When I was first told black nightshade berries were edible, my first reaction was skepticism and disbelief. I think this a common reaction, as the word “nightshade” is riddled with fear and lore as it’s believed to be a deadly poisonous plant.
While this is true for some species in the nightshade family, several others are edible and have been consumed as a traditional food for centuries. Many of our beloved vegetables, such as potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers, belong to the nightshade family.
Given this, wouldn’t it make sense that there are other wild edible nightshade members that simply aren’t cultivated? Such is the case with black nightshade (Solanum nigrum complex). While my first reaction was doubt, through research and experience, it’s clear that this plant is edible and is wonderful to forage.
I aim to clear up the misinformation about this important wild edible, explain where the misconceptions come from, and give you all of its distinguishing characteristics so you can safely harvest and enjoy this tasty plant for yourself.
What Is Black Nightshade?
While black nightshade is a common name for a few species in the Solanum genus, in this article, I am specifically referring to the edible Solanum species that go by that common name. These species include Solanum nigrum, S. ptychanthum, and S. americanuum.
Previously, all of these species were lumped together as Solanum nigrum and have only recently been classified as separate species, which is why they are called the Solanum nigrum complex. S. nigrum is considered native to the ‘Old World,’ specifically Europe, and has been introduced to the United States, though it is considered rare.
Most texts describing Solanum nigrum plants in North America are most likely one of the native species listed above. There are also two black nightshade plants native to the Great Plains of North America, S. interius and S. douglasii.
All of the black nightshade species listed above are edible and are similar in appearance, with only slight differences between them. Considering this, it isn’t essential to know which S. nigrum complex species you have, but you MUST identify it as an S. nigrum complex species. There are some deadly look-alikes that I will cover in more detail below, one of which also goes by the common name black nightshade.
Black nightshade plants grow all across the United States and are considered “weedy.” They thrive in disturbed places and are found on all the inhabited continents.
This a treasured food, and according to reliable wild food forager Sam Thayer:
However, in Western culture, specifically in Europe and North America, this popular wild food has been documented as poisonous.
Why Is Black Nightshade Considered Poisonous?
I find it curious that a beloved food of different cultures across the globe would end up listed as a “deadly poisonous” plant in Western literature.
While there isn’t a definite reason for why it’s considered poisonous in the United States and Europe (while literally everywhere else it’s considered a food), foragers believe it comes down to misidentifying it as another deadly nightshadespecies, belladonna (Atropa belladonna).
According to Sam Thayer’s Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants of Eastern and Central North America, he explains:
To provide further evidence of the safety of black nightshade, the National Library of Medicine not only confirmed the traditional uses of S. nigrum but also showed scientific proof of its safety in an experiment with mice. They gave a moderate amount of black nightshade juice to mice for 14 days “with no signs of toxicity or death observed.”
The study showed that moderate amounts of black nightshade (30-60g) rarely resulted in any side effects. I assume they gave the ripe berries to the mice, but which part of the plant was administered is unclear, as they also explain the slight toxicity found in the leaves, which I’ll discuss in more detail below.
Furthermore, side effects and toxicity happened only after they gave a mouse 494 grams of S. nigrum juice! That’s A LOT of black nightshade and would be difficult for any one person to consume. If you ingested that same amount of the common blueberry, you would feel sick and exhibit similar side effects.
Lastly, to give you even more evidence of black nightshade’s safety, I have consumed black nightshade berries and experienced no side effects, and I am still alive and well.
How To Identify
Black nightshade is a somewhat bushy, spreading annual. Its growth habit depends on where it’s growing; in compact soil such as a dirt driveway, it spreads close to the ground.
In areas where the soil is looser and more nutrient-dense, it can grow upright with many branches and reach about 40 inches (1 m) tall. A single plant can bear flowers, unripe berries, and ripe berries all at the same time.
The leaves are alternate, long, and roughly ovate or diamond-shaped with a broad base, often decurrent (leaf blade extends down the petiole). The blade is somewhat smooth and can be hairless to moderately hairy. They often have holes in them from insects.
The edge of the leaves or margin is shallowly toothed between the leaf base and tip with blunt or rounded tooth tips. Sometimes the margins are entire, but they are most often shallowly toothed or wavy.
The petiole, or leaf stem, is about 20-60% of the blade length, with a decurrent wing gradually tapering down from the blade (Thayer, 606).
S. nigrum stems are dull green, thick, gently angled, and are about 1.5 cm (15mm). The stem surface ranges from somewhat smooth and hairless to moderately hairy.
