I spotted the sign above at the Heirloom Festival in Sonoma. The sign made the claim that “deadly nightshade” is actually a choice edible. Unfortunately, there’s considerable confusion over the popular name “deadly nightshade.” The plant most commonly referred to as “deadly nightshade,” is Atropa belladonna, which is a highly unpleasant and toxic hallucinogen. “Black nightshade,” Solanum nigrum, on the other hand, is edible. The potted plant below the sign was Solanum nigrum not Atropa belladonna. One must be careful when using the popular names for plants!
To add to the confusion, Solanum nigrum is eaten and used as animal fodder all over the world, though many sources continue to describe it as toxic. As with all members of the Solanum family there’s still a great deal of superstition when it comes to toxicity. Remember that many Europeans considered tomatoes to be poisonous well into the 18th century. Even today tomato leaves, used by my Filipino neighbors as a seasoning, are still labeled by many as poisonous. An interesting article in the New York Times “Accused, Yes, but Probably Not a Killer” busts the tomato leaf toxicity myth.
|Atropa belladonna – don’t munch on this one!
The confusion over the case of the alleged toxicity of Solanum nigrum may stem from our lack of intimacy with plants in the West. The use of Solanum nigrum by indigenous peoples is actually a bit complicated. Different soil conditions can, it turns out, produce some toxic alkaloids in Solanum nigrum. Cooking eliminates the alkaloids. Jennifer M. Edmonds and James A. Chweya, writing for the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, describe the uses of Solanum nigrum and end up advocating for its widespread use as a cultivated food source. Here’s what they say about it’s toxicity in their book, Black nightshades, Solanum nigrum L. and related species, which you can read in Google Books,
. . . the comparable number of accounts reporting that these species [Solanum nigrum] are harmless as food and fodder sources suggest that this toxicity is variable. Indeed a chemical suvey of various members of the section Solanum reported the presence of potentially toxic alkaloids only in unripe fruits, with ripe berries and vegetative parts tacking these compounds. Shilling et al. (1992) therefore concluded that the plants are probably only poisonous to indiscriminate feeders such as livestock who might consume the whole plant. However, these plants are browsed and used as fodder for animals without any detrimental effect in some areas, and Rogers and Ogg (1981) suggested that the development of toxic levels of these alkaloids is dependent on their growth under certain conditions or in certain localities, and even on the age of the plants concerned. Other reports suggest that the amounts of poisonous ‘princinples’ vary greatly with climate, season and soil type (Cooper and Johnson 1984). It is highly probable that boiling destroys any toxicity inherent in these species; most ethonobotanical reports of their use as vegetables refer to cooking, boiling and even repeated boiling with the liquid being discarded; similar reports of the use of berries also refer to their being poisonous when uncooked or unripe. Drying, however, does not destroy the toxicity of the solamine-type alkaloids (Everist 1974). It is these glycosidal alkaloids which are responsible for the bitter taste often associated with the Solanums.
|The Solanum nigrum growing in our backyard.|
A few Solanum nigrum plants popped up in the yard last month and I’ve let them grow. While I can’t say that I’m a big fan of the berries, I’ve tasted them raw and lived to tell the tale.