Weeds for Witches Part I: Bittersweet

Bittersweet FlowersBittersweet Nightshade Flowers

So often ignored and trodden upon, the humble weed lives on following us around the world just in case we should remember its ancient applications. The weeds in your very own backyard often hold more magic and potent medicine than the imported dried herbs you would buy in a shop. The weeds didn’t necessarily follow us. Many of them were planted intentionally for food and medicine in both Europe and the New World until they were forgotten after being replaced by pills and creams from the pharmacy. Why spend all that money on simple remedies when there are so many free ones literally outside your door? Pay closer attention to weeds you pluck from your garden and yard, growing in the cracks in the sidewalks, sprouting up in parking lots, or hiding alongside fences where they are missed by the lawnmower. Learn more about them and perhaps you’ll leave hating them behind and start to see weeds as Nature’s pharmacy instead of just something to kill.

I’ve selected ten very common weeds growing in Europe and North America to demonstrate just how useful weeds can be to witches in our magic and for crafting our own herbal home remedies. I hope, by learning about these weeds, the reader is inspired to get out in nature and get their hands dirty. With luck, those weeds in your backyard will end up dried in labeled canning jars or used to make home remedies instead of tossed into the compost heap or sprayed with nasty chemicals. I’ll post one weed every Saturday, starting today with Bittersweet Nightshade.

Bittersweet

Solanum dulcamara

Other Names: Bittersweet, Felonwort, Garden Nightshade, Scarlet Berry, Devil’s Tomato,  Snakeberry, Staff Vine, Woody Nightshade

Where it Grows: Damp locations such as in the shade by houses and other buildings or winding inside hedges (it seems to particularly like Yew hedges). You can find it anywhere from a dense thicket in the wild wood to creeping up a chain link fence in the middle of a city. It is mainly found throughout Europe, but has also naturalized throughout all of North America.

Bittersweet at a Construction SiteBittersweet Growing at a City Construction Site

Growing & Harvesting: It’s a weed so it’s very easy to start from seed. Just toss the seeds on the earth where you want it to grow either in late fall or very early spring. Bittersweet also grows very easily and quickly from cuttings. Just snip off a few pieces and place them in water for 1-2 weeks until roots form and then plant them. It is fairly aggressive and fast growing so be sure to plant it somewhere it won’t bother other more delicate plants. It doesn’t at all mind being put in a planter or pot. It makes a great decorative climbing vine on a porch, but just be sure to keep it away from small children who have a bad habit of eating the red berries and poisoning themselves. The  leaves and vines will die back every year depending on the climate where you live. In a warm climate the leaves will die, but the stalk will survive eventually growing large and woody the older it gets (hence the name “woody nightshade”). In a colder climate the whole plant may die back, but if you leave the berries on the vines it will reseed itself and come back the following year (not always where you want it to though). To collect the seeds: harvest the berries when they are bright red and let them overripen before extracting the seeds. For medicine: harvest the leaves and stems in spring or early fall and dry for later use.

Magic: Ruled by Capricorn and the planet Saturn, but other sources say it is ruled by Mercury and the signs of Air. Deities who have an association with this plant include Hermes and Hecate — shamanic deities who easily travel through all three realms of sea, earth, and sky. It can be added to a witches’ salve used to access the World Tree and communicate with both deities and the spirits of the dead. In folk magic it is used to heal a broken heart by either placing some of the dried herb beneath your pillow or carrying it in a sachet on your person. I would recommend mixing it with Bleeding Heart flowers for this purpose. Culpepper, in his famous herbal, claims it will cure vertigo if you wear Bittersweet around your neck it. It is also traditionally used to protect from evil and also to cleanse anyone, animal, or object of evil or the evil eye. Instead of burning it, try dipping a fresh clipping of Bittersweet in springwater or rainwater and flick it onto the people or object you wish to cleanse.

Bittersweet Growing in the Forest Bittersweet Growing in the Forest

Medicine: As it is mildly toxic Bittersweet is best if used externally as a poultice or salve. The parts used are the leaves, stems, and root bark. The berries are not used for medicine. When ingested it mainly acts as a purgative which translates from herbal lingo as “makes you puke”. As a poultice the leaves are good for treating herpes, boils, and gout. When used in a salve Bittersweet is better mixed with other herbs. In his massive Herb Book, John Lust recommends mixing Bittersweet with Chamomile to make a salve for treating inflammation, bruising, and sprains, but make sure not to use it on open wounds like cuts and gashes (rashes should be okay). Lust also recommends blending it with Yellow Dock (another common weed) in a salve to treat skin diseases and sores such as eczema and psoriasis. In either salve it would also be good for treating various insect bites. You can also used the dried plant as a medicinal bath to treat skin conditions and skin infections as well as aching joints by taking such a bath for a few days in a row. Do NOT use when pregnant.

References:

Join the discussion 14 Comments

  • Pam says:

    Love it – Can not wait for every Saturday! :)

    I have bittersweet that was gift from the birds I believe and started growing up the side of my back porch, and now the berries are exactly bright red and ready to harvest – Stupid questions when drying the berries do you use a screen?

