Black nightshade: deadly or delicious?

(Dutch version here)

This winter I’ve been seed-swapping around a bit, and that means I’ve also obtained some things that were unknown to me, from all over the world… One of these things is something called ‘garden huckleberries’, a type of edible annual berry-bearing plants that seem to enjoy a naming confusion in both common english names and scientific name. The seeds, of which I only have a zwarte nachtschade1few, arrived from 2 different sources, as ‘Solanum burbankii’ and ‘Solanum melanocerasus’ (and the seeds do look a bit different as well), but if you look those up on google they seem to have a lot of synonyms too. S. burnakii is also known as S. retroflexum and wonderberry or sunberry, and S. melonanocerasum is sometimes seen as a subspecies of S. nigrum, the infamous black nightshade, a plant both resemble and are close related too.

But wait, we’re talking about edible berries here. Wasn’t the infamous black nightshade one of those legendary poisonous plants? That’s what everybody knows, right?

That’s what I have believed all of my life, and what a lot of people think. But is it true? Some people seem to doubt it. (read the linked article!!) And upon looking further it seems that both the (ripe) berries and the leaves of S. nigrum and its close relatives (sometimes lumped together as the ‘Solanum nigrum complex) are eaten by people in Asia, Africa and Nprth-America and even Europe. The ripe berries (unripe berries are considered poisonous) are eaten raw or processed as a fruit, and the leaves are eaten as spinach, sometimes explicitly after getting rid of the boiling water.

So there’s 2 possibilities about the edibility of this poisonous plant: 1. there are indeed very poisonous plants in the S. nigrum complex, and some of which are fine to eat, depending on the type, or 2. S. nigrum and its close relatives are all edible, but we think they are not. Most sources seem to think (2) but some people like Sam Thayer (who did a lot of research for his linked paper) seem to think that the plant isn’t that poisonous after all… After all it is a foodsource on all Northern continents in a lot of non-Western cultures..

It seems that people also confuse the black nightshade with the deathly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), which is one of the most deadly plants of Europe and surrounding areas. And coincidently, according to Thayer, people eat a lot of black nightshade all the time all over the world and do not die, but here in Europe we do not eat it at all, and regard it as poisonous, while the last 50 years no-one has died of poisoning with the plant, and most cases of earlier poisoning are likely to be Atropa-poisoning…

And yet, I’m still not going to eat wild black nightshade berries, but I’m going to give those garden varieties a try this year. Not that I expect too much of them, it seems that not everybody is that enthusiastic about the taste, but I’ll try a few plants of both ‘garden huckleberry’ varieties to see if the berries are indeed useful for desserts…

And no, I’m not ready to eat Solanum spinach at all… I’m okay with amaranth and pumpkin leaf and other versions of horta, but no nightshade please…

So here’s my question for the readers: Anyone here who knows more about the edible uses of S. nigrum plants, or who has seeds of edible strains used for spinach or with very tasty berries? Or anyone who knows of poisoning cases?

Bram

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