If you were to ask the scientific historian and nature writer Neltje Blanchan about Woody Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara), you may have received a poem in return. In her book, Wild Flowers Worth Knowing, she certainly employed such elegant terms.
“More beautiful than the graceful flowers are the drooping cymes of bright berries, turning from green to yellow, then orange and scarlet, in the tangled thicket by the shady roadside in autumn, when the unpretending, shrubby vine, that has crowded its way through the rand midsummer vegetation, becomes a joy to the eye.”
A pioneering conservationist, Neltje advocated for a symbiotic relationship between humans and nature. Her love of plants was paralleled only by her love of birds whose songs she appreciated more than most due in part to her training as a classical pianist. Though not a “trained” scientist, her observations of plants, insects, and birds were popular among armchair and actual environmentalists alike and writing in the age of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, it’s easy to see her influence. She was also a lover of books, extending so far as to entice her to marry Frank N. Doubleday, who later, with her help no doubt, became founder of the publishing company that to this day bears his name.
Neltje, whom I like to think I would be on a first name basis with, was of course neither the only nor the first admirer of this climbing plant also known as Bittersweet. In medieval Europe it represented fidelity and as such, often appeared on panel paintings and tapestries. Frescos of its flowers adorn the net-ribbed vaulted ceilings of the St Thomas Church in Leipzig. A fragment of a tapestry from the early 1500s found in Strasbourg depicts a young woman holding a scale. In one pan is gold, in the other, Bittersweet. Beneath reads, “Jelengerlieb… bin ich hold, sie wigt das silber und das gold,” which translated into modern English means, “Bittersweet I love, it outweighs the silver and the gold.”
If one were wandering about the European countryside about that time, she might also see any number of cows and sheep festooned with garlands of Bittersweet’s red berries that were thought to have prevented them from becoming bewitched. (As it so happened, eating bittersweet also helps fight internal parasites in livestock.)
But this belief far predated its Christian practitioners, dating all the way back to Germanic pagans during Roman times who believed a necklace of nightshade would cure a cow afflicted by the evil eye.
Even before these worshippers of Wodan, Aristotle’s successor at the Lyceum, Theophrastus, detailed the plant’s blooms, berries, leaves and roots in his ten volume Περὶ φυτῶν ἱστορία (Historia Plantarum). A miraculous nine of ten volumes still exist that went on to influence and inform Linnaeus’ taxonomies.
Should you like to find your own garland of Bittersweet, look for them weaving through the fences of Bed-Stuy, ascending the construction barriers of Long Island City, and climbing the lamp posts of Harlem.