woody nightshade defined in 1912 yearwoody nightshade - WOODY NIGHTSHADE (Solanum dulcamara);
woody nightshade - "Give a dog a bad name and hang him." Someone once started the idea that the Woody Nightshade is a deadly poison, and so now no one has a good word to say for it, and it is generally avoided. Sometimes it is the roots in which the evil is supposed to lie, sometimes the leaves are suspected, more often it is the scarlet berries that are reputed to prove fatal, but since no one feels inclined to experiment personally the suggestion of evil remains common report. Many years ago the professor of Materia Medica at King's College, London, thoroughly investigated it, and declared that the plant was in all ways harmless, though, of course, he did not mean that one should eat the berries like blackberries. The fact is, it is continually confused with a near relative bearing a very similar name - the Deadly Nightshade - which is really a terrible poison-plant, and very fatal to man. The leaves bear a certain resemblance; the flowers of both are purple, though they are totally distinct as to shape, and both plants have berries, but they are red in our case and black in that of the Deadly Nightshade. If one has ever actually compared the two plants side by side, one can never afterwards mistake them for one another. "But if you know it not you may let them both alone and take no harm," sagely says that man of caution, Culpepper.
The Woody Nightshade is a climber; its shrubby stems are now incapable of holding themselves erect, and they clamber over the hedgerows, six feet or more long. Sometimes they weave in and out, sometimes they twine; in fact, they form a link between purely weaving climbers such as the wild rose, and purely twining climbers such as the hop. Year by year they increase in thickness, and they are usually covered with thick downy hairs, as are also the leaves.
The large, somewhat pointed heart-shaped leaves show certain peculiar variations. Occasionally simple in outline, they are often cut near the base into two lobes, the divisions almost reaching the midrib. Frequently these lobes become two perfect leaflets standing a short distance below the apparently perfect main leaf, and one would never then suspect that they were really a part of it. The leaves alternate on either side of the stem, and are arranged so that they face the direction of the light, but the flower clusters always face a different direction to the leaves. This is a very curious habit, and "one may gather a hundred pieces of the Woody Nightshade and this strange perversity is rampant in all," remarks an observer.
The purple and yellow flowers are very attractive, but in a lurid sort of way that feeds suspicion. There is a very tiny green calyx hidden away behind; a beautiful five-rayed star of rich purple represents the corolla. In a ring, at the centre of the star, are ten tiny white knobs, two on each ray. They shine as though they were brimming over with honey, but there is no honey there, or, indeed, anywhere in the flower, and their object is a mystery. Sometimes they are dismissed as sham nectaries which deceive flies as well as botanists; certainly flies have been seen exploring them. Another observer thinks that flies actually pierce them and suck up sweet sap out of their tissues. Out from the centre of the star a yellow cone rises, forming a colour contrast that is the key of the flower's beauty. This cone - "the long yellow pointel" of the herbalist Coles (1657) - is the anthers of the five stamens all joined together.
It is a case of "all head and no leg," for the anthers are seated right down upon the inner edge of the petals, and have no stalks; out of the top of the cone the column of the ovary projects like a needle. It is difficult to say on what plan the plant works. Without honey or scent it is visited, apparently, by but few insects, and the suggestion is that it fertilises itself. Other observers, however, have suggested that it is at times fertilised by bees. Probably insects occasionally call, misled by the ten apparent nectaries. Self-fertilisation is quite feasible; the flowers hang somewhat droopingly, and the stamen case opens by tiny pores at its very tip, so that eventually a rain of pollen falls out and round the ovary column.
The fruit is a berry that runs through a whole gamut of colour, green, yellow, orange, and finally a flaming red - a colour that again hangs out a danger signal and increases the plant's evil reputation. In each berry are many white seeds whose coats, smooth to a casual glance, are really covered with infinitesimal pits. These berries and seeds are eaten by birds, the seeds being apparently uninjured by their passage through the birds, and they probably fall to earth far away from their native home.
The flowers add a touch of brilliance to the hedgerows through the whole summer even into September; frequently both flower and fruit are present together. The plant, as a whole, used to be very highly esteemed by the doctors of olden days; almost up to to-day it has been recognised in medicine; Boerhaave, the celebrated Dutch physician, insisted that the young shoots were superior to sarsaparilla; Linnæus, who at first had an aversion to the plant, was later converted to a high appreciation of its value in rheumatism, fevers, and inflammations. In fact, the first name, Solatium - the name of the whole group - is derived from Solor - "I ease" - and testifies to its medicinal power. The second name, dulcamara, used to be more correctly written in the Middle Ages Amaradulcis, signifying literally "bitter sweet," and a very common country name of the plant is "Bittersweet." This refers to the fact that the root or stem, if chewed, tastes first bitter and then sweet. Sometimes it is the berries that are credited with this change of front. As we said before, there seems a disinclination to put these matters to the test. An old name was "Felonwood," which should probably be "Felon-wort " - the plant for felons - felon being an old name for "whitlow," and "the Berries of Bittersweet stamped with rusty Bacon, applied to the Joynts of the Finger that is troubled with a Felon hath been found by divers country people who are most subject thereto to be very successful for the curing of the same." In veterinary science of a primitive sort - to wit, the removal of witchcraft - it played its part, and German shepherds used to hang it round the necks of those of their beasts whom they suspected to be under the evil eye.
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