Black Nightshade – it’s (nearly) everywhere

Black nightshade has been in the news recently, after its berries turned up masquerading as peas in packs of frozen vegetables.

Leaves, ripening fruit, and a flower of black nightshade, Solanum nigrum.

Leaves, ripening fruit, and a flower of black nightshade, Solanum nigrum.

Without wanting to be seen to cast aspersions on your aptitude for gardening, there is a good chance black nightshade is in your garden.
Black nightshade is a small plant (less than 75 cm tall) that is common in lowland New Zealand. It is usually in disturbed habitats, and it is a frequent weed of gardens (including my own!) and crops. In horticultural settings, black nightshade is often controlled by herbicides, but some populations have developed resistance.

 

Black nightshade is regularly confused with deadly nightshade. Indeed, the picture in the above news story appears to be of deadly nightshade, although it is labelled black nightshade. Fortunately, deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is quite rare in New Zealand, only occurring in the wild in Canterbury. Black nightshade is thought to be no where near as toxic as deadly nightshade.  Nevertheless, I suspect no-one would recommend it for human consumption.

Black nightshade belongs to the genus Solanum, which also includes tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) and potatoes (Solanum tuberosum)!

Black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) is easily confused with small-flowered nightshade (Solanum nodiflorum, previously known in New Zealand as Solanum americanum). The former is introduced to New Zealand; the latter is thought to be native. They differ in chromosome numbers, but appear very similar externally. Barry Sneddon, one of the Botany Collection Managers, and I have been learning how to distinguish them.

Flora of New Zealand Volume 4 suggests that in:

Solanum nodiflorum (previously known in New Zealand as Solanum americanum)
* the calyx is strongly reflexed at fruiting.
* the flowers/fruit in a particular group all branch from more or less the same point.
* stone cells are evident in the fruit.

Solanum nigrum
* the calyx is not or only partially reflexed at fruiting.
* some flowers/fruit in a particular group clearly branch below the others.
* stone cells are usually absent in the fruit.

Left, unripe fruit of Solanum americanum; right, ripening fruit of Solanum nigrum.  The calyx of S. americanum is strongly reflexed (the green triangles between each fruit and its stalk point away from the fruit).  Stone cells are also just evident in the S. americanum fruit, as white speckles.

Left, unripe fruit of Solanum nodiflorum; right, ripening fruit of Solanum nigrum. The calyx of S. nodiflorum is strongly reflexed (the green triangles between each fruit and its stalk point away from the fruit). Stone cells are also just evident in the S. nodiflorum fruit, as white speckles.

As indicated by the blue arrows, the fruit (or flowers) of Solanum americanum (left) branch from nearly the same point, while at least some of those of S. nigrum (right) clearly branch lower.

As indicated by the blue arrows, the fruit (or flowers) of Solanum nodiflorum (left) branch from nearly the same point, while at least some of those of S. nigrum (right) clearly branch below the others.

From this, it appears that the plants in my garden are actually the native Solanum nodiflorum. Which, as a lover of native plants, is a good thing, I suppose. But they still look weedy…

Te Papa has a specimen collected during Captain Cook’s first expedition that has been labelled as Solanum nigrum; however, this would seem to be a mis-identification.

36 Responses

  1. Jamie

    Hi there. I just wanted to say that I used to eat handfuls of ripe ‘nightshade’ berries without any ill effects when I was a kid growing up in Auckland (and sometimes as an adult in Wellington). I knew that deadly nightshade only grew south of Christchurch, otherwise I wouldn’t have touched them. I called them ‘nightshade’ as opposed to ‘deadly nightshade’, but I don’t know if they would have been S. nigrum or S. nodiflorum. They are actually quite tasty – a sweet fruity taste with a hint of tomato.

