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Herbs - Roots - Vegetables
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Black Bryony - Tamus communis L.

This is a common European twining vine with tuberous roots and cordate leaves and red berries [syn: black bryony, black bindweed, Tamus communis]. The whole plant is poisonous due to its saponin content. Although toxic, saponins are very poorly absorbed by the body and so tend to pass through without causing harm. They are also broken down by thorough cooking. Saponins are found in many plants, including several that are often used for food, such as certain beans. It is advisable not to eat large quantities of food that contain saponins. Saponins are much more toxic to some creatures, such as fish, and hunting tribes have traditionally put large quantities of them in streams, lakes etc in order to stupefy or kill the fish. The toxic effect of this plant is not caused by saponins, but by calcium oxalate crystals which are found mainly in the fruit.
Drawing from Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland Österreich und der Schweiz. 1885, Gera, Germany

  • Botanical name: Tamus communis (LINN.)
  • Family: N.O. Dioscoreaceae (Yam family)
  • Synonym: Blackeye Root
  • Part Used: Root
  • Variations: Dioscorea trifida
  • Common Names: Al Karam Al Barri [E], Black Bryony [E,H], Blackeye Root [H], Bryony, Black [E], Lady'S Seal [E], Nueza Negra [E], Siyah Akasma [E], Herbe ā la Femme Battue
  • Other Common names: Cush-cush yam; Aja; Yampi; Mapuey; Cush-cush; Yampee
  • Range: Britain; Egypt; Europe; Iraq; Spain; Turkey
  • Habitat: Hedgerows, scrub, woodland edges and copses, avoiding acid soils[1, 9]

Black Bryony belongs to a family of twining and climbing plants which generally spring from large tubers, some of which are cultivated for food, as the Yam, which forms an important article of food in many tropical countries. Great Britain only furnishes one species of this tribe, Tamus communis, which, from its powerful, acrid and cathartic qualities, ranks as a dangerous irritant poison.

It is a very common plant in woods and hedges, with weak stems twining round anything within reach, and thus ascending or creeping among the trees and bushes to a considerable distance. The plant has been confused with the white bryony - Bryonia cretica L. ssp dioica Tutin (syn. Bryonia dioica Jacq.) in the family Cucurbitaceae, from which it may be distinguished readily by its lack of tendrils.


Perennial Climber growing to 3.5 m. at a medium rate. It is hardy to zone 5.

The leaves are heart-shaped pointed, smooth and generally shining as if they had been varnished. Late in autumn they turn dark purple or bright yellow, making a very showy appearance. In winter, the stems die down, though the root is perennial.

Pollen Fruit

The flowers are small, greenish-white, in loose bunches and of two kinds, barren and fertile on different plants, the latter being succeeded by berries of a red colour when ripe. It is in flower from May to July, and the seeds ripen from September to November. The flowers are dioecious (individual flowers are either male or female, but only one sex is to be found on any one plant so both male and female plants must be grown if seed is required) and are pollinated by bees and flies. The plant not is self-fertile.

The plant prefers light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils, requires well-drained soil and can grow in heavy clay soil. The plant prefers acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils. It can grow in semi-shade (light woodland) or no shade. It requires moist soil. The plant can tolerates strong winds but not maritime exposure.

The large, fleshy root is nearly cylindrical, 1 to 1 1/2 inch in diameter, 3 to 4 inches long or more, black on the outside and exceedingly acrid. Although an old cathartic medicine, is a most dangerous remedy when taken internally. It is like that of the yam, thick and tuberous and abounding in starch, but too acrid to be used as food in any manner.

The young shoots are said to be good eating when dressed like Asparagus- the Moors eat them boiled with oil and salt, after they have been first soaked in hot water.

The generic name Tamus is given to the plant from the belief that it is the same as that referred to in the works of Pliny under the name of Uva Taminia. The Greeks use the young suckers like Asparagus, which they much resemble, as also do Istrians. A variation, T. cretica is a native of Greece and the Greek Archipelago.

Cultivation and Propogation

Requires a moist well-drained fertile soil[17].

A climbing plant, the weak stems support themselves by twining around other plants and are capable of growing quite high up into shrubs and trees[4].

Dioecious. Male and female plants must be grown if seed is required.

Seed - sow in a cold frame in early spring or as soon as the seed is ripe in the autumn. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots once they are large enough to handle, and plant out in the summer or in late spring of the following year.

Edible Uses

  • Leaves.
  • Young shoots - cooked. A decidedly bitter flavour. An asparagus substitute, it is best if the water is changed once whilst cooking. Possible toxic.

Medicinal Action and Uses

  • Antiecchymotic; Cathartic; Diuretic; Emetic; Haemolytic; Poultice; Rubefacient.

The berries act as an emetic, and children should be cautioned against eating them. The fresb root/rhizome is antiecchymotic, diuretic, emetic, haemolytic and rubefacient.

A tincture made from the root proves a most useful application to unbroken chilblains, and also the fruits, steeped in gin, are used for the same remedy.

Black Bryony is a popular remedy for removing discoloration caused by bruises and black eyes, etc. The fresh root is scraped to a pulp and applied in the form of a poultice. When scraped or squeezed, it yields a colourless mucilaginous sap which has been used as a rubefacient (or stimulating plaster) and counter-irritant application in gout, lumbago, rheumatism, and similar disorders (Maheu & Chartier 1927, Wren 1975, Perrot & Paris 1971). The popular names blackeye root and herbe ā la femme battue refer to the use of the rhizome as an application to bruises to remove the discolouration (Maheu & Chartier 1927, North 1967). Old writers recommend it being made into an ointment with 'hog's grease or wax, or other convenient ointment.


Summenformel: C5H9N3
Molmasse: 111,1 g/mol
LD50 (Maus): 2000 mg/kg (s.c.)

The plant is rich in saponins so must be used with caution. It has a very powerful cathartic affect and ranks as a dangerous irritant poison. It is not normally used internally, but the macerated root is applied externally as a poultice to bruises, rheumatic joints etc. This should not be done without expert advice since it can cause painful blisters. The root is used fresh or can be harvested in the autumn and dried for later use.

The expressed juice of the fresh root, mixed with a little white wine, has been used as a remedy for gravel, being a powerful diuretic, but it is not given internally now, and is not included in the British Pharmacopoeia. Death in most painful form is the result of an overdose, while the effect of a small quantity, varying not with the age only, but according to the idiosyncrasies of the patient, leaves little room for determining the limit between safety and destruction. The expressed juice of the root, with honey, has also been used as a remedy for asthmatic complaints, but other remedies that are safer should be preferred.

Both the rubefacient slime from the rhizome and the juice from the berry contain calcium oxalate raphides - measuring an average 450 μm in length and 11 μm in diameter in the berry juice, and an average 250 μm in length and 8 μm in diameter in the slime from the rhizome - which are sharply pointed at both ends. They are responsible for mechanical irritation when rubbed into the skin. In addition, the rhizome contains histamine and saponins, both of which may contribute to the observed skin response following subcutaneous injection by the calcium oxalate raphides (Schmidt & Moult 1983). The irritant effects on the skin may be inhibited by an antihistamine (Holzach & Flück 1951).

Cases of an allergic contact dermatitis from black bryony have been described by Milyavsky (1979) and Fernandez de Corres (1983).

The rhizome and particularly the attractive scarlet berries can cause poisoning when ingested. The symptoms are those of an irritant purgative with burning of the mouth and blistering of the skin (North 1967, Lewis & Elvin-Lewis 1977).


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This page compliments of Marisa Ciceran

Created: Saturdat, September 03, 2005; Last updated: Sunday, October 14, 2012
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