Sunday, June 14, 2009

PRETTY POISON?

Looks can be deceiving. And when it comes to wildflowers, some of the prettiest blooms occur on plants that can make you sick or even kill you. Bittersweet nightshade is a prime example . Bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) produces small five-petaled flowers, violet or purple and shaped like a shooting star, with a brilliant yellow protruding center column composed of fused anthers. Unquestionably quite beautiful. But a beauty that often strikes fear into the heart and mind of the beholder, who—when it's pointed out to them and mentioned by name—stares in appalled disbelief as one might fixate on a close-range cobra. Don’t get me wrong—the plant does indeed contain a number of active compounds. However, its deadly reputation is overblown, in part because it’s often confused with the related deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), that perennial favorite of old Gothic novels and whodunit fiction. I certainly wouldn't advise you to ingest any part of the of the plant…and kids, especially, need to be warned of its possible dangers. Still, most reputable modern botanical sources classify its toxicity as merely “moderate." Bittersweet nightshade has been blooming along the river for a couple of weeks. The plant is a climbing or trailing vine with alternate, oval-shaped leaves with a pointed tip, and two smaller leaves or lobes that jut out from the base. Later on there will be bright red, pea-size berries. The plant’s vining nature is accounts for its alternate name, climbing nightshade. The name comes from a substance called dulcamarine which, when chewed, gives first a bitter then sweet taste. The “dulcamara” part of it’s name is a combination of Latin words meaning bitter and sweet. “Solanum” comes from the same Latin root as “solace,” and likely derives from the plant’s long and varied comforting use in herbal medicine. Bittersweet nightshade was once used to treat everything from asthma and bronchitis, rheumatism, skin diseases, jaundice and kidney problems, to syphilis. And if your aliments had a darker source, bittesweet nightshade could also be employed to treat and counteract witchcraft. Thoreau thought the bittersweet nightshade’s ripening berries exceedingly lovely. “I do not know any clusters more graceful and beautiful than these,” he wrote. They hang more gracefully over the river’s brim than any pendant in a lady’s ear. Yet, they’re considered poisonous; not to look at surely…But why should they not be poisonous? Would it not be bad taste to eat these berries which are ready to feed another sense?” Bad tasting? In bad taste? Or just bad? I’ll leave that decision up to you. Pretty poison? Or just pretty? I’ll stick with the latter. Though I will point out that nightshade and potatoes are related…

24 comments:

thepoisongarden said...

You are certainly right about the confusion. Just yesterday I saw a website which had a similar picture to yours labelled 'deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna'.

As to the name, 'dulcamara' is from the Latin 'dulcare' 'sweeten' and 'amara' 'bitter'. So, the name means 'sweetbitter' rather than 'bittersweet'. The taste is just that; a brief sweetness followed by intense bitterness.

It's this bitterness which stops the plant being harmful. You wouldn't, accidentally, eat a lot of the berries.

I tried the berry before I'd researched the name and kept chewing and chewing waiting for the sweetness to come through and it never did. I was very glad to spit it out.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Love it Scribe - we call it Deadly Nightshade here. In fact that self same plant is featured on one of my Portmeirion plates I put on my blog last Friday! I know it is closely related to the potato - we always say that if a potato has begun to go green, don't eat it as it has begun to revert to a poisonous plant.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Poisongarden…

The confusion over these two nightshades is almost comical. That's why I said something about "reliable" sources. I clicked on a number of sites which had photos and info switched or all lumped together, which is why I always start with my reference texts, field guides, etc. and work from there first—from firm knowledge rather than misinformation.

I imagine you also know black nightshade, S. nigrum, whose berries are eaten in baking, dried, employed in winemaking, while the plant leaves are also boiled and consumed. I have eaten them myself.

I've never tried chewing bittersweet nightshade leaves, however, but it was my understanding you got the sweet taste first…then the bitter. In the nature of good science, you might repeat your experiment and let me now if round two had the same results. :-) Just kidding. But maybe your expectations of bitter/sweet explain the Latin words being reversed in the proper name, while the common name follows the more familiar path?

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Weaver…

Ha! You were commenting on my blog while I was commenting on yours.

There are several nightshades called "deadly nightshade" but the real killer is Atropa belladonna; every part of that plant is deadly.

I've always heard not to eat greenish potatoes, too…but usually ate them anyway.

Wanda said...

I don't believe we have any Nightshade on the property...so I won't be tempted to do a taste test for myself...my mother use to come here every spring to search and collect wild greens and young polk plants...I've heard polk berries are poisonous...but have no idea myself...I do know the birds eat them.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Wanda…

Bittersweet nightshade is kind of a rough-edge plant; I have plenty of rough edges here along the river, but from what I've seen of your place, it would be less likely to appear there. Of course all it would take would be one bird which had eaten a few berries and left subsequent droppings on the right bit of soil.