    Reply
  2. F. Nobilly

    Great articles. I am native north Borneo (Sabah) Malaysia. In our backyard, heaps of wild growing S. nigrum that we consumed as food (leaves-vege) mostly cook it with some chicken, salted fish or meat and so as the ripe black berries. The leaves when cook tasted bitteness but good flavoring cuisine. The berries however tasted like sour to slightly sweet. Toxic – yes for the green unripe berry. I always wanted to cook some black nightshade here in Canterbury region. But haven’t got time to harvest it as our vege garden need lots of improvement from the weeds…:P

    Reply
  3. Michelle

    After a little bit of research Black night shade, or Blackberry Nightshade is different to Deadly nightshade (Belladona). There is not a lot of Belladona found in NZ, it tends to be found in the Canterbury region.
    Both do have toxicity levels but then all members of the nightshade family do (potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes).
    Both have medicinal uses, but it is only black nightshade that is used for food.
    Black nightshade you can eat the ripe berries (not the green ones as these are definitely toxic) and fresh leaves. The flowers are white and tend to spread from the individual stalk
    Deadly night shade the entire plant is toxic to humans and animals, in particular the root of the plant. The flowers are purple and tend to clump from one main point on the stem.

    Reply
  4. Kathryn Mercer

    I was involved in a gardening project working with migrants. The ripe berries and leaves (baked with chicken, etc) of black nightshade are eaten in Niue and by the Niuean community here, with no ill effect. I’ve also been told that they eat the same plant in Iran.

    I’ve read that in some parts of central American the berries of a deadly night shade are used in place of rennet for making cheese – but this requires great care/knowledge or you risk poisoning. (In Gary Paul Nabhan’s ‘Desert terroir : exploring the unique flavors and sundry places of the borderlands’.)

    Reply
  5. Leon Perrie

    Thanks very much for sharing your observations Stewart.

    Reply
  6. Stewart Dixon

    Happy to report that I’ve eaten the ripe purple berries of black nightshade for several years now without ill effect. It’s a common weed on my property in Levin. The larger plants can be hard to pull out and the stem will often slip through the hands, leaving sap/juice and squashed berries on your hands, however I’ve never suffered any ill-effects from this – except a sore lower back from yanking at too many plants to try to up-root them!

    Reply
  7. Leon Perrie

    Hi Grant,

    Short answer: I don’t know, sorry.

    I am not aware of similar reports of black nightshade sap being problematic. And, with my previous weedy garden, I did pull out numerous black nightshade plants without ill effect, but I don’t remember getting the sap on my skin.

    However, the sap of some plant species can be poisonous/toxic via skin contact, and ***people do differ in their reactions***.

    Although a lot of people report happily consuming black nightshade, it is I think worth pointing out that the NZ Poisons Centre list it amongst their top 10 poisonous plants; for more, see: http://www.poisons.co.nz/fact.php?f=12&c=22

    I hope you’re feeling better by now.
    Leon

    Reply
  8. Grant Jones

    By the way, ref one of the earlier comments, Woody Nightshade is an alternative common name for Bittersweet (Solanum dulcamara) in the UK.

    Reply
  9. Grant Jones

    Hi, interested to read the comments above. Very strange experience today – tried to pull up a particularly vigorous specimen of presumably black nightshade growing in our compost bin. As I pulled I stripped the outer stem, leaving green juice over my hands. Thinking nothing of it, I carried on with my chores. Ten minutes or so later, I came over very peculiar – sweating, dizziness, disorientation, etc. I had to sit down before I fell down. Several hour later symptoms still persist but milder. Is this a coincidence or was it a result of toxicity from the nightshade? Can it enter the body via the skin? Thanks.

    Reply
    • Bill George

      Grant –

      I have a very similar reaction to black nightshade. For me, just touching it can cause nausea and dizziness within a half hour. Strong coffee and a meclizine (an antihistamine that doubles as a motion sickness remedy) help me back. The effects last about three hours. Sorry for your misery. I absolutely understand the rapidity with which it grabs you. It is a plant people should handle with caution until they know their individual reaction. Hence the families reputation I suppose.

  10. Thelma May Cotton

    I have been eating the ripe black night for years it tasts really good,a Maori friend came to visit so I asked him what are these and he said we used to have them mashed with cream when he was a kid ,I have never tried the leaves love all the feed back all my friends say hey don’t eat that they are shocked when I tell them I been eating them for long time

    Reply
  11. Leon Perrie

    Hi Lindsay,
    Thanks for your observations. I’m particularly interested in your report of Deadly Nightshade near Thames. I can’t find any official accounts of this species in NZ outside Canterbury. Do you remember where near Thames you saw it, as I will investigate next time I am up there. It would be great to verify your find with a specimen, and then spread the word.
    Thanks, Leon
    PS. there are other nightshade (or nightshade-like) species in NZ with purple flowers (in addition to the poroporo species too).