The flower head, or inflorescence, is an umbel or very short raceme with about 2-12 white flowers. The flowers bloom from summer to fall and resemble potato or pepper flowers but are smaller, about 8-11 mm across with 5 petals.
The green calyx has 5 sepals that are much shorter than the petals and resemble blunt triangular lobes (Thayer, 606).
The white petals bend slightly back toward the calyx and are fused and greenish at their base. The yellow stamen are prominent in the center of the flower and are pressed together, mostly hiding the pistil.
Black nightshade berries are spherical and resemble green peas or miniature green tomatoes before they ripen. They are about 5-8 mm across and grow in clusters. They gradually ripen from light green to dark purple-black. They are soft and juicy when ripe with many tiny, soft seeds. The calyx on the berry is very small.
There are two poisonous look-alikes, but they are easily distinguished from S. nigrum by their flowers and berries.
The first is belladonna (Atropa belladonna), which goes by the common name deadly nightshade but can also go by the name black nightshade. Its growth habit is somewhat similar to S. nigrum, but belladonna’s flowers are purple with green coloration and bell-shaped. Black nightshade flowers, for comparison, are white and star-shaped.
Belladonna’s shiny berries, although black, are easy to tell apart from black nightshade berries. Belladonna berries grow singly (not in clusters) and are much larger than black nightshade berries; they are about the size of a small cherry (1.5-2cm in diameter).
Each belladonna berry has a large and noticeable calyx that extends past the edge of the berry. Black nightshade berries, on the other hand, have a very small calyx that does not extend past the edge of the berry.
The other toxic nightshade plant that grows in the same habitat as black nightshade is bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara). However, to mistake this plant for black nightshade would mean someone has no clue what they’re doing.
This plant grows as a vine and has purple star-shaped flowers and bright red berries. As such, they’re easily distinguished from black nightshade’s white flowers and clusters of black berries.
Black Nightshade Food Uses
The ripe berries of black nightshade can be eaten raw or cooked. They taste like a sweet tomato with more “berry-like notes.” They are favored as a trail snack but can also be gathered in large amounts from midsummer to fall to make jams and jellies. Furthermore, black nightshade berries can be used in salsas, salads, applesauce, and pies.
The leaves are also a traditional food eaten in many cultures, though they are considered slightly toxic due to the steroidal alkaloid solanine. Wild food foragers recommend boiling the tender young stem tips and leaves before the flowers open to remove this toxin.
You can twice boil these (boil once; discard the water and boil again) if you want to be even more cautious.
Sam Thayer notes that the older leaves are bitter and mildly toxic. However, scientific research claims, “the content of solanine in the leaves, stems and fruits [unripe berries] will gradually decrease as the plant grows.”
That claim contradicts wild food forager Sam Thayer’s comment, as the research says the younger leaves are more toxic than the older ones, while he says the opposite. Because of this discrepancy, I believe further research on the toxicity of the leaves should be conducted so wild food foragers can be more confident in harvesting and eating black nightshade leaves.
Personally, I’m not too excited about eating the leaves, as I feel there are other wild edible greens around that I feel more confident in consuming. That said, if you’re keen on trying black nightshade leaves, be sure to boil them (perhaps twice) to ensure the toxicity is removed.
Remember to only harvest from healthy plants in clean environments; do not harvest near railroad tracks, flood plains, roadways, or polluted areas. Only harvest if you are 100% confident you have identified black nightshade (S. nigrum complex). If you are even slightly unsure, it’s better to leave it and come back with more confidence about its identification.
Changing the Story From Poisonous To Edible & Enjoyable
It’s quite unfortunate how many misconceptions there are about black nightshade (Solanum nigrum), as it’s an important food for many cultures around the world.
Research shows it’s also highly medicinal and nutritious. In this way, the berries should be enjoyed not only for their sweet, pleasant taste but also for their immune-building and antioxidant properties.
I hope this information, including the compelling evidence of its safety and the detailed identifying characteristics, gives you the confidence to try black nightshade for yourself.
By doing so, you are part of the growing collective helping to change the story about black nightshade – from poisonous to edible and enjoyable.
As an herbalist, my goal is to connect people with the healing powers of nature. Through my writings and herbal concoctions, I aim to guide others toward a healthier lifestyle using time-honored methods. With over four years of experience studying herbalism and organic gardening, I offer my knowledge to inspire others to explore the natural world, cultivate their own gardens, and rediscover their bond with the earth.