A woody nightshade flower, photographed this week, in the car park.
Woody nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) is a member of the Solanaceae family; it is a close cousin to potatoes, tomatoes, sweet peppers and aubergines. It is a shade-loving vine, scrambling through undergrowth to surprising heights: with the right support it can climb four metres into the trees.
Despite the beautiful flower and its relationship to all those common and delicious vegetables, woody nightshade has a terrible, poisonous reputation, which is largely a matter of mistaken identity: if you ask Google Images for pictures of deadly nightshade, a plant fully deserving of its sinister name and venomous reputation, half the pictures you will be shown are woody nightshade.
Compare the flowers of woody nightshade and those of deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna).
Woody nightshade is not entirely innocent, though; every part of the plant is toxic to some degree, particularly its bright red, bittersweet berries. We couldn’t find any records of deaths attributed to eating the berries of this plant – but there is plenty of evidence that they will make you sick. Some species of birds happily eat the berries and seem to be immune to the toxins: blackcaps, blackbirds, song thrushes, robins and woodpigeons for example.
So treat woody nightshade with respect and warn your children against eating any berries they find in the woods. But don’t be frightened; it is a flash of dramatic autumn colour, and an important late source of food for many species of the park’s birds.