Bittersweet Nightshade

Bittersweet nightshade is actually a tomato relative, and grows glistening, deep red berries any tomato would envy. But it would be wise to pay close attention to where this plant stakes its claim. Relatives include tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and peppers, but the family Solanaceae includes many darker, less friendly members. Bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) takes after plants like belladonna, a notoriously toxic relation. As red and luscious as they seem, nightshade’s berries are best left on the vine.

Human relations with Solanaceae have always been complex. In fact, the tomato was not always so well regarded. Native to South America, the plants were grown strictly as ornamentals when they were introduced into European cultivation. Few actually ate tomatoes; that was far too risky. “Poison apples” or “love apples” were an attractive route to temptation or death.

Fast forward to the 21st century, when tomatoes are welcomed into family gardens and coddled each spring. Bittersweet nightshade is a European native, and was probably initially brought here for medicinal purposes. Many birds are known to feed on nightshade berries without any ill effects, and once the plant gained a toehold in the New World, it spread through their stomachs to a wide variety of suitable natural areas. Bittersweet nightshade is now a plant that can be found twining its way through wet woodland edges, neglected garden corners and the unpruned hedges of North America.

Nightshade is a perennial, and a healthy example can twine eight feet in a season before dying back to its woody base in late autumn. At this time of year, the leaves are colored a lovely dark green, and are almost always three-lobed at maturity, with a large arrow-shaped central lobe surrounded by two smaller side lobes. The vine produces a panicle of lovely half-inch flowers in midsummer, each pointing downward and similar in shape to a tomato’s, but far more dramatically colored. Each flower displays deep purple petals and showy, bright yellow anthers.

Nightshade was considered potent protection against witchcraft during the Middle Ages, and a sprig tied to the neck of a cow was sure to ward off the evil eye. The plant is even mentioned in John Gerard’s often-maligned 16th-century “Herball”: “The juice is good for those that have fallen from high places, and have been thereby bruised or beaten, for it is thought to dissolve blood congealed or cluttered anywhere in the intrals and to heale the hurt places.”