ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

Bittersweet its past and present medicinal uses

Updated on August 1, 2015

Bittersweet flowers and foliage



The Bittersweet, also referred to as the Woody nightshade, belongs to the Solonaceae family of plants, which contains many poisonous species, but also includes some of the main stay vegetables such as the humble potato. Indeed the flowers of these two species confirm the affinity.

Although the Bittersweet is not one of the most handsome or conspicuous plants one would meet in the course of their rambles it is still in my opinion worthy of note. There is, again in my opinion, a certain beauty in the form and colouring of the flowers, along with the various colour of the fruit as it begins its process of ripening.

The specific name of the plant dulcamara meaning 'bittersweet, alludes to the taste of the toxic berries which at first taste bitter followed by a sweet sensation. In some of the more archaic herbals it is referred to as Amaradulcis. Another common name for the plant in days gone by was Felon wood, which derived from its one time medicinal use to cure whitlows', the old name foe whitlow was felon.{ whitlow is any pussy inflammation at the tip of the fingers or toes }. The current name of Bittersweet derives from the old English name of Bytterswete. The genus name of Solanum seems to have caused some debate as to its origin-some say it is from solari meaning to comfort while others conclude that it is obviously from the Latin word solanum meaning nightshade.

In this article I review the use ,past and present, in herbal medicine, containing past observation from herbalists of days gone by. As is usual, I start the review with a description of our subject.

Description of Solanum dulcamara

The Bittersweet is a shrub like plant throwing out long branches that climb and straggle over hedgerows in which the plant is almost exclusively found. It is rarely if ever found standing alone, but always among more robust vegetation upon which it can get support for its weak stems. These stems may be more or less smooth in others more hairy.

The foliage is borne on the stems. The form of the foliage is subject to considerable variation, they may be egg shaped or more or less heart shaped. The upper leaves may be habard shaped and eared. they are nearly always a dull coloured green.

The flowers are a lurid purple, with two green spots at the base of each segment and the yellow anthers are united into a pointed cone. The petals often turn back to expose even more of the anthers. They hang in clusters opposite to the leaves.

The glistening fruits, which are in the form of scarlet berries, appear on the bough after the flowers have faded. They are green to begin with gradually changing to a scarlet colour , which is more conspicuous than the purple flowers of June. They ripen in October and November.


Elements of Science  {1812}
Elements of Science {1812}

Illustration of foliage and flower

Medicinal History

The berries which we consider to be poisonous was mentioned by Bachouse when he claimed that the people of Norfolk Island ate them, although he also observes that the " The Climate probably allies their properties"

External application of a decoction of its leaves has been employed with good effect, however because of its poisonous properties internal preparations was only administered by 'qualified persons'. The stem leaves and fruit all contain, poison.

The root system of Bittersweet, when bruised diffuse a nauseous odour, and whether fresh or dried, invariably possesses the union of properties to which the plant owes its name of nightshade.The fresh leaves are said to give off a slight musky smell, but when dried have no odour at all.

Mr Guersent {1800's} stated " I think that the saccharine principle resides in the ligneous part, and the bitter principle in the cortical part of the old stems" The activity of the plant was supposed to depend on an alkaloid, discovered by Defosses, which he called Solania or Solanine, which is also found in the berries of the garden nightshade, but not in the leaves of that species.

Solanine was obtained by treating the filtered juice with ammonia, whereby a greyish precipitale was formed. This deposited collected upon a filter, washed, and treated with boiling alcohol, yeilded by evaporation the above salifiable base.

When pure, it is white and opaque, having no smell but a slightly bitter taste. It required 8,000 times its weight of hot water for solution, and it is but sparingly soluable in alcohol. It has an alkaline reaction, and with the acids forms neutral salts, its reactions on animals is to produce vomiting which was generally followed by lethargic drowsiness.

According to the British Flora Medica { 1858 } the poisonous properties are as follows--The berries of the bittersweet are looked upon with terror by the peasantry, who rank them with the shining fruit of the bryony, under the name of 'poisonous berries'. the accounts of their deleterious nature have probably been much exaggerated, for Duval, gave 60 and even a hundred berries to dogs without any appreciable results.

However, there is on record some cases of these berries having had fatal effects on children and parents should be aware and warn their children of the dangers of eating the berries. Should a child be suspected of eating the berries { or any toxic kind } medical help should be sought immediately.

Bittersweet berries at various stages of development


Black nightshade

Billeder of Norden's Flora 1917-1927. The black nightshade is a close relative of the Bittersweet and even more toxic. It is often found as a garden weed.
Billeder of Norden's Flora 1917-1927. The black nightshade is a close relative of the Bittersweet and even more toxic. It is often found as a garden weed.

