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Saturday, October 22, 2011


The woody nightshades are found around the world, the main one being Solanum dulcamara, and its many varieties. These are related to Belladonna, the spiny nightshade, Nipple fruit, aubergines, tomatoes and potatoes as well as the Physallis genus which includes the Chinese Lantern, the Cape gooseberry, tamarillo and tomatillo to name but a few. These species of plant have some degree of toxicity and woody nightshade is no exception as it has mild narcotic properties.
  Woody Nightshade is native to Britain as well as to the rest of Europe and also to parts of North Africa and northern Asia. It has been naturalized in the US having been taken there by the founding fathers for it medicinal properties. In the 19th century and earlier its woody stems were in the British Pharmacopoeia, but in more recent times the stems are no longer used as they were. New pharmaceuticals drugs have replaced so many of the ancient remedies, and when plants are toxic, they have been easily replaced for safety’s sake.
   A variant of the woody nightshade grows in Pakistan and this is used in traditional medicine to treat diabetes and eye problems.
  The woody nightshade has heart-shaped leaves and its berries turn red when ripe, whereas those of Belladonna turn black, so it is fairly easy to distinguish between these two nightshade species.
    The Swedish botanist Linnaeus who gave the plant its Latin names was at first antipathetic towards it, but his attitude changed after he learned more about it and he decided that it was beneficial in the treatment of rheumatism, fevers and inflammatory diseases.
  The name dulcamara means sweet bitter, and is believed to be a corruption of the name given to this plant by herbalists in the Middle Ages, amaradulcis, bitter sweet. It is still called by this name in North America.
  The plant has also been called felonwort or felonweed, but this has nothing to do with convicted criminals. A felon was the name given to the sore, hard pieces of skin that sometimes grow around finger and toe nails. In older English, these were called whitlows, but the word seems to have fallen out of use, perhaps because whitlows are no longer common because we have improved diets.
  The woody nightshade was known to Theophrastus the ancient Greek physician and was in use in the Middle Ages, and has, over the centuries been used as a supposed remedy for many ailments. John Gerard the English herbalist writing in the 16th century believed that it was good for bruises and internal haemorrhages and blood clots which were caused after a fall or a beating.
  The parts used in Europe are the woody stems, which are traditionally harvested in autumn after the leaves have fallen. These are then cut into small pieces and dried using artificial heat, not sunlight.
  The infusion or tisane is taken internally to cure skin problems including psoriasis, eczema and respiratory problems such as asthma. The measurements for this are one ounce of the dried stems to half a pint of boiling water. Let this steep for 15 minutes then strain and drink two or three times a day in wineglassful doses. This has been used for ulcerative colitis and bronchitis too. However I was not able to find any medical research to conclusively back up the traditional uses of the plant (as yet).
  Modern clinical trials have found that solanine from the stems can cause paralysis of the central nervous system, so this plant should not be used in home remedies. Studies have shown that the beta-solamarine present in this plant may inhibit the growth of cancerous tumours and have anti-cancer properties, but much more research needs to be done on this plant before results can be called conclusive.

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