The Wood Folk Diaries: Volume 4 (Poisonous Plants), Chapter 1: Bittersweet Nightshade

Table of Contents

Dear Wood Folk,

We covered so many butterflies in Volume 3, but never got to moths, bees, wasps, ants, etc. Someday we’ll get back to pollinators. And the previous birding series is far from complete too. But I feel like something different, and I’ve wanted to cover my favourite poisonous or toxic plants for sometime.

I’ve occasionally covered poison plants in our Edible & Medicinal plants blog, like yew. It’s a poison plant with significant modern medicinal uses. Many of the poison plants I’ll cover in this volume of The Wood Folk Diaries have traditional medicinal uses. Some may even be used in modern times. Often times the poison is in the dosage. I have a book related to poison plants that I recommend for the curious: The Poison Path Herbal: Baneful Herbs, Medicinal Nightshades, and Ritual Entheogens (Amazon affiliate link used there!) Some plants we’ll feature here may even have edible parts. But the plants in these diaries are usually classified as poisonous.

We’re starting this volume out with bittersweet nightshade (solanum dulcamara), a very common climbing vine in Ontario. It’s also commonly called woody nightshade. It’s a nonnative in Canada and generally considered invasive.

Bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara)
Bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara)

The purple flowers stand out in the summertime, and later on as the green berries ripen to red they transition in a stunning gradient. The crushed leaves stink like burnt rubber.

Edible Uses of Bittersweet Nightshade

You may have heard of deadly nightshade, a very different plant (atropa belladonna) that is extremely poisonous with berries that are black when fully ripe. It’s not to be confused with black nightshade (solanum americanum, syn. s. nigrum and s. ptychanthum) whose berries are edible when completely ripe. Our featured vine is closely related to the edible black nightshade.

Bittersweet nightshade is not as edible as black (s. americanum); however, it’s not as poisonous as many other nightshades. As its name suggests, the fruits are extremely bitter with a slightly sweet aftertaste. Some people will nibble on the ripest red fruit, in moderation.

The poison component is likely the alkaloid solanine, which is most prominent in the unripe green fruits. If the unripe berries of bittersweet are eaten, or other parts with the poison alkaloids, your stomach can get upset to vomiting, and heart and lungs slow down. Humans, pets and livestock can all die from poison nightshade’s toxicity.

There are also people who are allergic to the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, which includes grocery staples like eggplants, potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes. 

Medicinal Uses of Bittersweet Nightshade

I am not sure I’ve brought up the German Commission E before, but the juice of the stems of bittersweet nightshade got approved by them for external use to treat chronic eczema. Of all the parts, the stems may have the least concentration of the poisonous alkaloids.

The flowers and the roots have alkaloids that inhibit some bacterial growth, including E. coli. The extracts of these may also have vermifuge qualities, including against ringworm. Extracts also see or have seen use as a sedative and for pain relief.

Bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) flower
Bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) flower

Alternative Uses of Woody Nightshade

For the witchier folk amoung us, bittersweet nightshade is used for binding and setting boundaries, and for many spells including curses. A simple way to use this nightshade is in a bundle over entryways, for protection. But, keep in mind it’s poisonous to pets too!

Bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) ripening berries
Bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) ripening berries

Growing Solanum Dulcamara

Personally, I love this vine. I wish it was native here! American bittersweet is a similar native for green thumbs to check out. There’s only one solanum native to Canada, and that’s southern Ontario’s S. carolinense sometimes called horse or ball nettle.

Next month’s poison plants are the lookalikes Dutchman’s breeches and squirrel corn. They’re spring ephemerals here in Ontario. You can subscribe to our push notifications to be alerted when new plants are posted!

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

#ads in References

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Every book I reference that is available on Amazon is linked to with an associates link.


Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

The Poison Path Herbal: Baneful Herbs, Medicinal Nightshades, and Ritual Entheogens

Please Like, Comment, Share! We'd love to hear your stories and knowledge! Thank you!

Leave a Comment