You might recognize the flower of this plant because it resembles lots of plants that you are already familiar with: tomato, eggplant, potatoes, ground cherry, jimsonweed, and horse nettle to name a few. These plants are all in the same family, Solanaceae, which is also known as the nightshade family. There are more than 2,000 species in this group.
Bittersweet nightshade is a perennial vine; it can grow up to 8 feet in height. When young, it has a green to violet-colored stem and dark green, arrow-shaped leaves with a smooth margin. The larger leaves may have up to three lobes.
The small, deep-purple flowers of bittersweet nightshade are shaped like an exploding star: the five petals arch backwards and expose bright yellow anthers. The flowers are soon replaced by green, egg-shaped berries that turn orange at first, and then bright red when they are ripe. The sight of a ripening vine can be quite arresting in late summer and fall.
Bittersweet nightshade is an introduced species that is now considered invasive. It is common in riparian areas and wetlands, but also in waste areas and along roads and fencerows. All parts of the plant are moderately poisonous, but because it tastes bad, most mammals will avoid eating it. A few bird species eat the berries and disperse the seeds.
Gardeners should beware: young children may be attracted to the colorful berries of bittersweet nightshade. You might want to remove this “weed” from your home garden to avoid accidental poisoning.
Other common names for bittersweet nightshade include deadly nightshade, bitter nightshade, climbing nightshade, trailing nightshade and poison berry.
Locally in Virginia, we have another plant that is commonly called “bittersweet”, but it is in a different genus altogether (Celastrus). Check it out here.