Scientific Name(s): Solanum dulcamara L.
Common Name(s): Bitter nightshade, Bittersweet, Bittersweet nightshade, Blue nightshade, Deadly nightshade, Dulcamara, Fellen, Felonwort, Fever twig, Mortal, Scarlet berry, Snake berry, Staff vine, Violet-bloom, Woody nightshade
Bittersweet nightshade is a member of the same family as the potato, tomato, and belladona. This plant is found widely throughout Europe, Asia, the US, and Canada. Bittersweet nightshade is a vine-like perennial that can grow to a height of approximately 3 m. It has alternating heart-shaped oval leaves that usually have 2 small ear-like segments at their bases. Its star-shaped flowers bloom from April to September; the flowers are pinkish-purple with bright yellow stamens. The flowers produce green berries that turn bright red when mature.Duke 2003, USDA 2016
The Latin name dulcamara refers to the flavor of the berries, which are first bitter, then unpleasantly sweet. Bittersweet nightshade has been used to treat cancers, tumors, and warts since ancient times as far back as Galen (AD 180)Kupchan 1965 and was recorded in Culpeper's Complete Herbal in 1681.Culpeper 2004 Although the plant has long been recognized as being highly toxicLowe 1929 it has been used as an external remedy for skin abrasions and inflammation. The stems were approved by the German Commission E Mongraphs for external use as supportive therapy in chronic eczema.Blumenthal 1998
Its use to treat felons (inflammations around nail beds) may be the source of the name felonwort. The plant has been investigated for possible antirheumatic, diuretic, narcotic, and sedative activity, but these actions are linked to the toxicity of the plant, and therefore, have not been successfully exploited.
Chemical investigations into the composition of bittersweet have identified a number of alkaloids in the leaves and fruit, and reviews have been published.Duke 2017, Heretsch 2015, Milner 2011 There are several varieties of the plant that possess different alkaloid profiles. They occur primarily as glycosides of the 3 spirosolane alkaloids tomatidenol, soladulcidine, and solasodine, although the free alkaloids are sometimes also detected. Alpha-, beta-, and gamma-solamarine are glycosides of tomatidenol while soladulcines A and B are derived from soladulcidine and solasonine and solamargine are glyosides of solasodine. Green and yellowing fruits contain a higher percentage of the glycoalkaloids than ripe fruits. Other compounds isolated from the plant include saponins such as soladulcosides A and B free sterols such as tigogenin and lycopene.Duke 2017, Heretsch 2015, Milner 2011
Uses and Pharmacology
Limited studies in rodents have evaluated the antihyperglycemic effects of methanol bittersweet plant extracts, with equivocal findings.Nwachukwu 2010, Sabudak 2015 One study reported high mortality rates.Sabudak 2015
Research reveals no clinical data regarding the use of bittersweet in diabetes.
There is no clinical evidence to guide dosage of bittersweet nightshade. Traditional use of the stem was at a dosage of 1 to 3 g/day, usually given as a decoction or infusion in 250 mL of water.Duke 2003
Pregnancy / Lactation
Contraindicated in pregnancy and during lactation.Duke 2003
Toxic effects on both pregnant and nonpregnant mice have been found.Friedman 2003
Administration of mature, unripe fruit to pregnant hamsters on day 8 of gestation resulted in a significant increase in craniofacial malformations over controls. The malformations included exencephaly, encephalocele, and occasional cebocephaly, cleft palate, or cleft lip. The dose used (7.5 g/kg by gavage) also induced significant maternal toxicity. However, the 2 effects were considered distinct because purified alkaloids (eg, solasodine) caused fetal damage without maternal toxicity. S. dulcamara was 10-fold more potent than the other species of Solanum studied, based on alkaloid content. The saponins present in the fruit may enhance absorption of the glycoalkaloids.Keeler 1990
None well documented.
Dilated pupils and GI effects (diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting) have been reported.Duke 2003
Both the immature and ripened fruit are toxic,Evens 2012 with a lethal dosage is estimated to be 200 berries.Duke 2003 The FDA classifies bittersweet as an unsafe poisonous herb because of the presence of the toxic spirosolane glycoalkaloids. Like saponin, the glycoalkaloids cause hemolytic and hemorrhagic damage to the GI tract. Such poisoning is often confused with bacterial gastroenteritis, with symptoms appearing only after a latent period of several hours following ingestion. A weak effect on cardiovascular function has been documented.Duke 2003, Krayer 1950 Toxic effects on both pregnant and nonpregnant mice have been found.Friedman 2003
Symptoms of spirosolane alkaloid poisoning include the following: circulatory and respiratory depression, convulsions, cyanosis, death, diarrhea, dilated pupils, headache, paralysis, scratchy throat, shock, speech difficulties, stomachache, subnormal temperature, vertigo, and vomiting. Adults appear to be relatively resistant to the toxicity of spirosolanes, but fatal intoxications are more common in children. Emesis, fluid replacement, and supportive care, such as that used for gastroenteritis, should be administered. Despite this typically aggressive therapy, the results of one study in mice fed ripened fruit suggested that because no GI or neurologic toxicity was observed, aggressive treatment of children who ingest ripened berries may not be necessary.Friedman 2003 Nevertheless, these investigators found significant neurologic and pathologic GI toxicity when mice were fed unripened fruit, indicating that poisoning with this plant should be considered a critical situation. Other investigators have confirmed the pathologic changes in the GI tract (glandular mucosal necrosis and necrosis of the small intestine) in hamsters fed ground bittersweet fruit.Keeler 1990
Despite its history of obvious toxicity and teratogenicity, bittersweet nightshade continues to appear as a component of homeopathicJaggi 2004 and herbal medicine, in the latter case appearing as biological immune response modifier (BIRM) from an Ecuadorian source used in alternative cancer treatment.Dandekar 2003
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