August 2, 2010
Just the name is enough to send chills down your spine. Shame that it is usually misapplied to two other species, one whose berries are only mildly toxic – Woody Nightshade or Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) and one whose berries are actually edible, when ripe – the Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum).
Perhaps it is just as well that our parents and grandparents brought us up in a climate of fear about berries? As children, our ability to differentiate between similar things, without training, is limited by our attention span, experience etc. so if our family could not provide the necessary knowledge, better to leave it until we can acquire it for ourselves. For me, that time is now.
Bittersweet is a sprawling, straggly plant with dark green oval and halberd-shaped leaves that may be found in woods, ditches, waste ground and the seashore. It is more easily spotted by its clusters of scarlet egg-shaped fruits that are reminiscent of tiny plum tomatoes, with good reason – tomato belongs to the nightshade family – than by the strongly reflexed purple flowers, whose yellow anthers project forward in a cone. As a kid, I was always taught that this was Deadly Nightshade – and that it is ‘deadly’ therefore – and it seems that that is what most people believe, including medical practitioners. In the United States at least, children are routinely dosed with a strong emetic as a precaution, if they swallow even a small amount of Bittersweet berries. Recent tests have shown that the ripe fruits contain very little solanine (the poison), while unripe berries contain more. However, the dark green unripe fruits are not only unappealing to a child’s eye but are also quite inconspicuous and so are rarely ingested. Research suggests it would take over 200 fruits to make a dangerous dose!
Black Nightshade looks like a small potato plant that has gone to flower, with good reason – potato is a member of the nightshade family! The blossoms of both are similar to the Bittersweet, except the petals are white not purple. Solanum nigrum turns up on waste ground, cultivated soil and farmland and can tolerate quite dry conditions. Both the young shoots (boiled in a change of water) and the ripe, black berries are extensively eaten around the world, especially in Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East – but also traditionally in the United States both by Native Americans and settlers. Over here it was long believed to be poisonous and mistakenly called ‘deadly’. The unripe fruits are toxic and should not be eaten.
The real Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is a relatively rare plant, found in scrub, open woods and rocky places on chalk or limestone. Its growth habit is as a small spreading upright shrub that is actually quite hard to spot. I think it has a strange beauty; rather lurid purple tube-like flowers and incredibly attractive shiny black (or green when unripe) berries that resemble black cherries held within a large star-shaped bract. And they are truly deadly, just half a berry being enough, in some instances. The poisonous principle is called atropine and the effects are very different from solanum nightshades.
“Numerous cases are on record of the poisonous effects of this plant when taken by mistake for some other, or administered designedly, producing pain in the head, restlessness, dimness of vision, dilitation of the pupils, and subsequent loss of sight, dryness of the throat, delirium, coma, and sometimes convulsions. The delirium is not always present, and is mostly of the pleasing kind, with constant and immoderate laughter, talking continually, but generally on lively subjects. The muscles of the eyeballs are sometimes spasmodically contracted, as well as the muscles of deglutition, especially when anything is attempted to be swallowed. At other times the effect produced resembles somnambulism, as occurred in the instance of a tailor, who was poisoned with an injection of the infusion of bella-donna, and who for fifteen hours, though speechless and insensible to external objects, went through all the usual operations of his trade with much vivacity, and moved his lips as if in conversation.”
From FLORIGRAPHIA BRITANNICA; RICHARD DEAKIN, M.D., 1857.