A typical view of White Bryony in Autumn as the leaves shrivel and the berries hang in strings. Whitehill Wood, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.
At this time of year there are various kinds of berries to be found in woodland and hedgerow. Some are harmless and were traditionally used for making wine or conserves, others are toxic and must be avoided. Two lesser known berries in the latter category are that of the English White Bryony (Bryony Dioica) and Black Bryony (Tamus Communis), both of which can be seen in various locations around Bridge.
English White Bryony is a perennial hedgerow vine of the cucumber family which displays small white-tinged green flowers in the summer.
Male flower of White Bryony, Mill Lane, Bridge. July. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.
It grows vigourously, supporting itself as a climber with thin winding tendrils which cling to other plants, walls, fences and just about anything else. It is sometimes called the False Mandrake or English Mandrake because, like the true Mandrake plant of the Mediterranean, it has a huge root tuber, over half a metre long, which can grow to resemble the shape of the human body. In olden days bawdy examples of such were sometimes displayed suspended in the windows of herb shops.
White Bryony berries in August. Near Mill Terrace, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.
The berries, formed in late summer, begin green before turning yellow then finally bright scarlet: they may still be seen on the plant in winter frosts even after the leaves have withered. They are, like the large tuber, extremely poisonous. Deaths of people and livestock caused by eating the plant are historically recorded but extremely rare.
Black Bryony shares the same climbing habits as the white, and may also be found in the hedgerow and amongst woodland undergrowth, as was the example pictured. Resembling the ‘Ace of Spades’, the leaf of Black Bryony is rather different from that of White Bryony, but the berries are very similar. All parts of the plant are extremely poisonous when raw. Nevertheless the young shoots of Black Bryony are commonly cooked and eaten in France, Spain and Portugal. Salves made from the plant have also been used historically to ease bruising.
Black Bryony berries in September. Whitehill Wood, Bridge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.
A note on poisonous berries
The berries of both plants are extremely toxic, but there is no great cause for alarm; many of our native wild plants, including buttercups, daises, foxgloves and daffodils are very poisonous if eaten in sufficient quantity. However, it is extremely rare, even for a curious child, to eat enough of a horrible tasting wild plant to make themselves seriously ill. Nevertheless, parents should always advise children not to eat wild plants and berries and should set them a good example by explaining that wild fruits must be left untouched in the hedgerow so that our wildlife can prosper. Some berries are intended to fall to the ground and nurture the seeds within them, others are eaten by wild creatures and the seeds inside are distributed across the countryside.