White bryony is usually considered a weed, but it has an old history as a cultivated plant. It is easily grown, and it thrives in all types of soil. Although poisonous (it contains cucurbitacine), it has been widely used as a medicinal herb. About 40 berries make a deadly dose. Its poisonous nature has earned it such names as Devil’s Turnip in English and Teufelrhbe in German. White bryony has also served as an ornamental plant, since it can be trained to cover porches and fences. In many parts of the world, it has become naturalized. In North America, for instance, it started to spread as an invasive plant during the last quarter century, and it is now classified as a noxious plant (in some U.S. states it is known as kudzu of the Northwest). It is also found in Australia and New Zealand, where it is still used as a garden plant.
An herbaceous perennial vine, white bryony clings to other vegetation with the help of tendrils. It grows extremely quickly, with creepers 10 to 16 feet long. The leaves are triangular or heart shaped, and broadly toothed. The stout root, which resembles a turnip, is yellowish white. The entire plant is succulent. The species is monoecious; that is, both male and female flowers are found on the same plant. The blossoms are greenish white. The plant is unusual in being a diploid apomict with the capacity for sexual reproduction. Its black pea-size berries—each containing three to six large seeds—emit a fetid, unpleasant smell. Under favorable conditions, the plant spreads quickly. Birds help to spread the seeds. Due to its less than pleasant odor, white bryony is known in Swedish as hundrova, “dog-turnip,” with the first word being understood pejoratively.
History as a Cultivated Plant
Scientists and historians know little about the origin and spread of white bryony, or indeed of most other old cultivated plants from the eastern Mediterranean region. The plant likely originated in southwestern Asia and made its way with the help of cultivation to large parts of Europe, including Russia. The first emperor of Rome, Augustus, is said to have worn a wreath of white bryony during thunderstorms, to protect himself against being struck by lightning. European peasants in the early modern era wore amulets made from it for the same purpose. The 12th-century abbess Saint Hildegard von Bingen averred that the boiled root could be used to treat foot sores and that the smell of the root drives away toads and snakes. In the Middle Ages, it was used against such afflictions as leprosy. A number of late medieval and early modern authors mention its use for medicinal purposes in Northern and Western Europe. But it has been cultivated for other reasons too. In Scandinavia, for example, peasants often grew it close to henhouses, in the belief that it kept away birds of prey. By the early modern era, furthermore, it had become naturalized in Europe and the British Isles. “It is seldom admitted in gardens, though a plant or two for variety merits a place in a large ground as climbers,” noted The Universal Gardener or Botanist (1778), a Scottish handbook on gardening written by Thomas Mawe and John Abercrombie. The plant has also become naturalized over wide areas, including many parts of Central, Eastern, and Northern Europe. Reports from 1975 tell of its growing wild in the U.S. state of Washington. Since then, it has established itself locally in other parts of the western United States as well.
It is above all the root that has been useful, in both a fresh and a dried form. The usual practice was to harvest it in the autumn. The ancients used the root against gout, epilepsy, paralysis, vertigo, hysteria, sores, and coughs. Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370 BCE) prescribed it against tetanus. First-century CE Greek physician Dioscorides recommended it for treating burns. In later periods, European medicine commended it. According to the Danish canon Christiern Pedersen, writing in 1533, wearing the root around the neck counteracted epilepsy, while boiling the root in oil yielded a remedy for stitches in the side. German herbalists in the 15th and 16th centuries hence used the name Stickwurz for it. Juices from the plant and berry were used to treat edema. The English physician Nicholas Culpeper, writing in 1653, claimed that white bryony was effective against many complaints, including palsies, cramps, convulsions, and stitches in the side. Physicians in the 18th century averred that if slices of the fresh root were placed against aches and sores, the effect was to cure the ailment. The root was deemed effective against parasitic worms, and it was used as a laxative. Indeed, in a medical work from the 17th century, the Swiss botanist Gaspard Bauhin called it Scheifiwurz (“shit root”), because of its purgative power. It has also, according to information from 19th-century Ukraine, been used as an abortifacient, due to its contractive effect upon the uterus. Due to these many uses, European pharmacies long carried the root of white bryony.
Within traditional medicine, white bryony figured until modern times. Russians used it to treat hemorrhoids. Ukrainians gave it to their children in order to drive out intestinal worms. It was considered especially helpful for the treatment of rheumatism, inspiring such designations as GichtrUbe in German and giktrot in Swedish. In rural England, it has gone by the name of mandrake, due to the similarity of its appearance with that of a well-known medicinal herb also featuring a large root to which medicinal properties have been ascribed. In Northern Europe, swindlers were known in former times to carve white bryony roots into a certain shape, to bury them in dry sand for some days, and then to sell them as mandrake.
White bryony has also figured in veterinary medicine. English country folk, for example, often used it as a conditioner for horses.
Since the plant is poisonous, its role as a medicinal herb is now considered obsolete. It is mainly within homeopathy that white bryony is still used. It is given in very small doses for the relief of joint and muscle pain. It also serves as a homeopathic veterinary remedy.
Tanners used the flowers for dressing leather, and starch was obtained from the root. Erasmus Darwin, English physician and grandfather of Charles Darwin, wrote in his famous The Botanic Garden (1791) that he had eaten the tops of white bryony and found them “nearly as grateful as Asparagus, and [thought] this plant might be profitably cultivated as an early garden-vegetable.” It bears stressing, however, that his example should not be followed, for the entire plant is poisonous and can induce vomiting and cramps if ingested.
In Germany, white bryony was once used to make a kind of love potion. When dancing, moreover, young women would keep thin slices of the root in their shoes, in order to attract men.
As a hardy perennial climber, white bryony still has ornamental qualities for some gardens. The species has a fast growth and is easily propagated with seeds. It is available through some specialized nurseries.
“Byrony, White.” botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/b/brywhi77.html (accessed 24 September 2012).
Kumar, Suresh, Reecha Madaan, Kavia Galoht, and Anupam Sharma. “The Genus Bryonia: A Review.” Pharmacognocy Reviews 2 (2008): 392-401.
Novak, Stephen J., and Richard N. Mack. “Clonal Diversity within and among Introduced Population of the Apomictic Vine Bryonia alba (Cucurbitaceae).” Canadian Journal of Botany 78 (2000): 1469-81.