Name: White Bryony (Bryonia alba)
Otherwise known as: English Mandrake, Navet du Diable
Habitat: A perennial climbing herb of the Cucurbitaceae family. It grows to about 5m in any kind of wasteland in Europe, with vine-like leaves which are rough and hairy, and tendrils that cling to any available surface. The green flowers develop into bright black berries, which contain four to six seeds. The root and berries are extremely poisonous.
What does it do: Very few plants of this size spring from such an enormous root, which is distinguished from Black bryony (Tamus communis) by the colour of its roots.
This plant was well known to the ancients and used by Galen and Dioscorides as a purge and a treatment for leprosy. The Emperor Augustus was advised by his physicians to wear a necklace of bryony root as a protection against lightning.
Culpeper states ‘it is a furious herb, but good against stitches, cramps, convulsions and palsies’. A common practice was to surround the fresh root of Bryony with plaster moulds in the shape of manikins, and eventually produce a man-shaped root, which could be passed off as mandrake. The French call Bryony, Navet du Diable (the Devil’s turnip).
The plant contains alkaloids, resins, cucurbaticins and tannins. Before the discovery of quinine, Bryony and Yarrow were standard European treatments for Malaria. Bryony is not much used by herbalists but remains popular with homeopaths.
In Russian folklore, this herb had such a morbid reputation, it was believed that whoever dug it from the soil would destroy their own happiness. Consequently, whenever the plant was discovered it would be hedged around and left unmolested. The boiled root was used to heal wounds in horse’s hoofs and the berries applied to festering wounds.
Alexander McCowan is author of The World’s most Dangerous Plants