Flowers of Woody Nightshade in the Summer.

Berries of Woody Nightshade in early Autumn

This plant represents October not because of its flowers, which may appear at any time from late spring to early autumn, but for its berries. It is a quite common perennial of the hedgerows, scrambling loosely to a height of 5 feet or so. The down-turned purple ‘petals’ of the flowers surround a tight yellow column of anthers, and in due course the berries turn from green to yellow and eventually to a bright shiny red.

It is often locally confused with Deadly Nightshade (Atropa bella-donna), of which the berries are a glossy black, and which has not been recorded anywhere in the Sulgrave area. Both plants are members of the Solanaceae, which also include the tomato and the potato. All of these are poisonous to a variable degree, although of course the fruits of the tomato and tubers of the potato are fortunately not so! While the berries of deadly nightshade are highly toxic, those of woody nightshade are much less poisonous, and in any case they are so bitter that no-one is likely to try them more than once (the “sweet” part of the alternative popular name apparently refers to the aftertaste).

Incidentally, extracts of deadly nightshade are still used in stomach sedatives and to enlarge the pupil of the eye – water distilled therefrom has been used cosmetically to increase the beauty of the eyes (bella donna in Latin means “beautiful lady”).

The Woody Nightshade plants in these photographs were found in the Sulgrave Manor hedgerow bordering Manor Road, as shown in the map below.

Ordnance Survey Copyright.

Text by George Metcalfe. Photos by Colin Wootton.