Saturday, September 6, 2014

Black Nightshade

Black Nightshade in fruit in my yard.

     The Nightshade family (Solanaceae) is surrounded by all sorts of legends and stories dealing with their toxicity, despite several edible members (such as tomatoes, potatoes, and hot peppers) being in the same family. Indeed, many members contain potent toxic alkaloids including such plants as Deadly Nightshade, Mandrake, Sacred Datura, and Jimsonweed (which was used locally for very important hallucinogenic rituals by the Native American Indians and which I should do a post about). Many of them can and have killed people. Atropa Belladonna was used for example by some prominent Romans to murder competitors.

Black Nightshade with the distinctive flowers typical of the Nightshade family, much like tomatoes.

     You can imagine my reaction then when my wife several years ago found a nightshade growing in our yard and declared it to be just like the ones they used to eat back in her home country of El Salvador. One look at the flower and I knew it to be a nightshade of some sort. I also explained to her that many were indeed quite poisonous and that there were many plants that could look quite similar, but that could be quite different (even if within the same family) from one country to another. Despite how sure she was, I told her it would be a very bad idea to try and eat it.
     A week passed and one evening my wife served me a delicious soup. As I devoured it, she asked me what I thought of it. I liked it, I told her, and she explained to me that the main ingredient was "Mora." Now Mora in my ancestral home of Peru means "mulberry" (the scientific Genus for mulberry is Morus by the way). I told her that it didn't taste like mulberry fruit one bit and it was too late in the season to find any anyways. She revealed to me that it wasn't that plant actually, and that it didn't even contain any fruits or berries at all. It was made using the leaves of the plant she had pointed out to me earlier that also grew in her homeland and was called "Mora" by Salvadorans.
     I did a double take as I digested the new information, and stopped my digestion of the nightshade soup she had served me (and which I had nearly finished). Several things ran through my mind at that moment: that I shouldn't have taken out that life insurance policy, that I knew many potentially deadly members of this plant family, and that I really needed to positively identify that plant (as well as have the poison control center number ready).
     I luckily had a few good resources available, but could do no better than it was called Black Nightshade. This plant is sometimes simply classified as Solanum "nigrum" but many others now believe it to be a complex of various species and maybe subspecies. I couldn't get a perfect ID other than that.
     More worrisome was that the common name Black Nightshade had contradictory information, some saying it was edible while others saying it was poisonous. Thankfully, I had on hand my favorite foraging book, the one by Samuel Thayer called "Nature's Garden" and it had Black Nightshade listed. I consider Thayer's two books the absolute best on the topic of wild edibles and foraging and so trusted it as the best resource.
     According to his very detailed and illustrated book, Black Nightshade is indeed edible both as greens and ripe fruits, regardless of which species in the complex you eat. The confusion, he believes, is in the use of the common name and the poor reputation of the Nightshade family. The aforementioned Atropa belladonna is also sometimes called Black Nightshade (as well as Deadly Nightshade and Belladonna) and is quite toxic. Thayer theorizes that poisonings from eating "Black Nightshade" are from eating this particular plant. I was positive that what I had consumed with such relish was luckily not that plant, as they are fairly different in appearance. That I'm still alive today, that I make sure to spread some Black Nightshade seeds every year to get more plants, and that my family continues to eat it, are all proof of the edibility of Black Nightshades in the Soluanum nigra complex. The variety found around here is usually classified as Solanum ptycanthum nowadays. It also helps show the importance of universally accepted scientific names rather than regional common names.

Black Nightshade, despite its dangerous reputation, has both edible leaves and ripe fruits.

     This native plant is an annual (thus why I keep making sure I spread some seed into strategic locations in my yard every year). A version of it has been consumed (or feared) across most of the world. Our own native peoples had some tribes who considered it edible, others medicinal, and yet others poisonous. Porcher's Confederate Ethnobotany considered it to have have medicinal properties but stressed its supposed dangerous effects as well.
     So my family continues to eat this plant, both as greens and when the fruit is ripe. My wife was right, which she likes to point out to me in many other things as well. Luckily most of the time my life isn't at stake when she tries to prove this to me.

4 comments:

  1. Alonso - Love it! (the story, haven't tried the nightshade).

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  2. Thanks folks! My book will have more of these type of stories in it.

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  3. Interesting information. I had so much of it growing wild that I wanted to identify it. It was pretty obvious that it was part of the solenaceae. But as much as I trust you and am happy you're alive, I will be getting rid of mine, though they've already dropped a bunch of berries that I'm sure will sprout next year.

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