Solanum Dulcamara: woody nightshade, or bittersweet

Solanum Nigrum: black nightshade

Atropa Belladonna: deadly nightshade

The Solanaceae family is large and contains beloved foods such as potatoes and tomatoes, as well as the poisonous henbane and nightshade.  It is their narcotic properties that make many plants of this family so dangerous, but also valuable in medicine. It’s right there in the name to: Solanum means as much as ‘I ease’.

Note that deadly nightshade does not belong to the same genus as black nightshade and bittersweet – it does, however, belong to the Solanaceae. The three have similarly shaped leaves, but can otherwise be distinguished. Deadly nightshade is the hardest to be found, which is just as well, as it is also the most poisonous.

Solanum dulcamara

Solanum Dulcamara

Solanum Dulcamara

Woody nightshade is the least poisonous of the nightshade sisters, but it nevertheless needs to be handled with great care, as it still contains narcotics! This plant is recognizable by its drooping purple flowers that grow opposite the leaves. They turn into berries that are first orange and then red, and that can be produced from summer throughout late autumn. Dulcamara refers to its English name: ‘bittersweet’.  It refers to the root which, when chewed, is first bitter and later becomes sweet. The name ‘woody nightshade’ is used to distinguish it from the other two nightshades.

When they thought that one of their cattle was bewitched by the evil eye, shepherds used to hang a strand of bittersweet around the neck of the animal.

Solanum Nigrum

Black nightshade has small white flowers, that resemble those of bittersweet in form and grow at the end of stalks that spring from the main stem in between the leaves. Its berries, like those of the deadly nightshade, are black.

Atropa Belladonna

Atropa Belladonna, from Köhler's Medizinal Pflanzen.

Atropa Belladonna, from Köhler’s Medizinal Pflanzen.

The most dangerous of the three nightshades, deadly nightshade prefers shadow above light, and is quite rare in our area. It has purple flowers, which carry shiny, black berries in early autumn. The berries are juicy, sweet, and poisonous. Still, they are the least dangerous part of the plant – every single part is in fact poisonous, the root most so. Atropa refers to this, and is named after the alkaloid atropine, that makes deadly nightshade so deadly. The name also reminds one of the third of the Greek Fates, Atropos, who cuts the thread of life.

In late medieval England, belladonna was known as dwale, which may stem from French deuil (grief) or Scandinavian dool (delay, sleep). Other names are French morelle mortelle (actually meaning ‘deadly nightshade’) and French Tolkraut (mad or insane herb).

One of the effects of poisoning by deadly nightshade is the widening of the pupils. In fact, this was exactly the reason why some Italian women in old times took small doses of this plant; they found that the widening of their pupils made them more beautiful. Hence belladonna, which means ‘beautiful woman’. Some say that the name actually comes from the belief that at certain times in the year, deadly nightshade turns into a lovely but dangerous woman.

Throughout history, deadly nightshade is named in accounts of poisoning. It’s not strange then, that it is seen as a plant of the devil. He goes around tending to it all year, except during Walpurgis Night (May Eve), when he has to attend the witches’ sabbath.

In the Victorian era, when all plants and flowers had their own symbolic meaning, a gift of belladonna would signify ‘silence’.



Mrs. M. Grieve. A Modern Herbal.

Penicka, Sarah. Caveat Anoynter! : A study of flying ointments and their plants.