- Name also: Bittersweet Nightshade, Bitter Nightshade, Woody Nightshade, Climbing Nightshade, Trailing Nightshade, Trailing Bittersweet, Blue Bindweed, Fellenwort, Felonwood, Poisonflower, Poisonberry, Scarlet Berry, Snakeberry, Violet Bloom, Amara Dulcis
- Family: Nightshade Family – Solanaceae
- Growing form: Perennial, usually climbing shrub.
- Height: 20–200 cm (8–80 in.). Stem woody at base, creeping or erect.
- Flower: Regular (actinomorphic). Corolla dark purple, fused, wheel-shaped, 5-lobed, 10–15 mm (0.4–0.6 in.) wide. Base of each lobe often with 2 greenish glands. Calyx fused, campanulate (bell-shaped), 5-lobed. Stamens 5, anthers united in a conical group. Gynoecium composed of 2 fused carpels. Inflorescence a lax, usually 10–25-flowered cyme.
- Leaves: Alternate, stalked. Leaf blade ovate–cordate, often hastate-based or palmately 3-lobed (or with leaflets), edge with entire margin. Basal lobes can vary from 1-4. Grows fleshier leaves by the sea than it does inland.
- Fruit: Elongated or egg-shaped, shiny, red, approx. 10 mm (0.4 in.) long berry.
- Habitat: Waterside hedgerows, alder swamps, cane-grass, ditches, stony and sandy shores, waste ground. Also an ornamental.
- Flowering time: June–August.
Apart from bittersweet, the only other plant in the group in Finland that is comprised of woody-stemmed climbers is Siberian clematis (Clematis alpina ssp. sibirica). Bittersweet’s display of colour was noticed early on, and it has been transplanted as an ornamental right up to the Arctic Circle. This feral species mainly grows in south-western Finnish alder groves, damp hedgerows and shores.
Bittersweet is poisonous and was earlier used as a medicinal herb. It also had a place in folk magic: it was believed to protect cattle from witches’ curses. The whole plant is highly poisonous: the alkaloids that it contains damage the digestive tract and paralyse the central nervous system. It is not the most poisonous member of its family, but children have come down with bad symptoms after eating its delicious-looking berries. Birds, mainly thrushes, eat the berries with no problems. Bittersweet’s abundant crop often gives them plenty to eat for a long time into the winter.
The Nightshade family is one of the biggest seed plant families, and out of a good couple of thousand species several have found their way to the dinner table: the most familiar is probably the potato (S. tuberosum), which is native to the Andes in South America. Other Potato family plants like aubergine (S. melongena), tomato (S. lycopersicum), bell pepper (Capsicum annuum) and tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) are also important crops.