Although appetizing in appearance to many people, the berries of Solanum dulcamara are best appreciated for their beauty rather than their flavour.
Most commonly known as bittersweet nightshade, or sometimes simply “bittersweet”, a gustatory experience with these berries will likely yield a sharp bitterness and very little sweetness.
Widely naturalized around the globe, Solanum dulcamara is a species native to Europe, Asia, and northern Africa. It also occurs in the remainder of the temperate Northern Hemisphere, and some temperate places in the Southern Hemisphere, e.g., Tasmania; in these areas, it is often considered a weedy species. Typically sprawled out over other plants, this perennial vine usually grows to around 2m (~6.5 ft.). The inflorescences consist of clusters of purple flowers that are succeeded by the bright red fruits. Dispersal of seeds typically occurs through birds who seem tolerant, if not entirely resistant, to the bitter taste. Reproduction also occurs vegetatively, as stems can root after coming into contact with the soil.
Bittersweet nightshade is among a family filled with edible species; the Solanaceae or nightshade family also includes tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and potatoes. Solanum is a large, diverse genus with between 1500-2000 species, depending on your taxonomic point of view. The origin of Solanum is unknown, but dulcamara translates directly to “sweet-bitter” from the Latin words dulce (sweet) and amarus (bitter). Solanine, the poisonous compound responsible for toxicity in many Solanum species, was named after the genus when it was first isolated from berries of Solanum nigrum in 1820.
While some claim to experience sweetness in the berries after the bitterness passes, others report a sweetness before the bitterness. In any case, sickness of some magnitude seems to be the typical outcome of such experimentation. The entire plant is thought to be poisonous, but cases of fatal poisoning are rare (though when they do occur, children are the most likely victims). The English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper wrote of uses other than ingesting it in The Complete Herbal:
It is under the planet Mercury, and a notable herb of his also, if it be rightly gathered under his influence. It is excellently good to remove witchcraft both in men and beasts, as also all sudden diseases whatsoever. Being tied round about the neck, is one of the most admirable remedies for the vertigo or dizziness in the head; and that is the reason (as Tragus saith) the people in Germany commonly hang it about their cattle’s necks, when they fear any such evil hath betided them: Country people commonly take the berries of it, and having bruised them, apply them to felons, and thereby soon rid their fingers of such troublesome guests.