I am just back from the Midwest Wild Harvest Festival, where a big bowl of black nightshade berries (Solanum nigrum complex) dressed the banquet table at Friday’s annual wild potluck. Foragers there are well-versed in the edibility of these diminutive wild treats, which are in the same family as tomatoes, eggplants, and chilies, not to mention a cultivated vegetable called “wonderberry” or “sunberry” that was brought to the prairie states by Volga German immigrants.
Many people think black nightshade berries are deadly poisonous, apparently due to a confusion of common names with belladonna, a very poisonous, black berry-producing plant that is often referred to as “deadly nightshade.” Confusingly, members of the black nightshade group are also sometimes referred to as “deadly nightshade,” even though their ripe berries are not deadly but instead totally edible. Foraging author Samuel Thayer explains this in his book Nature’s Garden (2010), where he debunks the “black nightshade is poisonous” myth based on extensive research and first-hand experience, and provides the definitive account on how to identify, prepare, and eat black nightshade berries and (young, boiled) greens.
Fortunately belladonna is not common in the U.S., and is furthermore easily distinguished from black nightshade species. It has shiny berries (compared to the often-matte-finish of black nightshade berries), a large calyx that is more than twice as wide as the berry (compared to black nightshades’ small calyx), leaves that are rarely bug-eaten (compared to the often bug-eaten leaves of black nightshade), and singly-borne fruit (compared to the cluster-borne fruits of black nightshade), Thayer explains. Belladonna also has purple flowers, whereas those on black nightshade are whitish.
There are other toxic nightshades. Bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) produces purple flowers and bright red, oblong berries—so if you can tell fire-engine red from black you should be able to avoid eating this one by accident. Other Solanums in our region produce yellow to green berries. This account is only about those that produce purple-black to dark black berries.
Black nightshades are common to disturbed and agricultural areas around the world, including the lower elevations of Colorado and surrounding states, and east across the Great Plains to the Eastern Woodlands. Hence, road stops along my annual pilgrimage to Wisconsin for the festival are often fruitful. I have collected black nightshade in late September around a fishing pond in eastern Colorado, a well-trafficked trail system in Iowa, and a public parking area in Wisconsin. I’ve also found it growing as a common weed in plenty of places around Denver, including a farm where the gentleman leading our tour noted its similarity to the “wonderberry” of his childhood, with fond recollections of his grandmother’s wonderberry jams and sauces.
The black nightshades are sprawling plants whose foliage and flowers evoke that of potatoes or tomatoes, but the leaves are simple rather than compound. The berries are full of soft seeds like tiny black tomatoes. Often, I’ll find a plant loaded with berries whose leaves have started to yellow, dry, and fall. The berries on such plants are usually plenty ripe, which is good as Sam advises sticking to ripe berries without green striping. He also suggests starting with small quantities and working your way up, and to not eat the berries if they taste bitter or unpleasant to you.
To me black nightshade berries are reminiscent of tomatoes, but sometimes have an edge of bitter at the finish, or a bit of bite like a chili. They cook down to the deepest, most brilliant purple. I love them cooked with sugar as a dessert sweet, whether on ice cream or highlighted by whatever baked goods I can dream up.
Savory preparations are fun too, from salads to my latest favorite—cooked with peppers, onions, and pork into a green (purple) chili, to be spooned over tamales, enchiladas, or breakfast burritos.
I swear, I need to spend more time in the prairie! For those of you living in parts lower, however, I hope the “wild wonderberry” makes a great new addition to your foraging repertoire, if you are not already eating it.