MEDICINAL AND HERBAL USES, MYTHOLOGY AND FOLKLORE
Researched and written by Enda McMullen
Solanum Nigrum, or black nightshade, is widespread on the NW coast of Crete. Some strains of the plant are highly poisonous, with the main concentration of poison in the green parts, the unripe berries and the leaves. The unripe berries have been responsible for the deaths of many children, because they taste sweet, and invitation to eat more. The leaves are also one of the “×üñôá” plants (edible greens) used on Crete, locally known as “Óôýöíï” (Stifno) or “Ìáõñü÷ïñôï” (mavro-chorto = black grass/herb).
Both Theophrastus and Dioscorides (who calls it Kipaios nightshade) refer to the plant as edible and medicinal. Theophrastus warns to eat only black berries, while Dioscorides gives much more importance to the plant for its medicinal values than for its nutritional values. Dioscorides warns of its highly narcotic properties, stating that
“The root has a property that causes not unpleasant fantasies when a quantity of one drachma is drunk with wine, but when a quantity of two drachmai is drunk, it drives a person out of his senses for up to three days; and if a quantity of four drachmai is drunk, it kills.”
The French doctor, surgeon and herbalist F.J Cazin, in his “Traite pratique et raisonne des plantes medicinales indigenes” describes his practical experience with the plant while in exile to Samer in his very impoverished rural France, after contracting Cholera in 1832.
Both Dioscorides and Cazin recommend poultices made from the leaves to be applied externally as a relief for rheumatic pains, to reduce swelling after injuries, but warn against applying it to broken skin.
In folklore, the plant has many uses in many different cultures. The Roma put the plant under a child’s bed to ensure it sleeps well. My wonderful grandmother insisted that putting the seeds in your mouth was a fool proof way to remove freckles, but it only worked for girls… She also insisted that a warm poultice was an excellent remedy against haemorrhoids, but not bleeding ones, and the poultice would draw out the infection from ulcers, although crushed green cabbage leaves or an egg yolk are much more effective for this. A poultice made from Solanum leaves also soothes the pain of severe burns. In medieval Britain a mixture of Solanum Nigrum (then called Petty Morel) leaves and horehound (Marrubium vulgare) was commonly used to draw out infections as well.
Óôýöíï (Stifno) is one of the many “×ïñôá” eaten on Crete. The leaves must be thoroughly cooked, with at least 3 water changes to remove the poison. Berries are only eaten when black. The traces of poison left in the black berries don’t affect adults, but are enough to sometimes cause severe diarrhoea and vomiting in children. It is usually served with courgettes to offset the rather bitter taste.
Today, a cultivated strain of Solanum Nigrum is widely grown in India, where it is one of the major ingredients in Ayurvedic medicine. Ayurveda traditionally uses the ingredient to treat tuberculosis and whooping cough.