Nightshade

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

nightshade an ominous name, because of the ill repute of Atropa belladonna, the deadly nightshade, which indubitably contains toxins. Although the genus Solanum, home of most other nightshades, includes many edible species such as the potato and aubergine, and counts the tomato as a close relation, the shadow cast by belladonna caused the whole tribe to be viewed with suspicion when they first became known to Europeans. However, several species which are called nightshades have berries which can be used as food:

  • Solanum nigrum, black-berried nightshade, a bushy herb found in many parts of the world, bears small, black, many-seeded berries. These are sometimes called morelles, and have a reputation for toxic properties, but are used as a cooked fruit or in pies and preserves. It seems that the green, unripe berries do contain a harmful substance, but that this disappears as the fruits ripen. Bessey (in American Botanist, 1905) disarmingly recounts how:

I was lecturing on the properties of the plants constituting the Solanaceae, and, as a matter of course, said that the berries of the black nightshade were poisonous. A young fellow from Fort Dodge, Iowa, spoke up and said that the people in his neighborhood made them into pies, preserves, etc. and ate freely of them. I answered him, as became a professor of botany, by saying that as it was well known that black nightshade berries are poisonous, the student must have been mistaken. After a while, however, I learned that the people in central and western Iowa actually did eat black nightshade berries, and they were not poisoned either. Later, I learned the same thing in Nebraska for this species. The leaves of the plant are also edible, and are consumed like spinach.