Black Nightshade and the Blinders of Fear

Updated: Aug 10


Solanum americanum

Black Nightshade is an edge for a lot of people. It represents the major “next step” in foraging, when you move on from relatively fool-proof plants that require minimal botanical morphology discernment. These are plants you can get away with “just knowing,” without necessarily being able to explain in detail the physical characteristics, or lack thereof, that differentiate it from other non-edibles. It is a shame to not interact with plants like Black Nightshade once you’ve honed your identification skills. Healthy fear doesn’t have to be an enemy to foragers; just the right dose of acute, relaxed awareness is an attitude that will protect you and your joy in foraging for many years to come. The type of fear that causes people to say “never ever” to foraging Black Nightshade is not the healthy kind of fear. It’s the kind of fear that abruptly halts the absorption of new information, experience, sensation, and perspective. It is a culturally-imposed fear. It is fear of the unknown, even when the known is being presented clearly before you. This type of fear exists in such pathological excess in our society, that it has shaped eras.


In so many ways I see practicing botany, or really any type of nature immersion skills, as a means to transcend many of the negative cultural impositions that hold us back as humans. Botanical identification requires a high attention to detail, not a soft enough eye that you don’t miss subtleties. It requires one to keep an open mind; to remain perceptive without preconceived notions. You are in a state of relaxed observation, with the pure intention to learn about that which is set before you; not to judge or to alter. Failure to forage with this state of mind will lead to at best, a missed opportunity for learning, or at worst, death by poisoning. The attitude around Black Nightshade illustrates how an excess of fear can quickly stifle the opportunity to learn. There are over 2,000 varieties of nightshades, many of which are probably growing in your garden. Yet still, many people seem to refuse to accept that there is any other wild nightshade other than Belladonna or Deadly Nightshade, Atropa belladonna. And so in spite of the differences between the two plants being relatively easy to learn and see, most people write off consuming Black Nightshade, and warn of dire consequences to anyone so foolishly bold as to attempt such a feat. Despite being a well-established traditional food in many parts of the world, we seem to cling to the notion that t is lethally toxic in North America and Europe. But with an open heart and a small amount of botanical identification skills, they are easy to tell apart you could do it with your eyes closed. While everyone is in a slightly different place on their journey with plants, and not everyone is ready or wants to take that next step, we should not be operating from a place of fear. It is not merely unseasoned foragers that assert Solanum nigrum as toxic- scientific literature and authoritative sources repeatedly make this error.


A big part of taking your foraging skills to the next level center around fear. If we can allow information experience to seep in to become knowledge, we can move past our edges in more ways than just foraging. Wisdom about small things ripples farther than we know. Moving past that Black Nightshade edge or that Wild Carrot edge, might also perpetuate moving past other fears that have held us back as individuals. And by sharing that wisdom we open doors for a greater cultural shift; one that values empathy, openness, and perceptivity over “being right,” “being better,” or “being safe” from irrational fears. Every time we find our own edges and move past them, we make an impact.


"Some who remain afraid to try black nightshade act as if those of us who eat it are foolish and irresponsible. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of people eat it anyway. I counter that it is irresponsible, and a bit ethnocentric, to insist on perpetuating this myth in the absence of any supporting evidence." - Samuel Thayer, Nature's Garden, A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants

Throughout every aspect of our lives, we can apply the lesson we learn from nature. How did we interact with our neighbor? Where are our political motivations based from? What are we modeling for the children in our lives? Our society is teetering on a very big edge at this point in our history. Fear is pervasive and oppressive. There is no time for apathy or for willful ignorance. It is not the fear itself that is harmful, rather how we handle things that make us fearful.


Foraging, primitive skills, herbalism- these things are not just learned skills. If you practice them with attention, you find that they do not just intersect our lives, they don't even just "enhance" it- they change us. They have the power to transform people’s lives and the way we interact with the world.



A Brief Primer on the Morphological Differentiation of Wild Nightshades

First, some disclaimers:

  • As with any wild food, never ingest anything before 100% positively identifying it, and always start with a small amount to see how you do with it.

  • Always check to see if there are other plants (of nightshades or other genera with similar features) growing in your area that could be a potential look-alike.

  • Black Nightshade berries are only edible when ripe. Not all Solanum species have edible berries, even when ripe. Black Nightshade leaves and stems are also toxic when raw (they are edible when cooked properly, and in some parts of the world are considered a staple vegetable, but that is a topic for another post).

  • There is much debate on the origin and taxonomic classification of some of the Black Nightshade species that is often referred to as the "Solanum nigrum," complex. There is also some argument as to whether any of them are truly native (if you’re up on indigenous ecological history, “native” may be becoming a flexible term anyway). Some taxonomists group S. pytcanthum as synonymous with S. americanum, while others suggest it is a hybrid between S. americanum and S. nigrum. To add to the confusion, Solanum americanum used to be Solanum nigrum var. americanum.


Three Species of “Black Nightshade” - The Edible Ones


Solanum nigrum (Black Nightshade or European/Common Black Nightshade)

Solanum nigrum
  • Small, white (occasionally pale purple), often downward facing flowers with 5 petals, and 5 stamens with large yellow anthers that unite in a cone around the style

  • Sepals and petals are fused at the base

  • Leaf margins are repand and dentate

  • Ripe berries are dull black, 6-8 mm in diameter

  • Umbel-like helicoid cyme clustered infructescence (the berries’ pedicels emerge from separate points along the peduncle)

  • Diminutive calyx that is smaller than the diameter of the berry

  • Fruits are slightly larger than S. americanum or S. pycanthum

  • Sweet tasting berries


Solanum americanum (American Black Nightshade)

  • Small, white, often downward facing flowers with 5 petals, and 5 stamens with large yellow anthers that unite in a cone around the style

  • Sepals and petals are fused at the base

  • Leaf margins are repand and dentate

  • Unripe berries are green flecked with white

  • Ripe berry are shiny black, 8-10 mm

  • Umbel cluster infructescence (all the berries’ pedicels emerge from a singular point)

  • Diminutive calyx that is smaller than the diameter of the berry

  • Sweet tasting berries


Solanum ptycanthum (Eastern Black Nightshade)

  • Looks almost identical to S. americanum, but with maroon tinting visible on the underside of young leaves.

The Toxic One


Atropa belladonna (Deadly Nightshade)

from John Stephenson's Medical Botany (1836)
  • Purple to pink, sometimes streaked in appearance, elongated bell shaped flowers

  • Sepals and petals are obviously fused nearly to the tip

  • Leaf margins are entire

  • Black, spherical berries, 15 mm in diameter

  • Berries grow from a single stem (not in clusters)

  • Pronounced calyx that extends out beyond the diameter of the berry

  • The berries of Belladonna are also reportedly sweet tasting, and therefore can pose a risk to children


A few examples of some other non-edible nightshades common to the mid-Atlantic that do not have black berries:


Solanum dulcamara (Woody/Bittersweet Nightshade)

S. dulcamara (center) & S. nigrum (bottom left)
  • Small, deep purple flowers with yellow stamens, that resemble that of the Black Nightshades

  • Bright red oblong berries


Solanum carolinense (Horse Nettle)

  • White flowers that are similar in appearance to black nightshade, but do not have fused stamens

  • Stems have scattered spines

  • Bright yellow berries that become more toxic as they ripen



In summary: If you find a nightshade with black berries, look at the calyx, the berry size, and the infructescence.


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