I know all about pickin' poke for salad, or "sallet" as country folks say. Sounds like your Mom had a bit-o'-the-hills in her veins. I've also heard that poke berries are poisonous—but then a late naturalist/writer/freind tells me his mother made pokeberry pies, a fact confirmed by several of his brothers and sisters, and I think even by a recipe in my friend's stuff from his Mother., in here handwriting. So, I know this to be true; but whether they were just lucky, hardy, immune, or so mildly poisoned they none realized…I have no idea. And the birds do indeed eat them.

Teri and the cats of Furrydance said...

Lovely photo and very interesting information too. I don't know the proper names of many wildflowers, but my favorites in Oregon were the Shooting Star, which looks like your photo but larger, and sometimes called a Birds Bill or Beak? and of course, Cat's Ears..

Rowan said...

It's called woody nightshade over here in UK - I love it, the flowers are so delicate and pretty and I absolutely agree with Thoreau about the berries. In the autumn with the sun shining on them they are the most wonderful transluscent red, one of the most beautiful berries I know. The only competitor in UK are the white bryony berries which look like jewels strung along the hedgerow but even they are not quite the equal of the woody nightshade - apart from the poisonous aspect - bryony is even more lethal.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Teri…

Ah, the lovely prairie flowers. We have some small "pocket" prairie patches here in Ohio, with many of the same plants. Shooting Star is one of my favorites, too. I'm not sure about the others you mentioned…I'd have to look them up and see if I know them by another name.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Rowan…

I did see that bittersweet nightshade was also called woody nightshade over your way, but forgot to include it in my piece.

And I too agree with you and Thoreau re. the berries…they are simply spectacular.

Jain said...

It's a pretty little thing, and an interesting post. I used to see it more often than I do now; in fact, now that I think, I don't recall when last I saw it.

Bernie said...

It's hard to believe that something so beautiful can do so much harm, and the name nightshade is wonderous. Oh well I will trust your intelligence and accept the fact that I should not eat these, but potato's are my favorite vegetable each and every way they are cooked.
Have a great day....:-) Hugs

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Jain…

Huh…I would have thought you'd have plenty along your stream; it's certainly common here. It is pretty, but not quite deserving of its bad reputation.

thepoisongarden said...

Taste is often the most important factor in determining whether a poisonous plant is harmful or not.

We have Mrs Grieve to thank for the idea that Atropa belladonna berries are 'insanely sweet' when they are, in fact, pretty insipid. There is an impression of sweetness but that's all.

If you tried them by accident you'd be unlikely to scoff them down.

On potatoes, some sources say that if there is any green at all on the potato you should throw it all away not just cut off the green bit because the toxin will be present throughout. I'm sure that's theoretically true but it runs counter to common experience where most of us have cut off the green bit and not noticed any problems.

And, of course, Solanum melongena, another close relative, also has a poisonous berry but as long as you cook your eggplant before eating it, you're fine.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Bernie…

We don't quite know where the word "nightshade" comes from. Some texts theroize the family name—not specifically bittersweet nightshade, but other nightshade species—derives its "shade" portion from the various narcotics effect, hallucinations, the seeing of "spirits," "ghosts," "shades." Or perhaps simply because some of them make you drowsy, "shading" your thinking. The "night" part, on the other hand, may simply refer to the devil, long associated with night or darkness.

Hey, I'm certainly NOT saying all nightshades are harmful. Eat and enjoy all the potatoes you want; the only danger might be to your waistline. And the same goes for, tomatoes, which are also a member of the nightshade family.

On the other hand, tobacco, also a nightshade, might or might night not hurt you if you ate it cooked or raw —I just don't know—but there's no doubt whatsoever that smoking the plant's leaves will prove harmful and often fatal.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Poisongarden…

Thanks for the followup. I appreciate the added info. Your expertise is welcome any time. I quite enjoyed my brief visit to your website yesterday, and will certainly be back as you have a lot of great (and accurate!) information.

I'm going to take your word on both bittersweet nightshade and, especially, deadly nightshade's taste being unpleasant. But you're right in that a lot of things not good for us taste awful. Some so awful that I'm always astonished anyone ever consumed enough of the plant to have a problem. You have to wonder sometimes…

I'd forgotten about eggplant being a member of the nightshade family. But is it indeed harmful when eaten raw? I'm thinking I've seen slices of it served on appetizer trays for dipping, along with cucumber, zucchini, celery, carrots and such. Or maybe not.

