Deadly or delicious? Black Nightshade

Young nightshade plants

Happy New Year everyone!

This is the first blog for 2017 and I thought I’d start the year with a plant that receives a bad rap.  I’m sure you’ll be surprised to know that Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum)   is an edible weed!  It is commonly and mistakenly called ‘Deadly nightshade’ which is a completely different plant (although in the same solanum family) with the name Atropa bella-donna, deadly poisonous but extremely rare in NZ.  However, Belladonna is a powerful medicine, used homeopathically and by optometrists to dilute pupils to examine eyes!

Black nightshade is an annual and starts out as a single stem with lush green, arrow head shaped leaves, growing into a many branched plant up to a metre tall.  It has clusters of small, white flowers, with five pointed petals, followed by round berries that are initially green ripening to shiny black. The berries are full of seeds surrounded by a light green, juicy pulp.

The plant is a common garden weed, and grows in cultivated land, disturbed pasture, burnt over areas and waste places all over NZ and many other countries. I’ve noticed it often grows on soil bare that has been sprayed.  All parts are non-edible then, as the plant can take up toxins for rebalancing the soil.  
Black nightshade is a member of the solanum family including tomatoes, capsicums,

Black nightshade flowers, green berries and ripe berries

egg plants and potatoes and we know we have to process unripe fruit (e.g. green tomato chutney), and we never eat green potatoes. Hence unripe, green berries of black nightshade should NOT be eaten raw, they contain a toxin called solanine (having said that I’ve seen Indian recipes where they soak the green berries in buttermilk and dry them).

Cluster of ripe nightshade berries

The ripe, completely black berries, that are easy to pick, from plants growing in clean environments however, are juicy and sweet with a savory hint. Many peoples around the globe from the Pacific Islands, to Africa, Europe and America value and frequently use the leaves and berries. For example young tender plants are steamed with other greens in Greece and Turkey in a dish called horta.  I first learned that the black berries were good to eat from a Māori friend and I’ve since learned that in tropical and subtropical countries across Africa and Asia as well as Pacific Islanders and Māori all steam or boil up and eat the young green leaves which contain the minerals calcium, phosphorus and iron. I myself have

Deadly nightshade Atropa belladonna

steamed the leaves with other greens and found them very edible and I enjoy the berries which grow with no help from

me.  There are many medicinal qualities to this plant that date back to the earliest herbals when it was known as Petty Morel to distinguish it from Deadly Nightshade known as Great Morel.   It has been recorded as a famine food in 15th Century China. Research has confirmed that black nightshade has anti-herpes properties. It is used to induce sweating, is a painkiller and a sedative among other attributes._ There is more to this plant than we think and perhaps being so adaptable, it will be a valuable resource in a future of climate change.

5 Responses to “Deadly or delicious? Black Nightshade”

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  1. Janice Kew says:

    Thank you for that great post. It is important work you are doing getting such information out.I have this in my garden always pull it out as thought it to be poisonous!

    • Julia says:

      HI Janice, thanks so much for your lovely feedback!! I greatly appreciate it. Yes it is a very common misconception that this plant is poisonous, but it is a healing plant for the earth and for us. Very cool!

  2. Win Kiddle says:

    Yes when I was a child growing up in a wholly Maori community on the East Coast, North of Gisborne, we always ate the purple berries. We called them Poroporo. Also a while ago I heard Maori women used the plant as a contraceptive, and scientists were looking to make a contraceptive using the plants properties. Haven’t heard anything since.

  3. Julia says:

    HI Win, Makes sense to eat the berries since they grow themselves and are tasty and nutritious as well. I love volunteer plants rather than the ones I tend like blackcurrants that don’t produce anything like wild plants. Interesting to hear the scientists where looking at using nightshade as a contraceptive. I guess we’ll know in time if they come up with something.

  4. It might be that there are two “poroporo”, the larger Solanum aviculare that is used for contraception, and the black nightshade you are describing here, Julia. Our southern poroporo, S. laciniatum is a beautiful plant and one I encourage in my garden, by not pulling it up when it appears, spread by birds that eat the fruits when they are ripe then redistribute them all over the place. It likes to grow on the edges of forests and looks colourful against that backdrop.