Solanum dulcamara. Bitter sweet.

Botanical name: 

Pl. 18. Solanum dulcamara. WHETHER the plant represented in our plate is originally of American growth, or has been introduced since the discovery of this continent, it is now difficult to say. It is certainly a hardy vegetable, and although its natural soil is at the water side, yet it easily becomes habituated to shady, fertile ground of almost any elevation. The most luxuriant specimens are found about brooks and ditches and in sheltered situations, where the roots have free access to water. In these places the stalks frequently extend some way on the surface, sending down a multitude of radicles into the mud below. When the plant grows in higher ground and more exposed to the light, its growth is restricted, and the flowers are less brilliant in colour.

The names of Bitter sweet and Woody nightshade are the most frequent English appellations of this vegetable. The former of these is also applied to the Celastrus scandens, a very different plant. The frequent changes which always take place in the application of vulgar names, renders a reliance on them unsafe, and indeed makes it useless to collect or preserve more than a few of the principal ones.

The genus Solanum is remarkable for the great variety and almost opposite character which takes place among its species. The common Potatoe, the Egg plant, the Tomato, the Jerusalem cherry, and the Black nightshade, are all species of this multiform genus. The common character which binds them together, consists in a rotate corolla; the anthers cohering, with a double opening at top; the berry two celled. The species Dulcamara is distinguished from others by its stem, which is shrubby; unarmed and flexuous; its leaves auriculated; and its panicles resembling cymes.

Class Pentandria,—Order Monogynia,—Natural orders Luridae, Linn. Solaneae, Juss.

The Bitter sweet is entitled to the character of a vine rather than shrub. The stem is woody, slender, climbing in large plants to the height of five or six feet. Leaves petioled, ovate, acute, entire, furnished at the base with two appendages, which give them somewhat of a hastate form. The lower and upper leaves are frequently without these appendages. The flowers form a loose, nodding cluster or panicle, shaped like a cyme, and taking its origin opposite to a leaf. Calyx of five short, purplish, persistent segments. Corolla rotate, becoming reflexed as it grows old, divided into five acute segments, which are purple, and marked with two whitish dots at the base of each. The filaments are much shorter than the anthers, and inserted in the short tube of the corolla. Anthers yellow, erect, cohering, so as to form a conical tube around the style. Germ oval; style longer than the stamens; stigma simple. The berries are oval, of a bright scarlet colour, and continue to hang in bunches after the leaves have fallen.

The taste and smell of the Dulcamara are less nauseous than those of many other species of Solanum. Water seems a perfect solvent for its most sensible constituents. The chief soluble portion seems to be a kind of mucous extractive, which is taken up by both water and alcohol, though most by the former. The nitrate of mercury and muriate of tin, gave precipitates from both, though most from the water. The chemical evidences of astringency were very slight.

From the experiments of Hartmann and Kuhn, cited by Murray, we may infer that water is a better solvent for this plant than alcohol. An ounce of the twigs or stalks treated with alcohol afforded two drachms and two scruples of extract. The same quantity treated with water gave three drachms and thirty five grains.

The Solanum dulcamara has formerly received the commendations of many authors, some of whose names are of high authority in medicine. The diseases in which it has acquired confidence, are chronic rheumatism, gout, secondary syphilis, incipient phthisis, asthma, jaundice. But whatever may be its efficacy in these complaints, it has in modern practice given place to more active medicines. Its most permanent and merited reputation at the present day, is derived from its application to external complaints, and particularly to cutaneous diseases. In dissertations upon the properties of this plant by Linnaeus and by Carrere, its use is highly commended in herpes, in scabies, and in some of the secondary forms of syphilis. Professor Murray has added his own testimony to that of these writers, and speaks decisively of his success with it in cutaneous diseases of an inveterate character.

In the more recent and splendid works of Willan and Bateman on Diseases of the Skin, we find some important testimony of the efficacy of the Dulcamara in cutaneous affections. The former of these authors has inserted in his work a letter of Dr. Crichton, physician to the Westminster hospital, who had employed the article for a considerable number of years. This gentleman states, that out of twenty three cases of Lepra Graecorum, in which he had used it, two only had resisted its action. He does not assert that it is equally efficacious in other cutaneous diseases, although it had appeared to him to do good in psoriasis and pityriasis. His mode of employing it was as follows:

Take of stalks of Dulcamara, one ounce; water, a pound and a half; boil to a pound, and strain when cold.

Of this decoction the patient took two ounces at first, morning, noon and night, but the quantity was afterwards increased, until it amounted to a pint per day. At the same time the skin was ordered to be washed with a stronger decoction, which proved an auxiliary to the cure. Dr. Crichton found that in delicate people and hysterical women, it often produced syncope and slight palpitation of the heart, now and then nausea and giddiness. But if the dose was diminished, or any aromatic tincture added, it ceased to produce uneasy symptoms. The good effects of the remedy were seldom perceived until after the first eight days.

Dr. Bateman considers, that "one of the most effectual remedies for lepra under all its varieties is the decoction of the leaves and twigs of the Solanum dulcamara." He administers it in the same way with that just described. "When," says he, "there is a degree of torpor in the superficial vessels, the same decoction made with a larger proportion of the shrub, is advantageously employed as a lotion; but if there is any inflammatory disposition, this and every other external stimulus must be prohibited."

I have employed the Bitter sweet, both in substance and in decoction in a number of cutaneous affections. It appears to be a valuable auxiliary to mercury in the treatment of syphilitic eruptions. I have also known herpetic eruptions to yield to its internal and external use. The American plant however, when gathered in full vigour, does not set easily on the stomach in large doses. I have known vomiting produced by a few grains of the powdered leaves, and by a small cup of the decoction. The strength of the plant seems to vary in some degree with the time of gathering, and mode of preserving. Dr. Cullen found different parcels of the article to exhibit very different degrees of strength. Writers are not agreed as to its immediate effects on the head and stomach, probably from the different age and condition of the medicine employed by them. From my own observation I am induced to consider the appearance of slight narcotic symptoms, as an evidence of the goodness of the medicine, and as a criterion for regulating the dose. The formula of Dr. Crichton for the decoction appears to be a good one, but in the case of delicate constitutions, the commencing dose should not exceed an ounce, which may be afterwards increased according to circumstances. The addition of a little cinnamon renders the decoction less apt to offend the stomach.

Botanical References.

Solanum dulcamara, Linnaeus, Sp. pl.
Woodville, t. 33.
Smith, Engl. Bot. t.. 565.
Pursh, i. 156.
Solanum scandens, seu dulcamara.
Tournefort, Paris, 43.
Glycypicros sivo amaradulcis, J. Bauhin, ii. 109.

Medical References.

Booerhaave, Hist. hort. L. B.506.
Linnaeus, Amoen. Acad. iv. 39, and viii. 62.
Murray, App. med. 605.
Carrere, sur la Douce-amere, 1780, and in Med. and Phys. Journal, i. 307.
Cullen, Mat. Med. ii. 554
Willan, on Cutaneous diseases, 145.
Bateman, on ditto, 35.
Orfila, des poisons, 192.

American Medical Botany, 1817-1821, was written by Jacob Bigelow, M. D.