Information from archaic herbals and medical papers.

As far as medicinal purposes are concerened, herbals of days gone by convey that the ordinary effects of this plant are narcotic and diuretic. In large doses it was said to occasion nausea, vomiting, syncope, palpatations, and convulsive twitchings in various parts of the body. One herbal states " Its influence on the nutritive functions is shown by the alvine evacuations, the increase of perspiration and abundant secretion of urine. It also augments the production of mucus secretions, and in some cases facilitates expectoration"

Whatever the values of this plant may or may not have been, it was extensively used in various acute and chronic diseases. Bergius, gave from 5-10 grains of the extract twice or three times a day, to cure gout and other eminent practioner's of their time recommended it against pleurisy, asthma, jaundice and dropsy. Dr. Batement considered it to be one of the most effective remedies for leprosy under all its varieties.

The twigs {stems} were the parts used in most herbal preparations and for that purpose they were gathered in the autumn after the leaves had fallen. it was prepared in the form of a decoction. Even by the 1800's the external use of the leaves was almost forgotten except in ' rustic practices'. They were sometimes applied externally in the form of a poultice or fomentation. the leaves and stems were broken up with a little hot water or by making a strong decoction of them.

These preparations were deemed of service in all hard and painful swellings, especially those of the knee joint, or in the female breast. But also in all contusions and bruises for ' promoting the absorbtion of extravasated blood' by which means the blackness is removed.

In his book American Medicinal Plants {1887} Millspaugh, recommended that the fresh green branches, that are still pliant, and their leaves, should be gathered just as the plant id budding to blossom, and chopped and pounded into a pulp, enclosed in a piece of new linen and pressed. the juice thus expressed should, by brisk succession be mingled with an equal part by weight of alcohol. he then recommended that the mixture should be allowed to stand for at least eight days in a well-stoppered bottle in a dark cool place and filtered before using.

Millspaugh observed that the resulting liquid was a pale chestnut color, having at first a decidedly bitter, then sweet taste, and an acrid reaction. The physiological action Millspaugh observed, was he said " Somewhat narcotic, but of a short duration in this sphere. Upon the circulation the action is quite marked,it causes venous congestion, attended with great pain, heat,nausea and vomiting, and sudden prostration. The head droops and oscillates forth and back, the patient is giddy, the heart palpitates, the mouth becomes hot and dry and the face and ears cyanotic."

Another case note relates a case of poisoning by the berries. It appeared in the Lancet of June 28 1856 {page 175}, in which the identity of the plant seems certain and it stated that the berries of Solanum nigrum {black nightshade } whose berries are much more poisonous took no part, resulted in the death of a four year old boy.

The following symptoms were recorded. After eleven hours during which no symptoms of importance were noticed, he was attacked by vomiting, purging and convulsions, which continued through out the day, the child being insensible during the intervals. He died convulsed in about twenty four hours. The vomiting matters were of a dark green colour and of a bilious character.

Summary and modern day uses.

In later herbals such as ' A Modern Herbal {1931} by Mrs M. Grieves it states that the drug possesses feeble narcotic properties, with the power of increasing the secretions particularly those of the skin and kidneys. Mrs Grieves states that it is chiefly used in skin diseases, being a popular remedy for obstinate skin eruptions, scrofula and ulcers.

However, it is a plant to be aware of when foraging, the bright, ripe, red berries are very tempting, but toxic. They are better left well alone.

In homeopathy it is still used in commercial preparations to treat rheumatism, colds and skin rashes.

Bittersweet or Woody nightshade

American Medicinal Flora {!800's}
American Medicinal Flora {!800's}


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, glad to have been of help. Thank you for your kind comments. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I believe I have recently seen bittersweet. NOW I know what this plant is. Thanks, Dave, for your great information.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Eddy, thank so much for your much appreciated comments, they mean so much my friend. And for your vote up, interesting and useful. Best wishes to you.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      6 years ago from Wales

      A wonderfully interesting hub my friend. As always voting up and sharing.


    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Hi Devika,

      Plants for medicine or for culinary purposes are quite tricky to identify when you are not used to foraging. That is why I strive to produce these articles. Thank you for your comments, vote up and useful, as usual they are much appreciated. Best wishes to you.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      6 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Bittersweet its past and present medicinal uses is a very interesting hub, I often take walks and noticed a similar kind of plant with similar berries and wondered about it, I still don't know it doesn't fit the description of this one. An excellent write up her and you always manage to surprise me with something new. Voted up, interesting, and useful.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)