Nightshade, Woody

Medical Herbs Catalogue


Nightshade, Woody

Botanical Name: Solanum dulcamara (LINN.)
Family: N.O. Solanaceae

Synonyms: Bittersweet. Dulcamara. Felonwood. Felonwort. Scarlet Berry. Violet Bloom.
Part Used: Twigs.

The large and important natural order of Solanaceae contains, besides Henbane and the Nightshades, some of the most poisonous of our native plants, such useful economic plants as the Potato, Tomato, Aubergine Capsicum and Tobacco, also the medicinally valuable Thornapple (Datura stramonium) the Winter Cherry and the Mandrake, which in earlier days was supposed to possess miraculous properties.

The prevailing property of plants belonging to the Nightshade tribe is narcotic, rendering many of them in consequence highly poisonous.

The genus Solanum - to which the older herbalists formerly assigned Atropa Belladonna, and to which the Potato and Aubergine belong, is represented in this country by two species: Solanum nigrum (Black or Garden Nightshade) and S. dulcamara (Bittersweet or Woody Nightshade). The leaves bear a certain resemblance to those of Belladonna, and the flowers of both Bittersweet and Belladonna are purple, though totally distinct in shape, and both have berries, red in the case of Bittersweet, not black as in the Belladonna. Bittersweet is common throughout Europe and America. It abounds in almost every hedgerow in England, where it is rendered conspicuous in the summer by its bright purple flowers, and in autumn by its brilliant red berries. Belladonna for which it is often mistaken is rare.

Description: It is a perennial, shrubby plant, quite woody at the base, but throws out long, straggling, slender branches, which trail over the hedges and bushes among which it grows, reaching many feet in length, when supported by other plants. They are at first green and hairy, but become woody and smooth as they grow older, with an ashygreen bark.

The flowers, which are open all the summer, are in loose, drooping clusters, on short stalks opposite the leaves. They are of a bluish purple tint, with reflexed petals when expanded, so as almost to appear drooping. Their bright yellow stamens project in a conical form around the pistil, or seedbearing portion of the flower.

The leaves are chiefly auriculate on the upper stems, i.e. with little ears, having at their base from one to two (rarely three) wing-like segments, but are heart-shaped below. They are placed alternately on either side of the stem and arranged so that they face the light. The flower-clusters always face a different direction to the leaves. 'One may gather a hundred pieces of the Woody Nightshade, and this strange perversity is rampant in all,' remarks an observer of this very curious habit.

The berries are green at first, afterwards becoming orange and finally bright red, and are produced in constant succession throughout the summer and early autumn, many remaining on the plant long after the leaves have fallen. The plant was called the Woody Nightshade by the old herbalists to distinguish it from the Deadly Nightshade. Its generic name Solanum is derived from Solor (I ease), and testifies to the medicinal power of this group of plants. The second name, Dulcamara, used to be more correctly written in the Middle Ages, Amaradulcis, signifying literally 'bittersweet,' the common country name of the plant, given to it in reference to the fact that the root and stem, if chewed, taste first bitter and then sweet. Another old name is Felonwood, probably a corruption of Felonwort, the plant for felons - felon being an old name for whitlow. We are told by an old writer that: 'the Berries of Bittersweet stamped withrusty Bacon, applied to the Joynts of the Finger that is troubled with a Felon hath been found by divers country people who are most subject thereto to be very successful for the curing of the same.' In the days of belief in witchcraft, shepherds used to hang it as a charm round the necks of those of their beasts whom they suspected to be under the evil eye.

The older physicians valued Bittersweet highly and applied it to many purposes in medicine and surgery, for which it is no longer used. It was in great repute as far back as the time of Theophrastus, and we know of it being in use in this country in the thirteenth century. Gerard says of it: '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.' Boerhaave, the celebrated Dutch physician, considered the young shoots superior to Sarsaparilla as a restorative, and Linnaeus, who at first had an aversion to the plant, later spoke of it in the highest terms as a remedy for rheumatism, fever and inflammatory diseases of all kinds. There are few complaints for which it has not been at some time recommended.

Part Used: The limited demand for Bitter sweet in modern pharmacy is supplied bythe wild plant.

The dried young branches from indigenous plants, taken when they have shed their leaves, were the parts directed for use up to 1907, by the British Pharmacopoeia, but it has been removed from the last two editions.

The shoots, preferably the extreme branches, are collected from two- to threeyear-old branches, after the leaves have fallen in the autumn, cut into pieces about 1/2 inch long, with a chaff cutter, and then carefully dried by artificial heat. They require no other preparation. The peculiar unpleasant odour of the shoots is lost on drying.

An extract of the leaves or tops is frequently prepared also; 10 lb. of the dried shoots yield about 2 lb. of the extract. A decoction of the dried herb is likewise used.

The drug occurs in commerce in short, cylindrical pieces of a light greenish, or brownish-yellow colour, about 1/4 inch thick, bearing occasional alternate scars where the leaves have fallen off, and are quite free from hairs, and more or less longitudinally furrowed and wrinkled. A thin, shining bark surrounds the wood, which is lined internally by a whitish pith, which only partially fills it, leaving the centre hollow.

The active properties of Bittersweet are most developed when it grows in a dry and exposed situation. The bitterness is more pronounced in the spring than in the autumn, and in America the shoots are gathered while still pliant, when the plant is just budding, though the British Pharmacopoeia directs that they shall be collected in the autumn.

Constituents: Bittersweet contains the alkaloid Solanine and the amorphous glucoside Dulcamarine, to which the characteristic bittersweet taste is due. Sugar, gum, starch and resin are also present.

Solanine acts narcotically; in large doses it paralyses the central nervous system, without affecting the peripheral nerves or voluntary muscles. It slows the heart and respiration, lessens sensibility, lowers the temperature and causes vertigo and delirium, terminating in death with convulsions.

Medicinal Action and Uses: The drug possesses feeble narcotic properties, with the power of increasing the secretions, particularly those of the skin and kidneys. It has no action on the pupil of the eye.

It is chiefly used as an alterative in skin diseases, being a popular remedy for obstinate skin eruptions, scrofula and ulcers.

It has also been recommended in chronic bronchial catarrh, asthma and whoopingcough.

For chronic rheumatism and for jaundice it has been much employed in the past, an infusion of 1 OZ. of the dried herb to 1/2 pint water being taken in wineglassful doses, two or three times daily. From the fluid extract made from the twigs, a decoction is prepared of 10 drachms in 2 pints of boiling water, boiled down to 1 pint, and taken in doses of 1/2 to 2 OZ. with an equal quantity of milk.

The berries have proved poisonous to a certain degree to children.

Fluid extract, 1/2 to 2 drachms.

Other Species:
The four following species are all used in Homoeopathic medicine:

Botanical Name: Solanum Arrabenta
Part Used: Leaves.
Habitat: Rio Janeiro.
Medicinal Use: Apoplexy.

Botanical Name: Solanum Mammosum
Synonym: Apple of Sodom.
Part Used: Fresh ripe fruit.
Medicinal Use: Irritability and restlessness.

Botanical Name: Solanum Oleraceae
Synonym: Jagueribo.
Part Used: Flowers.
Habitat: Shores of Rio Janeiro.
Medicinal Use: Acts specifically on the mammary glands.

Botanical Name: Solanum Pseudop-Capsicum
Synonym: Jerusalem Cherry.
Part Used: Fruit.
Medicinal Use: Somnolence.