Thursday, May 5, 2011

Bryonia dioica - Bryony

Bryonia dioica - Bryony, also known as English Mandrake, Red Bryony, Cow's Lick, Cowhind, Devil's Turnip,Wild Vine, Wild Hops, Wild Nep, Tamus, Ladies' Seal, and Tetterbury.  POISON!

Bryonica comes from the Greek bryo, 'to shoot or grow rapidly,' a reference to its vigorous growing habit of sprouting each year from the tuber roots.  Dioscorides called it ‘Bruonia Ampelos’Bruonia is Greek for ‘to swell’ and ‘Ampelos’ means ‘vine’.  It is possible that this refers to the exceptionally large roots which the plant forms.

An herbaceous, dioecious (individual plants being either male or female) vine, related to the cucumber, and found in moist areas and vineyards throughout Europe.  It grows from a perennial, tuberous root with a repulsive odor.  The root was once known as English Mandrake, as it was often trimmed to a man-like shape to resemble true Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum). 

Leaves are heart-shaped, consisting of leaflets or lobes that radiate from the base of the leaf.   The leaves are stalked, with the stalk curved, shorter than the blade, which is divided into five lobes, of which the middle one is the longest - all five are slightly angular.  The flowers, which bloom in May, are small, greenish, and produced, in small bunches, usually three or four together, from the axils of the leaves.

The berries, which hang on after the stem and leaves are withered, are pea-sized when ripe, a pale scarlet (sometimes reddish-orange to yellowish)  in color. They are filled with juice of an unpleasant, foetid odor and contain three to six large seeds, greyish-yellow, mottled with black and are highly toxic.  There is also a black berried variety which is also highly toxic.  The entire plant is rather succulent, bright green and somewhat shining.  

It produces a large, tuberous rootstock which is continuous, with a thick, fleshy root that can attain an enormous size.  In this fleshy root is found a somewhat milky juice, very nauseous and bitter to the taste. It is of a violently purgative and cathartic nature, and was a favourite medicine with the older herbalists.  It was well known to the Greeks and Romans, and afterwards by Gerard, but is now seldom employed by regular practitioners.

WARNING:  Highly TOXIC - PROFESSIONAL USE ONLY!  Contains a deadly resin!  Fresh root a severe skin irritant!  NEVER TAKEN BY PREGNANT WOMEN!  Berries DEADLY - 40 to kill an adult, 15 to kill a child!  IN CASE OF POISONING BY BRYONY:  the stomach must be evacuated and demulcent drinks given. The body temperature must be maintained by the use of blankets and hot bottles.

Its chief use was as a hydragogue cathartic, but is now superseded by Jalap (Ipomoea purga). Its use as a purgative has been discontinued as dangerous, on account of its powerful and highly irritant nature.  It was formerly given in dropsy and other complaints. It is of so acrid a character that, if applied to the skin, it produces redness and even blisters. It has been used for cataplasms, and praised as a remedy for sciatica, rheumatism and lumbago.  It is still considered useful in small doses for cough, influenza, bronchitis and pneumonia, and has also been recommended for pleurisy and whooping-cough, relieving the pain and allaying the cough.

It contains a glycoside, variously called bryonin(e) or bryonidin, which is a dangerously strong purgative and an alkaloid called bryonicine.   There is little reason for anyone to ingest any of the plant in modern times. 

The root is collected in the autumn and used both in the fresh and dry state. When fresh, it is of a dirty yellow or yellowish-white color.  When sold dry, Bryony root appears in circular, brittle pieces, 1/4 to 1/3 inch thick about 2 inches in diameter, the thin bark greyish-brown and rough.  The large size, tapering shape, transverse corky ridges and nauseously bitter taste of Bryony root are distinctive. Small specimens may resemble Horseradish root, but that is cylindrical and smooth and has a pungent taste.

Bryony is such a strong laxative that, even in the 16th century, its unrestrained medicinal use was not recommended. Under the name of Wild Nepit, Bryony was known in the fourteenth century as an antidote to leprosy.  The French call the root Navet du Diable (Devil's Turnip), from its violent and dangerous action.  Augustus Caesar used to wear a wreath of Bryony during a thunderstorm to protect himself from lightning.  According to Pliny, pounding the root together with a plump fig will remove wrinkles but only if a walk of a quarter of a mile is taken immediately after application.  Gerard said that the Queen’s surgeon, William Goderous, showed him a Bryony root weighing half a hundredweight and the size of a one year old child. 

Bryony was used to produce a counterfeit mandrake roots, either by placing moulds around the growing plant or by digging it up, carving it to shape and reburying it.   It was sold as mandrake by ‘mountebacks and charlatans’ according to at least one contemporary writer.  Those men who bought bryony root, thinking it to be mandrake, may have been 'up all night' but not in the way they'd hoped.

The seed is best sown as soon as it is ripe in a cold frame. Sow stored seed in late winter in a cold frame. When large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and grow them in the greenhouse for at least their first winter, planting them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts. Division in early spring.

Resources include:

A Modern Herbal 
The Poison Garden 
The Backyard Herbalist


larkinh said...

I like your blog, I was looking for information how to grow bryony and found it here. It's pity that it's not possible to search your blog or that you don't use "themes", so I can see all plants in one place...

The Gardener said...

I would love to have the "search" feature and find out about "themes". If you know how to apply them on this blog server, pleaes, let me know, cause I feel my choices here are very restricted and am already looking for a new host.