Gerard, but is now seldom employed by regular practitioners, though sometimes by the homoeopathists, though they mostly use another variety of Bryony that is not indigenous to this country. The French call the root Navet du Diable (Devil's Turnip), from its violent and dangerous action.

Withering says a decoction made by boiling one pound of the fresh root in water is 'the best purge for horned cattle,' and it has been considered a sovereign remedy for horse grip.

Gerard declared the root to be profitable for tanners to thicken their hides with.

Bartholomew's Anglicus tells us that Augustus Caesar used to wear a wreath of Bryony during a thunderstorm to protect himself from lightning.

Culpepper says it is a 'furious martial plant,' but good for many complaints; among others, 'stiches in the side, palsies, cramps, convulsions ' etc.

The acrid and cathartic properties of the root are shared in some measure by all parts of the plant: the berries are emetic and even poisonous. They have been used for dyeing. The young shoots in the spring are considered to be inert, and have sometimes been boiled and eaten as greens without harm resulting. Among animals, goats alone are said to eat this plant.

The extracts made from some exotic species of this tribe, as the Squirting Cucumber (Momordica elaterium) and the Colocynth (Cucumis colocynthis), afford useful medicine.

Part Used: The root is collected in the autumn and used both in the fresh and dry state. When fresh, it is of a dirty yellow or yellowish-white colour, externally marked at close intervals with prominent transverse corky ridges, which often extend half round the root and give it the appearance of being circularly wrinkled. Internally, it is whitish, succulent and fleshy, with a nauseous odour - which disappears in great measure on drying - and a bitter, acrid taste. The juice which exudes on cutting the root is milky, owing to the presence of numerous minute starch grains. The root is usually simple, like a carrot or parsnip, but sometimes is forked into two.

When sold dry, Bryony root appears in circular, brittle pieces, 1/4 to 1/3 inch thick about 2 inches in diameter, the thin bark greyish-brown and rough, longitudinally wrinkled, the central portion whitish or greyish, showing numerous round wood bundles arranged in concentric rays, with projecting radiating lines. The taste is disagreeably bitter, but there is no odour.

The large size, tapering shape, transverse corky ridges and nauseously bitter taste of Bryony root are distinctive. Small specimens may resemble Horseradish root, but that is cylindrical and smooth and has a pungent taste.

Medicinal Action and Uses: Irritative, hydragogue, cathartic. Its chief use was as a hydragogue cathartic, but is now superseded by Jalap. Its use as a purgative has been discontinued as dangerous, on account of its powerful and highly irritant nature.

It was formerly given in dropsy and other complaints. It is of so acrid a character that, if applied to the skin, it produces redness and even blisters. It has been used for cataplasms, and praised as a remedy for sciatica, rheumatism and lumbago.

It is still considered useful in small doses for cough, influenza, bronchitis and pneumonia, and has also been recommended for pleurisy and whooping-cough, relieving the pain and allaying the cough.

It has proved of value in cardiac disorders caused by rheumatism and gout, also in malarial and zymotic diseases.

In case of poisoning by Bryony, the stomach must be evacuated and demulcent drinks given. The body temperature must be maintained by the use of blankets and hot bottles.