    Reply
  12. Lindsay

    Here in NZ, I often eat Black Nightshade leaves raw in salads ( or this weekend, sautéed and added to the filling for some savory puff pastry pinwheels hehe). Initially I was taught this by a friend who is a long- time forager ( and mentioned in one of Andrew Crowe’s foraging books). I was taught one of the simplest ways to differentiate between Black and Deadly Nightshade, is that black Nightshade has white flowers, whereas Deadly Nightshade has purple. I’ve only discovered Deadly Nightshade on two occasions here in NZ, the first being in Thames, the second time I cannot recall clearly. The main caution is to avoid unripe berries, as they have a high solanine content which could make you sick.

    Reply
  13. Jacinda

    Hi Leon,
    Many thanks for that,
    Jacinda

    Reply
  14. Leon Perrie

    Hi Jacinda,
    I suspect your visitor will be okay. She nevertheless seems a bit cavalier. Perhaps she’s an expert with these plants, but if not, we should remember that there are around the world a number of very similar-looking species and forms whose toxicity may vary. I’d err on the side of caution.
    Black nightshade and its allies are included in the “Plants that Poison. A New Zealand Guide” book. The book is probably being cautious, but its advice is worth knowing before contemplating eating New Zealand material of this species. It says that the unripe berries are the most toxic part of the plant, and that signs and symptoms can be delayed by 6-12 hours and can include fever, vomiting, abdominal pain, and even stupor. Its advice is to “Contact the National Poisons Centre [0800 764 766] if more than 3 unripe or 6 ripe berries are eaten, or any symptoms occur”.
    Leon

    Reply
  15. Jacinda

    We have a patch of native bush and have some black nightshade that grows on the margin. We recently had a visitor from South Korea who, as she was walking past..spoke of the black nightshade saying “that is exactly the plant we have growing in South Korea and it is regularly eaten”. Then she picked some very black berries and ate them before we could stop her saying they tasted exactly the same as those in South Korea…(she was also very pregnant). She has since left but this has been worrying us. We did a google search and found that black nightshade is eaten in many asian countries and in Africa. Although it is shunned in Western countries. What do you think about this? We would be interested to hear.

    Reply
  16. Christopher Taylor

    Melissa, the identity of deadly nightshade refers to the news story linked to, not to the pictures. As gone over in the comments, the fruit are not necessarily poisonous, but wild plants are perhaps best treated with caution.

    Reply
  17. melissa

    I am so unclear as to weather the pictures above are that of deadly night shade or black night shade??? It goes on and on about black night shade but then says at the top that these are deadly
    very confusing for me
    i have this plant growing in my garden thought it was random tomato plants so i left them the little purple berries taste like tomato!
    i would love to know if i need to get rid of them or eat them??
    In BC canada

    Reply
  18. Kushla

    Hi there,

    Fascinating to read some of the info posted here. Here’s another non-medicinal/nutritional use for the berries: I have a fascinating recipe for writing ink using ripe belladonna berries and gum arabic or egg white. I haven’t tried it yet, but I intend to give it a go. I have my doubts about its suitability for use in fountain pens, so I’ll wait until I’ve got a decent goose quill available.

    Reply
  19. Leon Perrie

    Hi Mike,
    I’m not sure what you mean by “woody nightshade” – perhaps the climbing/sprawling Solanum dulcamara (bittersweet) or the small tree Solanum mauritianum (woolly nightshade)? The “Common Weeds of New Zealand” book implies that both are or may be toxic to stock. Control methods are available on the Weedbuster’s website: http://weedbusters.co.nz/weed_info/detail.asp?WeedID=94

    Reply
  20. Mike

    Ive noticed that my cattle will eat woody nightshade before any thing else when shifted into a paddock.Is it harmful to them and horses and how do I get rid of it.

    Reply
  21. Leon Perrie

    Hi Rudi,
    Interesting to hear it’s for sale in Auckland. Each to their own.
    Solanum nigrum still gets a mention in the recent book “Plants that Poison” http://www.mwpress.co.nz/store/viewItem.asp?idProduct=838. “Not any of them [S. nigrum and its close allies] are actually very poisonous, but for common safety it is best to warn children against them…” “The unripe berries are the most toxic, and other parts less so.”

