Invasive Species Compendium

Detailed coverage of invasive species threatening livelihoods and the environment worldwide

Abstract

Symbolism of plants: examples from European-Mediterranean culture presented with biology and history of art: AUGUST: bittersweet, woody nightshade.

Abstract

Bittersweet (S. dulcamara) is a vine with small but conspicuous violet and yellow flowers. The reasons for its symbolic value are less apparent than for others of these monthly presentations, and lie in its arsenal of secondary metabolites as much as its appearance. This plant climbs and scrambles in willow bushes or up tree trunks in alder swamps in many parts of Europe and across Northern temperate zones to China. It is an invasive alien in North America. The shiny red berries are ornamental in autumn. The scientific species name dulcamara refers to the content of a glycosidic bitter substance in stems and leaves, which, on chewing, first tastes bitter and then sweet due to enzymatic hydrolysis. The plants are toxic because of various steroid alkaloids and saponins, similar to other Solanum species. The property of tasting first bitter and then sweet lent bittersweet a particular symbolic value. The reward for persistence is symbolized by the growing sweetness upon chewing giving rise to its use as a symbol of fidelity, particularly in the Christian Middle Ages. It was often depicted on panel paintings and tapestries. It was also used for bridal wreaths and in other contexts to symbolize fidelity and to repel evil.