04 Dec 2021

Kildare's Wildlife Watch: The bittersweet symphony of woody nightshade

With the Irish Peatland Conservation Council

Kildare's Wildlife Watch: The bittersweet symphony of woody nightshade

Bittersweet. Picture: Nuala Madigan

Last week I carried out a biodiversity survey and came across a really pretty wildflower called bittersweet (fuath dubh as Gaeilge). Although the colour and size is different, on first glance the shape of the flower reminded me of the red fuchsia.

Fuchsia is not a native plant. It was introduced to Ireland as an ornamental plant for gardens but it has escaped and is now considered naturalised in Ireland.

The difference between naturalised and invasive species is naturalised species can grow alongside Irish native wildflowers and cause no known negative impact on Ireland’s wildlife.

Invasive species, on the other hand, were often also introduced for ornamental purposes and have too escaped from gardens — but these escapees compete with Irish wildlife and are more successful, resulting in a decline in populations of native species.

Native to Ireland

Bittersweet is a native plant and it is member of the nightshade family. Indeed you may know this plant as woody nightshade.

It has been long found growing in woody areas, in hedgerows and bank edges.

The five pointed purple petals are open to surround a yellow column structure that actually is the stamen of the plant (the male reproductive element of flowers). This plant is a type of scrambling or climbing plant. It is rooted in the ground, but weaves its way around other plants, using their support to maximise its effort to reach the sun so it can photosynthesize.

The plant can actually reach a height of 1.5 metres. In autumn, bittersweet produces orange-red coloured berries which you should never eat, as it is said to cause vomiting and for young people can even result in death.

The leaves are green-yellow in colour and are oval and pointed. Bittersweet is a regarded as a common wild plant — however I have only encountered it on a few occasions. It will be in flower until later September, so there is plenty of time over the coming weeks to watch out for this wildflower in your community.

If you would like help identifying or to learn more about a wildlife species contact me via e-mail

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