Regarding potatoes, I just cut the green portion out and cook the remainder as usual. On the other hand—and this is a staggering confession coming from an Irishman—I'm not a gung-ho potato consumer; I like them well enough, and fix them regularly—baked, fried, mashed, etc.—for friends and family—but if I only ate them a half-dozen times a year I'd not miss them. So I'm not eating green-tinged potatoes every day, or even every month.

Anyway, enjoyed your comments.

thepoisongarden said...

Thanks for the welcome and the compliments.

Your comment about eggplant sent me off to my sources. Frohne & Pfander in 'A Colour Atlas of Poisonous Plants' say that the steroidal alkaloids in the fruits of solanums are metabolised to nitrogen-free compounds. But they then cite a study of 31 species of solanum which found that the ripe berries of 23 of them still contained solanine, in one case 6.1% by dry weight.

Whether or not raw eggplant (aubergine) is truly poisonous and, if so, how harmful it could be is one of those open questions of which there are many, many thousands when it comes to plants.

The more I study, the less I am certain of, which makes the studying all the more interesting.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Poisongarden…

I understand exactly the dilemma, and it applies to me, too…the more more I learn, the less I know! Especially regarding plants.

Since replying to you earlier and wondering about raw eggplant—and if I did, indeed, once eat it, as I remembered—I've Googled the subject and researched quite a bit. While I wouldn't say every site that popped up was a paragon of trustworthy science, I read a sufficient number of anecdotal accounts and recipes from folks who claim to eat raw eggplant (though not necessarily enjoy it) that I'm convinced they—and likely I—ate the stuff.

Some of us, at least, are still here and posting on the Internet! So I guess that's about as good an answer as any.

Teri and the cats of Furrydance said...

I am sure you found it, but here's a lovely picture of an Elegant Cat's Ear

http://castlelake.ucdavis.edu/index.php?q=gallery&g2_itemId=145

This is a wonderful site and I used to live about an hour from Shasta and only found this site today, lol

thepoisongarden said...

'Some of us, at least, are still here'

Which is, of course, the pragmatic answer to the question of whether plants are poisonous. Whenever I read the hysterical stuff about poison plants, like don't bring holly into the house at Christmas, my response is to ask 'Where are the bodies?'

In the USA around one or two people a year die as a direct result of accidental plant poisoning. In Europe, we don't even bother to keep score.

That said, the Chinese name for S. melongena can be translated as 'poison' and one of its common names 'mad apple' is supposed to refer to the effect of eating the fruit.

But, enough about eggplant. I need to continue looking at the rest of your site.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Teri…

I hadn't, but I followed your link and looked; it is a really neat plant—unfortunately only found on The West Coast. :-(

Could the other plant you mentioned have been called Crane's Bill?

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Poisongarden…

I like the idea of a plant's poisoning danger being linked to body count! When you can point to corpses piled like firewood, I'm willing to agree the stuff is hazardous.

All my life I'd eaten apple seeds when eating an apple. (I eat everything except the stem.) One day this crazy nutritionist got all over me, told my how risky and dangerous and just plain foolish I was for eating the seeds. "Apple seeds are full of arsenic," she berated. "People drop dead!"

So I did some research. Turns out apple seeds contain chemical called a cyanogenic glycoside, in the case of the apple seed, sugar bound to other molecules. There's a cyanide molecule attached. When it breaks down, the cyanide is released into your system. Uh-oh! But further reading revealed that it would take upwards of a cup of apple seeds—consumed quickly with thorough chewing because once released the cyanide fast degrades , and if unchewed, most apple seeds pass harmlessly through your system; nature's way of distributing and possibly planting seeds for future apple trees. And regardless, the amount of seeds in an apple—chewed or not—were too few to have any ill effect whatsoever. Ahh-h-h. That explained why I wasn't already dead and never would be from eating an apple's seeds.

It was also interesting to learn that a lot of fruit pits and seeds—peaches, cherries, plums, apricots, etc.—contained this same cyanide-producing compound, several in much higher amounts. And so does the root from which tapioca is made.

Combining all the deaths worldwide in a given year caused by ingesting a poisonous plant—it's berry, leaf, seed, root, whatever (throwing in mushrooms, to boot)—probably would wouldn't come close to matching the mortality rate in the smallest U.S. or U.K. city related to SMOKING the parts of various plants. A more insidious poison for sure, just less dramatic and immediate. But a serious case of death for the person involved.

Yup… you wanna talk poison, show me the bodies!

The Horse Lady said...

wow just when I thought your page couldn't get any better, you prove me wrong. Its awsome! Love what ya did :)

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Horse Lady…

Thank you, D. It isn't fancy, just simple and clean, which makes it look fancy. You'll do something every bit as nice; I have no doubt.

I just hope everything works as it should in the weeks ahead. And if not, the offer still stands…