    Reply
  22. Rudi Schnitzler

    I have seen this plant appear on Auckland markets being sold as a vegetable, which surprised me a bit given that we think this a poisonous plant. I know I have it in my garden and having recently discovered unother weedy looking plant that is highly nutrious (Amaranth)I googled black night shade and came accross the Te Papa blog. But also many other websites and if can trust those than Solanum nigra seems to be edible compared con-generic species, which are poisonous. If Solanum nigra would be poisonous I guess there must be an awefull lot of poeple in Auckland poisening themselves with this stuff.

    Reply
  23. Phil

    Apparently it is good for diabetes. I just dug a lot up and my Fijian neighbour told me off saying it was good for diabetes… not sure if that means prevention or if it helps with symptoms.

    Reply
  24. Angela Church

    I’ve been patiently watching the S. Nigrum grow in my newly restored front garden, hoping it to be cape gooseberry. I’m sticking with Christopher’s advice and pulling it out as soon as I get the chance.
    Angela

    Reply
  25. Leon Perrie

    Thanks Hugo. Leon

    Reply
  26. Hugo Rengifo

    Hi, friends:
    S.americanum is named “Yerba o hierba mora” in spanish, It has a wide medicinal use in America and Africa. In Guatemala,leaves is eaten in salad and fruits are eating in food cooked. An medicinal use as topic is in remedy the ache of herpes zooster.
    Various communications are contradictory, the saponines are toxics for ones , others said that the people has development tolerance to toxins (as in Guatemala).
    Better than, is be careful , that is possible that confuse with other solanum and include domestic solanums (potato (papa) or tomato) may be toxics.
    Thanks
    Hugo

    Reply
  27. Leon Perrie

    Hi Christopher,
    Many thanks for the information. That’s quite a hefty report so it might take me a while to read it.
    Cheers,
    Leon

    Reply
  28. Te Papa

    Hi Christopher,
    Our spam filter doesn’t seem to like you, that’s why your comment didn’t appear. Sorry about that :/
    Florence, web admin

    Reply
  29. Leon Perrie

    Looks like Solanum nodiflorum has now been accepted as the correct name for what was previously called Solanum americanum in New Zealand.

    Reply
  30. Christopher Taylor

    I did reply the other day, but the interweb seems to have swallowed my answer. Lets have another go, shall we?

    Anyway, I found a review (http://www.ipgri.cgiar.org/publications/pdf/337.pdf) of Solanum nigrum and relatives’ taxonomy, and their culinary uses. Fruit are eaten ripe or cooked, and leaves are used as a pot herb (so boiled, sometimes with a change of water).

    I know I’ve tried eating the berries, but I can’t say as I remember what it tasted like. All I can say is that I aten’t dead.

    Reply
  31. Christopher Taylor

    I found this survey of the culinary uses of Solanum nigrum and related species, which includes a taxonomic overview. It does sound like the berries lose toxicity as they ripen, while the leaves are generally eaten as a pot herb after being boiled to remove any toxicity (in some places, they’re even boiled in more than one change of water).

    I believe I have tried eating the ripe berries, but I can’t say as I can remember what they were like. I can say, however, that I aten’t dead.

    Reply
  32. Leon Perrie

    Hi Christopher,
    Interesting, thanks. Have you ever eaten some yourself? I’ve seen some suggestions that the leaves and unripe fruit are (or can be) toxic, whereas the ripe fruit may be okay. I, for one, am not going to be purposefully eating black nightshade in New Zealand until I’m convinced that the material weedy here is the same as that eaten elsewhere. The taxonomy of Solanum nigrum and its relatives appears to be still evolving (which is a statement that could be levelled at most of the world’s biota, I suppose). For instance, it’s been brought to my attention that the species I referred to above as S. americanum should be called S. nodiflorum (see http://www.springerlink.com/content/gmm700927409465h/). I’d appreciate being directed to any recent taxonomic works on S. nigrum, its segregates, and its relationships to its close allies.
    Thanks,
    Leon

    Reply
  33. Christopher Taylor

    Black nightshade is thought to be no where near as toxic as deadly nightshade. Nevertheless, I suspect no-one would recommend it for human consumption.

    Actually, the toxicity seems to vary between varieties. Leaves of Solanum nigrum and closely related species are eaten as a vegetable in many parts of the world, as are the fruit. The American huckleberry is a variety of S. nigrum or a very closely related species.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)