What’s in a name? In the case of edible black nightshade, whose small dark fruit ripens in early autumn, a heavy burden. Nine times out of ten, an American hearing its name recoils in fascinated horror, especially if the plant happens to be growing at their feet. They may even take a quick step back, as if to protect their toes from its tiny, toxic teeth. This delightful, useful, and weedy plant is often mistaken for its bête noir, deadly nightshade. “It’s poisonous, isn’t it?” asks the observer, riveted and assuming confirmation. Well, deadly nightshade is poisonous. But this is black nightshade, whose ripe fruit is as toxic as a tomato.
A fear of black nightshade as a food persists where people are not familiar with plants in general, or with how they are classified and named. Most urban dwellers suffer from plant blindness. And that’s to be expected. Fortunately, it’s curable. Black nightshade is ripening right now in the Northern Hemisphere. Consider this our September PSA.
Photography by Marie Viljoen.
In South Africa I grew up snacking on ripe black nightshade fruit, which tastes like a plummy, faintly anise-y tomato. I knew to stay away from the green fruit, which is considered toxic.
The tender leaves of umsobo (the Zulu and the Xhosa word for black nightshade) belong to the catch-all terms morogo (Xhosa) and imifino (Zulu)—words that refer to any edible wild greens like amaranth, lamb’s quarters, nettles and thistles (like the quelites of Mexican Spanish). South African herbalist Margaret Roberts’ book Indigenous Healing Plants includes black nightshade as food and medicine. Ben-Erik van Wyk lists Solanum nigrum in his tome-like Food Plants of the World. Black nightshade greens are also eaten in other parts of Africa and in Asia. That’s a lot of food history.
So why the fear and confusion, Stateside? People hear “nightshade” and freak out, mentally inserting “deadly.” But the same people happily wolf potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, tomatillos, and golden berries (Cape gooseberries), and fed them to their little children. These plants are all nightshades, and all belong to the tricky family Solanaceae. When they first encountered them, Europeans were afraid of tomatoes. And green potatoes are deadly. But we don’t tremble when we prowl the produce aisle. Death and deliciousness are in the details.
Our black nightshade friend belongs to the Solanum nigrum group, which has many distinct but similar-looking species—they tend to hybridize easily, too. I grew up with S. retroflexum, in all likelihood. In the Northeast we see eastern black nightshade (S. emulans), and there is S. americanum; and there are subspecies. All are edible.
The common names of plants can be vexing. Unlike their single, scientific name, they are imprecise, numerous, and sometimes shared by very different plants, with very different properties. In a few cases, as with black nightshade and deadly nightshade, the confusion can lead to reactive prejudice, and even to online fights (bet you never saw that coming!). Consider the recent case of Brooklyn Grange, an urban farm in Brooklyn New York, which mistakenly sold black nightshade seedlings labeled as tomatillos. The wrath of Brooklyn broke loose on social media. The Grange’s Co-Founder and Chief Impact Officer, Anastasia Plakias, wrote an essay about what she called tomatillogate for Medium.
So how did black nightshade get left out of the familiar, edible flock, in terms of appreciation, in the US? Personally, I feel the mixup between deadly and delicious has little to do with racism, as the Medium essay suggests; black nightshade as a fruit is enjoyed in Europe. Instead, the reason is blander, and blinder. It has everything to do with botanical myopia, and the remove that most eaters have from the source of their food: Plants. There is a profound disconnect between person and plant—how our food grows, and why we owe plants the attention of our time.
Black nightshade seeds are in fact sold as a garden crop in the US, but marketed under less threatening names. Sparkleberry, wonderberry, garden huckleberry (?)—all a very fat-berried version of black nightshade, possibly native to Central Africa. (This particular fruit’s scientific classification keeps shifting. Currently, it is Solanum scabrum, but it used to be considered a subspecies of S. nigrum.)
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: Wonderberry $3.00
How to tell the difference between black nightshade and deadly nightshade. Here’s a primer.
Edible black nightshade fruits occur in clusters. And you almost always see clusters of ripe as well as green fruit on the plant at the same time. The fruit skins have a matte appearance—no shine. On black nightshade the calyces (the green bits like lapels or a collar between stem and fruit) are smaller than the fruit.
Black nightshade has tiny, star-like white flowers with prominent yellow anthers. They look like the flowers of the tomatoes, peppers, and other nightshades we routinely eat.
The green, unripe fruit of black nightshade are considered toxic, so avoid those (the same way you would avoid a toxic green potato).
The fruit of Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade, is borne singly, never in clusters.
Deadly nightshade fruit is glossy. (Even though an otherwise reputable source like Illinois Wildflowers flips this distinction, and incorrectly states the opposite! Insert head-exploding emoji.)
The green calyces of deadly nightshade are very prominent, more a wild Elizabethan ruffle than a tight Edwardian collar. These calyces extend way beyond the fruit.
The flowers of deadly nightshade are very ornamental: tubular and bell-shaped, and range from dusky-pink to lilac, with green. (They are much larger than the hard-to-see tiny white flowers of black nightshade.)
Incidentally, deadly nightshade is not very widespread in the US; it occurs mostly on the West Coast, but that will inevitably change. It occurs in the East, although personally I have never seen it.
Black Nightshade Recipes
What are the ways to eat black nightshade? Raw is good, as long as the fruit is ripe and black.
They are a beautiful treat and garnish for seasonal tartlets. Fermented black nightshade ketchup and hot sauce are wonderful. And, of course, there is jam.
Takeaway? Black nightshade is a useful, flavorful, and versatile plant to grow and eat. Its cooked leaves are a good summer spinach, and its fruit are mildly sweet and tomato-forward.
Onward, with enlightenment!
- Cornelian Cherry: A Cornucopia of Edible Uses
- Beach Plum: A Resilient Native Shrub for Flowers, Fruit, and Gin
- Aronia: Grow Your Own Superfood