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Bittersweet Nightshade (Solanum Dulcamara): The Real McCoy

How the 3 "Bittersweet" Plants Got Their Names

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Picture of bittersweet nightshade berries in varying stages of maturity.

The colorful berries of poisonous bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara).

David Beaulieu

What's in a name? Shakespeare asked the question vis-a-vis the rose. But unlike the rose, bittersweet has earned its name. It is tempting to think that the name originated from the dual nature of the vine discussed on Page 1: namely, the fact that it is so destructive (in the case of Celastrus orbiculatus, not Celastrus scandens), yet so beautiful. But alas, the explanation is hardly so poetic. And before revealing the derivation of the name, it is necessary to introduce yet another character into this "Comedy of Errors," a plant in the infamous nightshade family -- bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara).

If neither of the two types of bittersweet vine known so well in the eastern and central U.S. is the true "bittersweet," then what plant merits that appellation? The answer: a noxious weed introduced into the U.S. from Europe, called "bittersweet nightshade" (Solanum dulcamara). The colorful berries of this plant undergo an interesting transformation during their growing season. Beginning as a green berry, they change first to a yellow color, then to orange, and finally mature to red. Making the plant even more colorful is the fact that not all the berries reach these color stages at the same time. Consequently, it is not uncommon to see a bittersweet nightshade plant bearing berries of three or four different colors (see picture of bittersweet nightshade above).

The berry of this true bittersweet is poisonous. Not that I'd recommend that the novice ingest false bittersweet berries or oriental bittersweet berries, either. Commenting on the berries of Celastrus scandens, the experts at Moonshine Designs quip, "While not extremely toxic, they will 'clean you out at both ends'." In fact, it's sound policy never to eat any part of any plant with which you are not intimately familiar; if you have a yearning to become the next Euell Gibbons, first study what the experts have said about it (I am not an expert in this area).

Interestingly, both Celastrus scandens and bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) were used for medicinal purposes by herbalists in the U.S. in the nineteenth century. In the case of Celastrus scandens, the bark was gathered by herbalists; while it was the twigs of the bittersweet nightshade that were prized. King's American Dispensatory (1898) indicates that one of the herbal uses both of bittersweet nightshade and of Celastrus scandens, or false bittersweet, was as a diuretic (a substance that increases the flow of urine).

And the derivation of the name, "bittersweet"? King's American Dispensatory has the following to say of the twigs of bittersweet nightshade: "their taste is bitter, followed by some sweetness and a slight acridity." The same source reveals how Celastrus scandens came to be thought of as bitter-sweet, remarking that "The bark has a bitter, afterward sweetish, rather nauseous taste."

So if they both have a bitter-sweet taste, why is bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) considered to be the true "bittersweet," while Celastrus scandens had to settle for "false bittersweet"? Well, by the time the European plant classifiers discovered the properties of Celastrus scandens, the name "bittersweet" had probably already been claimed by bittersweet nightshade (as a European plant, Europeans knew of it at an earlier date). As for Celastrus orbiculatus, since "bittersweet" and "false bittersweet" had already been used as names for other plants, the solution arrived at for a common name was to name it after its place of origin -- the Orient.

Note that the common name and the botanical name mirror each other exactly in the case of bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), which is not always the case in plant nomenclature. Solanum is the part that indicates "nightshade," while dulcamara is a composite of two Latin words -- meaning "sweet" and "bitter," respectively. The only difference between the two languages is the order, since the Latin would translate literally as "nightshade sweet-bitter."

So as you can see, when somebody starts talking about "bittersweet," the conversation is hopelessly vague: the common name just doesn't give you sufficient information for discussion. The confusion to which I've pointed above provides a poignant example of why we use scientific names of plants.

What camp are you in when it comes to landscaping with Oriental bittersweet? Is it a pest? Or is it too pretty to be considered a pest? Either way, it's for the birds, as we'll see on Page 3....

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