    Harvest Blessings and many thanks!
    Pam

    • In my own experience with different nightshade berries, they take forever to dry. I usually just hang them up in paper bags in a warm dark place and forget about them for a month or two. For quick drying you’d need a dehydrator as nightshade berries are pretty juicy.

      Cheers!

  • Edward says:

    I really enjoyed reading your post today. I never realized there were so many kinds of nightshade. The shape of the purple stems with purple flowers and green and red berries really gives it a striking Halloween aesthetic. I am looking forward to your future installments.

  • Pam says:

    OOH Thanks! I do have a dehydrator. I should have thought of the paper bag method also.

    Thanks again!
    Pam

  • Rachel says:

    Awesome! I see these growing everywhere around my city! I think I’ll try to get a small cutting for my container garden. Your blog has ignited a fire for me and I’ll look forward to these Saturday features along with your other posts ;)~
    Cheers to The Witch!
    *clink*

  • Kim says:

    Lovely post as usual Sarah. I’ve never tried making an ointment out of the berries but have always wanted to do so after reading about it in John Lust’s herb book especially for use in skin conditions. Have you ever made one for that purpose and if so did you use fresh berries or dried? I have so many vines growing on my fence and in my cedar hedge that I will probably try both ways to experiment with it. However, it’s always good to find out what other people have done and what works for them. As for ointment bases what do you think of jojaba oil and beeswax as a base or is that too concentred of a combination for a nightshade plant? The few bases I’ve used using that was more for an aromatherapy based essential oil perfume solid but it does have a rather nice consistency to it. Also I worked for years at my cousin’s pharmacy and always found it kinda ironic because they would often point to an herbal pill or tincture
    for customers ailments over the over the counter meds more often than not and admitted to me in private that a very large portion of Rx’s and over the counter meds are either unsafe or unproven and not worth the risks or side effects. I asked why they have them in their store and they sigh and say the have to by law but that herbs are actually much more potent and safer if you know what your doing and treat them with respect.

    • Hi Kim,

      It’s not the berries that you use for a salve, but the leaves, stems, and the bark from the root. Jojoba and beeswax would be rich and good for your skin – perfect since bittersweet is good for skin conditions and infections. Happy crafting!

  • Pombagira says:

    i just got Witchcraft Medicine in the post today!! am looking forward to reading it..

    *beams*

  • Marilyn says:

    Not to be a know-it-all, but I thought only the green berries were poisonous and that you had to eat a lot of them in order to be poisoned, otherwise they just make you throw up. (Which fits with what I learned from the plant spirit itself long ago.)
    Robins love to eat the red berries and seem to have no ill effects.

    From http://montana.plant-life.org/species/sola_dulca.htm ~

    “Climbing nightshade, especially in its green immature fruits, contains steroidal alkaloids, which have caused poisoning in cattle and sheep. Humans may have been poisoned after ingesting immature berries. Recent experiments show that the mature red berries contain only a small amount of toxin and have little chance of harming children. The immature green berries of climbing nightshade have been shown to be toxic to hamsters and mice. Mature red berries did not cause symptoms in mice.”

    Well, little chance if they only eat the red berries and NOT the green ones!

    • It’s the same with Black Nightshade too. They’re related to potatoes and potatoes are poison when green. I would only ever ingest a berry to get to know the plant spirit better. Otherwise I save them for magic or stringing on thread as protective beads like with rowan berries. They would also be a good addition to a magical red ink as black nightshade berries are good for black or blue-purple inks. Black nightshade berries are more digestible and I’ve always wanted to make a mead with them and blackthorn sloes, but I didn’t get any berries from my plants this year :(

  • Kim says:

    Thank you Sarah for letting me know what parts to use. I also dug out my copy of Lust’s Herb Book and reread the entries and under the black nightshade listing it said you can boil the poison out of the berries and make them into jams, jellies, and pies. I like using herbs and “weeds” from near where I live as I really do think that they work better. Most of my herb work has been using plants as teas and baths to heal with. Mostly due to lack of space now that I have room I am going to branch out and try tinctures, ointments, and on the essential oil side try my hand at lotion making. I have seen recipes using bittersweet nightshade in flying ointments and in red inks mixed with dragonsblood, as well as in witches bottles.

  • Amy Margolis says:

    It is said that “god” was hidden inside each of us – since the last place that we tend to look for the divine would be within, the same is true for these herbs- hidden in the most common of places to grow in secret, right before our very eyes, then suddenly in rafe they burst forth in their splendor. Thank you Sarah, how timely, as per usual!

  • Eric says:

    I think I found some of these and mistook them for wild nightshade. I dried them but never used them. Probably still in my old garage for all I know hehe. I need to freshen up on my herbal knowledge, for I am lacking on where to find plants in Washington!

  • Lillian says:

    I found Bittersweet nightshade growing under my back step.I kind of had an idea what it was but after doing a request for information video people telling me yes for sure it is bittersweet but not night shade.I just laughed it off not wanting to offend anyone,i googled it and got all the knowledge i needed.But i would love to know how to offer it to Hecate.I am going to use it for skin rashes and insect bites.I would love to make a flying ointment but am having great difficulty obtaining the other herbs and roots needed.Eventually i will find what i am looking for.Blessed Be to all the wise Witches in this World,You Beautiful People.