Deadly Nightshade vs. Black Nightshade

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!

Solanum nigrum

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.

Share this post

Leave a comment

20 Comments

  1. What makes Solanum nigrum really fun and interesting, is there appear to be a few different cultivars within the species. I have two specimens like yours in my yard, and then I have another variation with frillier leaves, like in the botanical illustration, which looks an awful lot like Sunberry/Wonderberry, which was a hybrid Luther Burbank came up with: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solanum_retroflexum

    Something I am noticing is that the tomato planter where I’ve let these berries grow has particularly happy tomatoes in it. Who knows.

    Samuel Thayer has an interesting chapter on these berries in one of his foraging books, noting that most berries get eaten out of hand when found in the field, but that they cook up into wonderful jam as well.

  2. I’ve grown solanum nigrum, including selected cultivars that supposedly had bigger better fruit. However, the fruits are not tasty at all. They are also small, meaning they are hardly worth the effort to collect enough to cook into something palatable. Native currants and elderberries are similarly small fruited plants that are more attractive in the landscape, provide excellent wildlife value and for those that really want to collect tiny berries (before the birds get to them) are very productive and easy to grow. Of course they are not annuals, so they would need a more permanent place in the landscape than solanum nigrum, which is grown as an annual.

  3. Sara,
    Indeed, there are many varieties of Solanum nigrum. It crosses readily, as well. This compounds the confusion over this plant. And thanks for the Thayer tip–will have to try cooking some.

  4. Hey Homegrown Neighbor–will have to make a tiny Solanum nigrum pie for you next week! And I agree that there are better options for a small yard. Maybe best to forage this one.

  5. About a decade ago, I took herbal medicine classes with Susun Weed and she was adamant about using – and having her students use – the Latin names for plants. Many plants have multiple common names and there are common names that are used for several very different plants. It’s a habit I’ve kept, although using the formal names always reminds me of my mother. When she called me by my first and middle names, I knew I was in trouble.

  6. Hmmm, I figured Solanum nigrum was no good because our chickens and the local birds would not eat them. They love our blue berries (damn birds), but leave Solanum nigrum to live long and prosper. So I’ve been pulling them.

    Also I asked a local farmer about Solanum nigrum that I found growing in his tomato field on u’pick’um day (a fun event, by the way). He said they where poisonous, which backed up my (bird brain) theory that they weren’t any good.

    I admit to tasting one or two anyways, but have been pulling them at first site. Maybe I’ll have to let a few go and have another taste. If they are sweet enough, maybe they would flavor a mead.

    Cheers
    Shane

  7. Funny you should post on this.I try to take my goats out foraging in the wild areas near my house.The other day we were in an area that burned this last spring and tons of Solanum nigrum had come up.I noticed one of my milking goats eating this with relish and thought to myself ,Hmmm,this will be interesting in the milk(thinking deadly nightshade).All is well including us humans consuming the milk.
    As an aside–I have noticed when taking the goats out foraging that sometimes they won’t have anything to do with a plant that several weeks before they chowed down on.I figured it was something to do with growth stages of the plant.And the goats response to each type of plant is different.Some they go for in flower,some only when dry,some when fresh and alive with new growth.They seem to know.

  8. I took a wild food class through Christopher Nyerges and tasted these berries for the first time. To me the taste was a combination of tomato and licorice. Tiny treats!

  9. I am hoping that Atropa belladonna is one species that didn’t hitch a lift with the Europeans. I used to see it sometimes growing wild in England.

  10. I am so glad to see this post!! I have that growing randomly in my front and back yard and forever thought it was deadly nightshade. It is a bit of a nuisance, it pops up quite readily and I don’t really know what to do with it. My dad says his Taiwanese friends grow and eat it and of course I was super skeptical. Glad to see this clarified.

  11. Must study more! I’ve been pulling S. nigrum near the chicken coop too. Those old botanical drawings are still better than most field guides. Thanks for posting them!

  12. I bouht seeds a few years back thinking I’d try growing them…big mistake as they are now running wild throuhghout my neighborhood. I do let some of them go and harvest them. I dry them and they kind of taste better, a little like dried currants (maybe?) I think that the fresh berries taste like if nutrasweet came from a plant, this would be the one.

  13. My first flock of urban chickens had full run of our back yard and they LOVED this plant. Since none of them got sick, I let them go at it. (Less for me to weed!) It got to the point that I trolled all the nearby alleys for it since it made them so happy.

  14. I worked with highland tribes in New Guinea. The leaves of Solanum nigrum were one of their favorite forest greens. I enjoyed them also. They do cook them. They don’t eat the berries.

  15. Do both varieties smell the same? I pulled out a whole patch today that looked like the non poisonous type, but it had that very strong, dangerous smell the berries were just beginning to turn red, so I took no chances

  16. I for one got experience with both plants deadly nightshade has got very sweet tasting berries of which easily a few berries can be the lethal dose. So judging edability by taste this is a exccelend example where it’s a bad idea. Also the dryed berries of both plants are halucigenenic when smoked. Like many other plants in the potato family excellent medicinal herbs

  17. I notice this is an old post, but am wondering if you have any experience with how deadly nightshades may affect surrounding soil. We removed a mature one from our front garden and have watched 2 beautiful trees subsequently die a slow death – silver tree, corkscrew willow in the same spot. Its a spot that gets plenty of water, and we live in oakland so also good dry season. I am wondering if the old roots have somehow tainted the soil and that spot in our garden is doomed. The only thing that grows where it was is several small guara plants. Any ideas? Thnx

    • As far as I know, no nightshade plant has poisonous effects on soil. The effect you are thinking of is called allelopathy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allelopathy) and it’s a fairly rare quality in some trees and plants which makes them hostile to their neighbors (some neighbors, not all). Black Walnut trees are famous for this. Nightshade plants are actually very sensitive to allelopathy–so, for instance, you have to plant tomatoes far away from Black Walnuts–but nightshades are not allelopaths themselves.

      You say you removed a nightshade from your garden and two trees died afterward. It’s impossible to figure things like this out from a few lines in a comment box, but my first guess is that you may have damaged the root system of your trees when you dug out the nightshade. Another guess is that something is wrong with the amount of water the trees are getting. Perhaps too much, perhaps too little, perhaps a lot of shallow watering and no deep watering?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


2 + 4 =