I wrote an earlier blog post about black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) when discussing the fear of wild plants. By the time I was confident I had correctly identified black nightshade, the plants were too mature for using as cooked greens, because the bitter, toxic solanine content in the leaves increases as the plant matures. But eventually, there would be fruit…
In the name of science – wild food science, anyway – I allowed the black nightshade plants to continue growing under the chicken coop. The plants have a sprawling habit (one of their identification characteristics) and they proceeded to flop all over the lawn. Where they subsequently smothered the grass into oblivion, leaving a brown spot that will need to be fixed somehow. Eventually. Maybe. The black nightshade leaves and stems completely blocked access to the nest box as well. I didn’t mind gingerly stepping through the green mass but everyone else in the family REFUSED to collect eggs until I cleared a path by cutting out some of the plants. (Sobs.)
Why? Because our black nightshade hosts a population of margined blister beetles (Epicauta funebris). When startled or scared, blister beetles exude a substance that causes welts and burns on human skin. So far none of us have fallen victim to this particularly painful attack, but we’ve been very, very careful to move slowly and not disturb, crush or otherwise upset the beetles. The path to the nest box (which has almost grown over again in the month since I carved it) gave safe passage through the hordes of hungry blister beetles feasting on the black nightshade.
Finally, the wait has paid off!
Black nightshade berries ripen over a very long time, based on my experience so far. In this regard they are like tomatoes (to which they are related), continuing to put out new tip growth with new flowers forming new fruit throughout the growing season. (Actually, tomatoes will sprawl across the ground too if you don’t trellis them, and if you look carefully at the chicken coop photo, you will see volunteer tomato vines mixed in with the black nightshade.)
Like many other wild fruits, perfectly ripe berries fall into your hand effortlessly when lightly brushed, and can also be gathered from the ground. A cluster (usually three to five) of berries may be at slightly different stages of ripening, with colors ranging from green to glossy purple-black. Focus on gathering just the ripest ones – they have the best flavor.
The two questions I ask myself when faced with a wild food: how does it taste, and is there enough of it to effectively use in a recipe, meal, or other application that would make a difference in feeding my family?
The sources which discussed black nightshade fruit described it as a “fruity tomato.” That sounded unpleasant to me, but I tentatively sampled the fruit anyway. (Science, right?) Well, the descriptions weren’t “wrong”, but the emphasis should definitely be on “fruity”, rather than “tomato.” I could miss the faint the tomato-esque flavor all together if I hadn’t been looking for it. This was a relief, since I worried they might taste like just another sweet cherry tomato. The flavor was sweet and mild – none of the intensity of our other fruit harvests at the moment, raspberries and the last few handfuls of blackberries.
As for yield, I think over a growing season I could harvest a decent quantity of berries. The plants have a huge number of flowers and unripe fruit still, and the margined blister beetles only eat the leaves. (Other blister beetles eat flowers, which would have been Not OK.) Only a few berries seem to be ripe at any given time, but I could freeze them in batches until I had collected enough for jam or preserves.
Except… I don’t eat jam or preserves. And no one else in the house liked the flavor of the black nightshade berries. One kid said too sweet, one kid said not sweet enough, and my husband declared, “They just taste wrong.”
What does this mean, from a foraging perspective? If I were jam- or preserve-inclined, I could mix the fruit in with other harvests to stretch them. This would probably work better in a savory preserve, given that slight hint of tomato flavor lingering on the back of the tongue. (I actually did freeze some yellow cherry tomatoes with a vague notion of making a preserve with them … but the black color of the nightshade would just look, well, weird amid the yellow fruit.)
In other words, next year I will focus on foraging the early leaves for cooked greens, and only allow enough fruit to ensure more greens the year after that!