One sunny day last year, I was standing on a carpet of freshly raked out wood chips in a clearing at Wrest Park. Wrest Park is located in rural Bedfordshire, England. It is a very old garden, dating back to at least the 13th century, and it was owned by the same family for over 600 years. The last of that household, the DeGrey family, sold the house to an American diplomat in 1917, after which it changed hands serval times. It is currently owned and operated by English Heritage, a nonprofit organization which is perhaps better known for its historic stonework (including several castles and, notably, Stonehenge). However, they also run some very interesting gardens – Wrest Park being a particular example.
I stood there in that clearing, which was ringed by yew trees (Taxus baccata), and basked in the sultry summer sun, taking in heat like a bluebelly lizard. Presently I became aware of a droning in one of the trees on the southwest side of the clearing and, in a state of relaxed curiosity, went to investigate.
What I found were tendrils like helical green fingers, their strong grasp unwittingly strangling their ladder-like neighbors in their eagerness to climb closer to the nourishing sun. Leaves that had a glossy sheen beneath their soft hairs, fine as those on a child’s cheek. Petals pale as paper, lit with vividly viridescent veins. Muted yellow centers of those radially symmetric (actinomorphic) flowers proffer their precious pollen for any passing pollinator. The whole plant was alive with bees – honey and bumble alike. I spent several minutes enraptured by the joyous wriggling of those industrious creatures, their backs so invitingly fluffy that I was sorely tempted to try to pet one (but I didn’t, and I would advise you, dear reader, to exercise the same restraint).
Later in the year, their glossy berries shine like lanterns against their green finery. Slowly they fade, eventually dying back completely to the ground. Then, as the earth turns again, fueled by the energy stored in their roots and by the light and warmth of the sun, they spring forth to grow for another year. The vigor and glory of white bryony rivals that of even the finest spring bulb.
Hedges and woodland margins
UK (common in England, scarce elsewhere), Europe, western Asia, North Africa; introduced in North America and New Zealand
Climbing herbaceous perennial
White bryony is a member of the squash and melon family (Cucurbitaceae). It is the only member of this family native to Britain.
Flowers from May-August. The male and female flowers are borne on separate plants (the technical term for this is ‘dioecious’). The fruits are visually attractive, shiny red berries. Leaves are 5-lobed and measure 4-7cm long. Overall plant height at maturity is up to 4m (12ft), provided it has something to climb on.
- All parts of the plant are toxic. Ingesting just a few dozen berries is enough to kill an adult. The poison attacks the digestive tract. Juices from every part of the plant are extremely acrid, and can cause blistering and gastritis when ingested. The large tuberous root is purportedly sometimes mistaken for a parsnip or turnip, hence the French name ‘navet du diable’ (devil’s turnip).
- Symptoms of white bryony poisoning include:
- Skin irritation
- Watery fecal matter and urinary incontinence
- Abdominal pain and inflammation
- (Rarely) death
- Historically used as a substitute for castor oil
- White bryony pollen is an important food source for bees
- Berries were crushed and rubbed on chilblains, though some say that the juice of the berries causes sores
- Roots used in liniment for the treatment of rheumatism, or a piece of root simply carried in one’s pocket to treat rheumatism.
- Root used to make a tea to promote fertility; also considered by some to be an aphrodisiac (for women, hence the name ‘womandrake’).
- In medieval England, the plant was used to treat leprosy.
- In the late 17th century, the plant was used to treat diseases of the spleen, liver, and womb, as well as asthma.
- Historically used to treat malaria
- Externally applied, it elevates skin temperature, which was historically used to ease joint pain
- Used to treat whooping cough
- Administered internally as a treatment for ringworm
- Plant juice is a strong purgative, and is used in both official and folk medicine as a purgative.
- Modern research shows that Bryonia dioica shows promise as both an anti-viral and as a tumor treatment.
- Used as a purge for ill cattle
- Root historically used in horse medicine for unspecified purposes
Etymology and Naming
- Bryonia is derived from Greek and means ‘sprouter’.
- Dioica is also derived from Greek and means ‘of two houses’, in reference to its dioecious nature (bearing male and female flowers on separate plants).
Bryonia dioica has many common names:
- White Bryony
- Red Bryony
- Mandrake Root
- English Mandrake
- British Mandrake
- Ladies’ Seal
- Tetter Berries
- Mad Nip
- Wild Nep
- Wild Hop
- Wild Vine
- Navet du diable (devil’s turnip)
- Hatfield, Gabrielle. (2007). Hatfield’s Herbal. 1st ed. (Pages 360-362). London, England: Penguin Books. ISBN 9780140515770
- Allen, David., and Hatfield, Gabrielle. (2004). Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition: An Ethnobotany of Britain and Ireland. 1st ed. (Pages 113-114). Portland, OR: Timber Press. ISBN 0881926388
- Sturtevant, E. (1972). Sturtevant’s Edible Plants of the World. 1st ed. New York: Dover Publications. (Page 122). ISBN 0486204596
- Gillian, Frederick. (2008). Poisonous Plants in Great Britain. 1st ed. Glastonbury, Somerset, UK: Wooden Books. (Pages 6-7). ISBN 1904263876
- Wink, Michael., and van Wyk, Ben-Erik. (2010). Medicinal Plants of the World. (4th edition). Portland, OR: Timber Press. ISBN 9780881926026
- Cooper, Marion R., and Johnson, Anthony W. (1984). Poisonous Plants in Britain and their Effects on Animals and Man. 1st ed. London, England: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. (Pages 105-106). ISBN 0112425291
- Sterry, Paul. Collins Complete Guide to British Wildflowers. (Pages 114-115) ISBN 9780007236848
- Gledhill, David. (2008). The Names of Plants. 4th ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. (Pages 79, 142). ISBN 9780521685535