The Fear of Wild Plants, Week Ending 7/14/2019

One thing you inevitably come across when writing and speaking about foraging is the fear of wild plants.

For instance, last year, a foraging book was recalled because of potential health risks from some of the ingredients.

I know in my day-to-day life, I frequently encounter questions like, “Are you really sure that is safe to eat?”

Rewilding author Arthur Haines discusses this fear in passing in his book A New Path. Since his book isn’t (just) about foraging, fear of wild foods falls into the larger context of modern (aka domesticated) humans being afraid of all things wild.

Samuel Thayer, in Nature’s Garden, delves more deeply into wild food poisoning myths that continue to inspire fear towards eating foraged plants.

Obviously my experience is not as extensive as either of these gentlemen, but I like to think of myself as pretty bold when it comes to foraging and wild food.

But I realized this year that I am as brainwashed as anyone else when it came to eating nightshade. Black nightshade, specifically.

I’d always heard that nightshades were poisonous; that tomatoes, potatoes and eggplants were the lone edible species of this plant family. I mean, the name nightshade just *sounds* toxic. And one member of the family, deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is called that for a reason. As a result, despite several foraging books identifying black nightshade as edible, I’ve still been watching the plants in my yard with a wary, watchful eye.

Black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) is apparently a “complex”, a group of closely-enough related species that “they” don’t bother trying to distinguish them anymore. After inspecting these plants all spring and into summer, I am 100% sure of my identification based on the following characteristics.

Leaves: Pointed, sometimes with rounded teeth on the edges. My specimens have longer leaves, less diamond-shaped than some of the sources describe, but apparently the Solanum nigrum complex can include specimens with “lanceolate” leaves (i.e., long and narrow). The soft fuzz on the leaves is almost imperceptible, but it is there.

Black nightshade leaves
Black nightshade leaves

Additionally the leaves are beloved by insects, as evidenced by the holes. Here we see a flea beetle (notorious killer of my eggplants!) happily nomming on a leaf.

Insects love black nightshade
Insects love black nightshade

(I think there was black nightshade in my yard last year too, but it was completely decimated by insects.)

Stems: have raised “wings” along the length (not sure how well that shows in the photo).

Winged stems of black nightshade
Winged stems of black nightshade

Flowers: Small, with five white petals. Multiple flowers hang down in clusters.

Black nightshade flowers
Black nightshade flowers

Fruit: Small round berries, with a small calyx (the little green bits between the fruit and the stem).

Black nightshade's unripe berries
Black nightshade’s unripe berries

According to Thayer, black nightshade greens are among the most common cooked greens in the entire world, even more so than amaranth greens. So why the hesitation?

At least in part, I waited to see what the flowers would look like, to help confirm the identity of the plant. Because the plants are now flowering, the leaves are probably too bitter to eat and may contain solanine which is indeed toxic. (Haines argues in his book that some bitterness in the diet is actually positive because of the naturally occurring medicines in bitter plants… but I’m not sure that extends to solanine!) Even if you harvest young shoots and leaves, sources suggest nightshade needs to be boiled to death (10-15 minutes, which is a LOT for greens) before it is edible. And boiled even further if any trace of bitterness remains after that first boiling. If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know how much I love boiling greens…

The fruit will turn bluish-black when it is ripe. The flavor is supposed to be like a “fruity tomato”. I already have too many sweet cherry tomatoes growing in my garden, so I hope the nightshade berries will be slightly more interesting than just “fruity tomato!” And maybe this harvest will turn out better than the ground cherry fiasco last year. (Interestingly, ground cherries are also in the Solanum family like black nightshade… they just don’t have such a scary name!)

Apparently the actual deadly nightshade (Atropa bellandonna) does not grow in Maryland – at least there is no listing for it in the Maryland Biodiversity Project website.  I did find one other Solanum close by, which is horsenettle (Solanum carolinense).

not_black_nightshade

This is easily distinguished from black nightshade, because horsenettle has thorns on the stems (and sometimes leaves), and produces yellow fruit.

I think I’m safe for foraging completely ripe berries this year, and shoots & leaves next spring. *Whew!*

How about you? Would you dare eat something called nightshade, black or otherwise? What’s the craziest thing you’ve eaten lately?

Please note: I am not an Amazon affiliate marketer, because I don’t want my writing to pressure readers into buying yet more stuff. I recommend borrowing books from the library; links to online shopping sites are provided as a convenience. If you would like to support my work, please consider hiring me to speak or consult, or making a donation.

8 comments

  1. The one thing I remember reading about hiking and/or being lost in the woods, is a taste test. If you stick a bite of something that looks edible between your lips and teeth, and the taste is sweet or neutral, most likely it’s ok; if it’s bitter, probably not OK. Is it really true?

    Definitely have not tried anything adventurous or unusual in any way, for many years now!

    • I think it’s a safe rule of thumb to avoid bitter things, if you don’t know what the plant is. (Although if you don’t know what it is, you probably shouldn’t be sampling it anyway!) On the other hand, for known plants, a bitter flavor can actually indicate the presence of alkaloids which can benefit the body. Most medicines taste bitter, after all.

  2. I think I would eat nightshade if I had a lot of it and convinced myself it was fine to eat (preferably having met someone who survived the experience!)

  3. I have eaten beries like that black nightshade but I don’t know its the same. The taste was sweet but the color more like dark blue than black, I just taste a little bit and hope I didn’t die. I always wanted to do stuff like you, but too scared of what going to happen. 🙂

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