Toxic Plants

Bittersweet Nightshade: A Wild Tomato Lookalike

As the name suggests, bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) is a member of the infamously toxic nightshade family (Solanaceae). It also contains other notably poisonous plants like Carolina horsenettle and the well-known deadly nightshade. However, the family also contains fruits that we’re all familiar with, like peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants.

Like Carolina horsenettle, bittersweet nightshade can be mistaken for edible wild tomatoes. It is however incredibly poisonous, and the toxic compounds contained within its fruits can cause irresponsible foragers extreme discomfort, and even risk their lives.

Bittersweet nightshade with a cluster of purple flowers | Photo by Lazaregagnidze on Wikimedia Commons

What are the active compounds in Bittersweet Nightshade?

Solanine is the active compound found in bittersweet nightshade, and it can cause extreme discomfort. Other alkaloids are present, like solasodine, but solanine is the most toxic. This toxin can be found in deadly nightshade too, and it’s the compound that causes people to become unwell after eating green/sun-exposed potatoes.

Bittersweet Nightshade poisoning symptoms

Usually, the symptoms of ingesting bittersweet nightshade are severe fatigue and weakness, dizziness, nausea, diarrhea, arrhythmia, and joint pain. In severe cases, individuals may experience hallucinations, paralysis, and even hypothermia. Fatalities are rare, however, they have been documented.

Bittersweet Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), displaying leaves and fruits in various stages of ripeness. | Photo by Ylem on Wikimedia Commons

Does Bittersweet Nightshade have medical potential?

Despite its toxicity, bittersweet nightshade has been used in various herbal treatments for centuries. Juice from the fruits was used topically to treat severe bruising and pain from injuries. Plant parts (in very small doses) were also mixed with other herbal remedies to create a purgative drink. However, it was mainly applied topically to various skin conditions.

Cultural symbolism of Bittersweet Nightshade

Bittersweet nightshade was once highly valued as a plant that could repel curses and spells. People would place dried leaves and fruits in certain areas for luck, healing, and protection. For example, herders would tie the plant around the neck of cattle to protect them from witchcraft or ‘the evil eye’.

Bright red, toxic bittersweet nightshade fruits | Photo by Cbaile19 on Wikimedia Commons

With such a rich cultural history, bittersweet nightshade has been called many names throughout the centuries. Poisonberry, climbing nightshade, poison flower, and snake berry are all colloquial names that have been used for this toxic plant.

What does Bittersweet Nightshade look like?

As the colloquial name ‘climbing nightshade’ suggests, bittersweet nightshade is a vine that can climb up and over other plants. When flowering, bittersweet nightshade has the distinctive star-shaped flowers of other members of the nightshade family. Unlike the white flowers of Carolina horsenettle, bittersweet nightshade flowers are a striking purple color. The leaves are pointed, with a slight lobed section towards the stem.

A close up of the deep purple bittersweet nightshade flowers | Photo by Franck Hidvégi on Wikimedia Commons

The red fruits grow in truss-like clusters, which is why they can be mistaken for wild tomatoes. As a member of the nightshade family, it even has that familiar tomato smell, which can be tempting to inexperienced foragers or children.

Where does Bittersweet Nightshade grow?

Originally the plant was native to areas of Europe and Asia, however, large populations can now be found in North America. Because of its valued spiritual and protective uses, it likely spread far and wide throughout Eurasia and beyond. It favors moist and well-draining soils and can often be found in areas of woodland near streams, rivers, and even wetland areas.

Bittersweet nightshade flowers and developing fruits. Near water | Photo by AnRo0002 on Wikimedia Commons

Conclusion

While the fruits of the bittersweet nightshade remain toxic to humans and livestock, plenty of birds rely on them as a source of food. When adorned in purple blooms and red fruits, bittersweet nightshade is a striking plant to come across in the wild. Just make sure that if you’re planning to forage wild tomatoes, you familiarise yourself with the characteristics of Carolina horsenettle and bittersweet nightshade.

Featured Image: 4 Ripening bittersweet nightshade berries. Photo by Rosser1954 on Wikimedia Commons

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