Black Bryony belongs to a family of twining and climbing plants which generally spring from large tubers, some of which are cultivated for food which forms an important article of food in many tropical countries. Tamus communis, 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 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.
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. The large, fleshy root is black on the outside and exceedingly acrid, and, 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 Greeks use the young suckers like Asparagus, they eat them boiled with oil and salt, after they have been first soaked in hot water.
T. communis is rubifacient, diuretic. 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. 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. The berries act as an emetic, and children should be cautioned against eating them.
As an external irritant, Black Bryony has, however, been used with advantage, and it was formerly much employed. The scraped pulp was applied as a stimulating plaster, and in gout, rheumatism and paralysis has been found serviceable in many instances.
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.