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ETYMOLOGY: Latin brynia, from Greek bruni, from bruein, to swell, teem.
The fresh root, gathered before the plant is in bloom, is chopped and pounded to a fine pulp, and pressed out lege artis in a piece of new linen.
Plantae; Spermatophyta, Angiospermae - Flowering Plants; Dicotyledonae; Dilleniidae; Cucurbitales; Cucurbitaceae - Squash Family
Allen's Encyclop. Mat. Med. Vol. II, 249.
Description of the substance
The stems are annual and grow to a great length. The whole plant is covered with minute hairs. It contains an inch acrid milky juice which has an unpleasant odour and is particularly nauseous when dried and also irritant if coming in contact with the skin.
The leaves have a short curved stalk, shorter than the blade, which is divided into five finger-like lobes, all rather angular in shape, the middle one being by far the largest.
The flowers, which bloom in May, are small, greenish-yellow in color and not at all showy. Those of Bryonia alba are paler. Stamens and pistils are never found in the same flower, the pollen flowers and ovary flowers being in separate sets. In the dioica variety they are on separate stems - hence dioica = "two dwellings."
A unique feature of the plant is its method of climbing, which depends on the possession of long tendrils or feelers. These extend from the stem in search of some support and, having become attached thereto, contract into a coiled spring, one half of which is curled in a clockwise direction and the other half anti-clockwise. This provides fixation and stability for the parent plant of no mean order.
The berries, often found hanging about the bushes after the stems and leaves have withered, are about the size of a garden pea. They occur in little clusters, changing from green to a striking yellow and finally crimson; they are covered with a dry delicate bloom. The berries of the alba variety are black when ripe.
The berries, when ripe, are filled with a juice of a fetid unpleasant odour; they contain three to six large seeds, greyish yellow in color and mottled with black. The berries are described as emetic and unwholesome to eat. It has been estimated that 40 berries would cause the death of an adult and 15 would prove fatal for a child.
It is important to distinguish the plant from another with a similar name, black bryonia. This latter is Tamus communis, also a hedge row climber but not using tendrils for its excursions. The plant climbs by twining its stem round any available support as it reaches higher and higher. Its leaves are very distinctive, being large, long, glossy and smooth; they are broad at the base and taper to a point at the tip. They turn to bronze or almost black before withering. The berries are bright red when ripe, much larger than those of white bryonia and distinctly shiny, lacking any bloom on the surface. The root is black.
To return to white bryonia, the root is white and large, possessing an unpleasant odour and a nauseous taste. It is thick and fleshy an may attain an enormous size, growing to a length of two feet and becoming "as thick as a man's arm," weighing perhaps several pounds. Gerard wrote, "The Queen's chief surgeon, Mr. William Godorus, a very curious and learned gentleman, showed me a root hereof that waited half an hundredweight, and of the bigness of a child of a year old."
The milky juice of the root possesses violent purgative cathartic properties, shared in some measure by all parts of the plant. Many fatal cases of poisoning have been recorded. In France especially many accidents have occurred among women at the time of weaning their infants because of the popular belief that a decoration of the plant will diminish milk secretion. The French name for the plant is "Navet du diable" - Devil's turnip - which is suggestive.
The old herbalists recognized that the use of the plant was not unattended by danger. Culpepper speaks of it as "a furious martial herb" which "purges the belly with great violence, troubling the stomach, burning the liver, and therefore not rashly to be taken."
Nevertheless it was used extensively by many notable physicians of former times. Dioscorides employed it in epilepsy, vertigo and melancholia. Galen in gout, hysteria and hypochondriasis. Caelius Aurelianus in jaundice. Sydenham in disorders of the mind, delirium, mania, insanity and imbecility. Alexander Trallian in deafness, diarrhoea dropsy, pleuritis, stitches in the side, sciatica, white tumour of the knee. Hartman in diseases of the womb and tardy delivery. Loniger in asthma, pain in the neck, hemorrhage and spitting of blood.
This is rather remarkable list of ailments is of pertinent interest in that the various conditions for which the drug was prescribed are all simulated by the type of symptoms Bryonia is capable of producing in healthy provers. In other words these several uses of the drug were in effect examples of inadvertent Homeopathy.
The species used in medicine are Bryonia dioica and Bryonia alba. The genus to which they belong is a family of herbaceous vines, climbing by means of tendrils. The species, of which there are about 50, are found in most parts of the Old World. They are distinguished from the allied plants of the natural order Cucurbitaceae, by having the flowers monoecious, or occasionally dioecious, the 5 stamens united into 3 bundles, and the fruit globular and berry-like.
Bryonia dioica belongs to the section of the genus Bryonia, with palmately lobed leaves. It is common among the hedges and in the borders of woods in Europe, especially in the calcareous soil of some parts of England, where it is quite ornamental. The stem, which is a rough annual, climbs to the height of several feet above hedges and undershrubs; the leaves are cordate and 5-lobed, the terminal lobe being longer than the others, and dissimilar. The flowers are of a light, greenish-white color, with darker green veins; they are perfectly dioecious in the young plants, although both sexes are often found on older individuals. The fruit is a bright scarlet berry (red bryonia), with several flat seeds.
Bryonia alba is a closely related plant, found in Central Europe, Sweden, and Denmark. It has white flowers, regularly lobed leaves, and black berries (Black bryonia). These two species of bryonia must not be confounded with the black bryony (Tamus communis), a European plant of the natural order Dioscoreaceae.
The stems climb by means of long tendrils springing from the side of the leaf stalks, and extend among the trees and shrubs often to the length of several yards during the summer, dying away after ripening their fruit. They are angular and brittle, branched mostly at the base, and are, as well as the somewhat vine-shaped leaves very rough to the touch, with short, pricklelike hairs - a general character of the exotic plants of this order.
The leaves are stalked, with the stalk curved, shorter than the blade, which is divided into five lobes, of which the middle one is the longest - all five are slightly angular.
The flowers, which bloom in May, are small, greenish, and produced, generally three or four together, in small bunches springing from the axils of the leaves. Stamens and pistils are never found in the same flower, nor are the flowers which have them individually ever met with on the same plant in this species, whence the name dioica, signifying literally 'two dwellings.' The male flowers are in loose, stalked bunches, 3 to 8 flowers in a bunch, or cyme, the stamens having one-celled, yellow anthers. The fertile flowers, easily distinguished from the barren by the presence of an ovary beneath the calyx, are generally either stalkless (sessile) or with very short stalks - two to five together. The corollas in each case consist of five petals, cohering only at the base. The outer green calyx is widely bell-shaped and five-toothed.
The berries, which hang about the bushes after the stem and leaves are withered, are almost the size of peas when ripe, a pale scarlet in colour. They are filled with juice of an unpleasant, foetid odour and contain three to six large seeds, greyish-yellow, mottled with black, and are unwholesome to eat.
The whole plant is rather succulent, bright green and somewhat shining.
The name of the genus, Bryonia, derived from the Greek bryo, 1 shoot, or sprout appears to have reference to the vigorous an active growth of its annual stems, which proceed from the perennial roots, and so rapidlycover other shrubs, adhering to them with their tendrils. Bryonia dioica is the only British representative of the genus. [A Modern Herbal, Mrs. M. Grieves]
Habitat: The root of this vine, which grows in hedge - rows and along fences in England and on the continent of Europe, furnishes us the tincture from which our preparations are made.
The Cucumber tribe has a single representative among our wild plants in the Red-berried, common or White Bryony. This is a vine-like plant growing in woods and hedges, and exceedingly common in the south of England, rarer in the Midland counties, and not often found in the north of England. It is of frequent occurrence in central and southern Europe.