Indigenous to North America but common in Mediterranean countries, the plant is an herbaceous perennial, growing to ten feet, having alternate lance-shaped leaves, spikes of greenish white flowers, and clusters of fleshy, deep purple berries. There are about forty species of this genus, with the majority found in the US thriving in damp woodlands and open areas. Both the roots and the berries can be used medicinally although the roots have a stronger action and are unearthed in the late autumn.
The plant was widely used by Native Americans and early European settlers in poultices for skin diseases, sores, ulcers, and tumors. It was also given internally to relieve pain and to induce vomiting.
The berries yield a strong red dye which, in the past, was added to confectionery items and alcoholic drinks.