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Sunday, June 3, 2018

Foraging Black Nightshade -- Solanum Nigrum and How to Identify It


This is a post that is a long time in coming and is one that I'm nervous about writing for a variety of reasons. One of the biggest things about writing this post is that it's about a plant that for some reason is very controversial. Black nightshade. It has a reputation for being poisonous but many experts have written about that so I'm not going to repeat their findings but will link to you about what they say.

Black nightshade is something I foraged with quite a lot of trepidation at first. Though there is quite a big culture of foraging in my country, there are some wild edible plants here that virtually no local foragers ever forage or talk about eating. Amaranth, cactus paddles, and black nightshade are three of the big ones and I still don't understand why local foragers never talk about foraging these.

Growing up I didn't know much about nightshades. But I did remember this one time our next door neighbors' kid ate these yellow red and orange nightshade berries growing wild in our yard and there was a whole hullabaloo when they discovered it was toxic. I've since learned that it's called bittersweet nightshade, solanum dulcamara, and it grows all over.

There's another famous nightshade that gives nightshades a bad name and that is deadly nightshade, also known as belladonna, Latin name atropa belladonna, and that's where the confusion regarding black nightshade comes into play. Because deadly nightshade has purple black berries as well. But there are ways to tell them apart, as I'll get to soon.

Just because there's a plant with the name deadly or poison doesn't mean that everything in that family is poisonous. (I get that with sumac all the time. People say "Isn't sumac poisonous?" because they've heard of poison sumac, which I reassure them is not even related to sumac but is in the poison ivy and poison oak family, and that sumac is edible unless they have an allergy to it.)

There are many nightshade plants that are staples in people's diets around the world including: tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant, paprika, tomatillos, goji berries, etc. Yes there are people who are allergic or sensitive to these plants (it is a common auto-immune trigger) but it's not any more poisonous than gluten or legumes, even if there are people sensitive to them. (I am aware that Wikipedia says that it is toxic. Wikipedia is not an accurate source on edibility or toxicity of plants.)

My first experience foraging black nightshade


I'd first learned about black nightshade being edible on wild edible Facebook forums. I'd see posts regularly about people foraging it, making ketchup and barbecue sauces from it, but I couldn't find anyone locally who knew anything about it. After months and months of research, checking it out, learning how to tell it apart from poisonous look-alikes, I finally got the guts to try one of the berries growing locally.


As I didn't know anyone locally who could verify it 1000% for me, I foraged it with much trepidation. I first picked one berry, then popped it, so I could ensure that I saw tomato like seeds. Then I put two berries in my mouth. They tasted delicious. Like a cross between very ripe tomatoes and concord grapes.

And now I should interject here that I have anxiety issues. I wasn't aware at the time that I had anxiety issues, and how they played out, and how to deal with them... and if I had, I could have saved myself some frustration. But after I ate those two nightshade berries, I started getting very lightheaded. Because I was lightheaded, I was convinced that I was having a reaction to the berries I ate, which in turn made me panicky, which in turn made me more light headed, to the point that I felt like I would pass out... I wouldn't be exaggerating if I said that I was strongly considering calling up my loved ones to say good bye because I was sure I was dying...

To make a long story short, if anyone is familiar with panic attacks, that is exactly what happened to me, and no, I am not dead; no, I was not poisoned. Everything was totally fine, and those black nightshades did nothing to me other than make me start panicking because of the "what ifs". (Fortunately I now know what to do when I'm having a panic attack, and have learned some useful techniques to stop panic attacks in their tracks... but until I learned, I had quite a few other unpleasant experiences, like my panic attack while attempting to scuba dive.)

After eating those nightshade berries and not dying I worked up the courage to forage them again and now that I knew they wouldn't kill me, I was able to eat them without panicking, and have since made them a normal part of my foraging routine. That is when I find them.


My kids also really, really, really love black nightshade berries. They're a real treat when we find them, which unfortunately isn't too common locally. I never manage to find enough of them growing in one place for them to be anything other than what they call "trail nibble"; I've never managed to find enough in one place to collect them and bring them home... until today. Which prompted this post. Fortunately I not only found enough in one place, but I also had a container with me that allowed me to collect them without squishing them, and I wasn't in a rush so had plenty of time to collect them. I can't wait to have fun playing around with them now!

Today's haul of black nightshade berries;
I still need to sort through them to remove the inedible green ones and the stems.

How do you actually identify black nightshade and how do you tell it apart from the poisonous "look alike", deadly nightshade, atropa belladonna? 

(I'm not getting into how to tell it apart from bittersweet nightshade, because the colors of the berries is enough to tell them apart.)

First of all, the leaves of the poisonous belladonna are totally almond shaped. There are different varieties of edible black nightshade, solanum nigrum, and they don't all have the same shaped leaves. Some of them have more jagged edges leaves, not smooth like the poisonous variety, but some have smooth leaves. If you see non almond shaped leaves you know you don't have the atropa belladonna. Sometimes the leaves of black nightshade plants remind me of lambsquarters.

These black nightshade leaves are not smooth and really remind me of lambsquarters leaves.
Secondly, the flowers are very different. Black nightshade's flowers look, in my opinion, identical to tomato flowers. Five petaled white flowers with yellow centers. Deadly nightshade's flowers are purple and bell shaped.


Here's a close up of the flowers.


Deadly nightshade's berries are shiny. All the black nightshade berries I've seen have been more matte, but this isn't a definitive way to tell them apart. (Meaning if you got all the rest correct, don't assume its poisonous because the berries look shiny.) Edited to add: apparently the American variety, solanum nigrum americanum does have shiny fruit.

Fourth, deadly nightshade connects to the berries differently than black nightshade. If you can imagine, the five green leaves, also known as sepals, that are attached to the berries in the deadly nightshade are very large, almost like a hand that is holding a small little ball inside it. The sepals are larger than the fruit itself. Conversely, with edible black nightshade, there are also five sepals, but they are smaller than the fruit, almost as if the fruit were wearing a small beanie.


Fifth, deadly nightshade's fruit grow individually on the plant. In black nightshade, there are usually clusters of fruit growing together.


I just want to share that there are also black nightshade berries in colors other than the purplish black, such as red, but I don't know enough about them to tell you how to tell them apart from any possible poisonous look-alikes, so for now we'll stick with foraging black nightshade berries that are "black".

What part is edible?

Let me say that the only part that I eat are the ripe purple/black berries. I've heard mixed reports about whether or not the green berries are toxic, so might as well stay away. (Though apparently green tomatoes have the same toxic compound, and eating green tomatoes is a "thing".)



I've read that the young greens can be eaten as a vegetable, however... this is where my anxiety comes in. I don't trust myself to be able to tell apart the plant from any poisonous nightshades without seeing the ripe berries. I've seen plants that I was sure were these, even saw the "right" flowers, and then they came out with red or yellow berries... Maybe they were bittersweet (even though bittersweet flowers are purple and yellow) or maybe they are another version of edible black nightshade. Either way, I'm not comfortable with identification until I see the berries. But if you want to do more research about how to identify and prepare black nightshade leaves, have fun, and please share with me what you learn.

I don't personally know about the nutritional content or medicinal benefits of black nightshade, because all the websites that discuss it seem to just be debating about its edibility, not about anything else. Oh well. I'm sure its chock full of vitamins and minerals as most wild plants are.

Why forage black nightshade? 

Well, I certainly can't tell you to forage it because it is one of those very time efficient plants to forage. Nor am I lauding its health or nutritional benefits.

If you want my opinion why to forage black nightshade berries, I'll keep it super simple. They're absolutely delicious. One of my favorite fruit to forage. (They're approximately tied with large num nums.) My kids adore them. Everyone I know who has tasted them has extolled how wonderful they taste. And isn't that all you really need?

Have you ever heard of black nightshade before? If so, did you hear of it as being edible or poisonous? If you at first heard of it as being poisonous, what got you to change your perspective on it, to knowing that it is edible? 
Have you ever heard of deadly nightshade before?
Have you seen either of these two plants growing locally?
If you've foraged black nightshade before, what is your favorite way to eat them or prepare them?
If you've done research on the edibility of the black nightshade leaves, please share more information about that here, especially how to tell them apart from any look alikes before they go to fruit.
And am I the only one who has ever had panic attacks after foraging a new plant for the first time?

5 comments:

  1. This is fascinating - I've lived places, more the coastal areas - where they've grown in large quantities, as weeds, basically, but I was always too afraid to touch them for the same reasons you give: the mixup of names misled me. Good article - tnx!

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  2. Wasn't belladona used to treat scarlet fever before we had antibiotics?

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  3. We avoid green tomatoes, FTR.

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  4. This post is right on time! My son and I picked some 2 days ago and I tried to research if they were edible or not and got mixed reviews...then I began to doubt if I had identified them correctly or not. My 2 year old found one on the floor and ate it and I panicked a bit, but 2 days later he's fine, so I think we'll give them a proper try today. Thanks for the post!

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  5. I saw a plant growing in my backyard with berries that looked exactly the way you described. I was pretty sure it was black nightshade since it was green inside with tomato-like seeds so I popped a berry into my mouth. Immediately spat it out since it didn't taste sweet like your post described! Reminds me of when I ate a false strawberry, ha!

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