Deadly Nightshade Volunteers in the Vegetable Garden

We grow the usual garden plants, including a few varieties of tomatoes, hot and sweet peppers, ground cherries, peas, beans, cucumbers, garlic, lettuces, radishes, carrots and many herbs. This year we added into the mix the tomatillo. If it weren’t for the Tomato Family, we would have a garden half as big. The tomatoes, peppers, ground cherries and tomatillos are all members of this family.

We plant seedlings or seeds for many of the vegetables that we want to grow. In addition to planting known veggies, we allow certain ones that re-seed themselves to come up again. Lettuces, cherry tomatoes, and ground cherries are the common re-seeders. The only problem with this method is that the garden can quickly become overgrown if the volunteers are not thinned out vigorously. We learned that last year.

This year a new problem cropped up. A weedy plant was left to grow in the vegetable garden presumably because of its mistaken identity. We’re pretty good at pulling weeds and mulching to keep the weeds from overtaking the garden, but somehow this one weed was left to grow too big.

It turns out that the leaves of this alien plant look a lot like the leaves of the ground cherry. It was hiding under a cherry tomato, and when that was staked up the odd plant was finally noticed. Once detected, it was left to grow a while just for observation. It was pulled out before the fruit was dropped, so hopefully next year we won’t have a garden full.

The alien plant in question was the deadly Common Nightshade, Solanum nigrum. It’s a member of the Tomato family or the Nightshade family, Solanaceae. Other family members include plants that give edible fruits, such as the tomato, potato, ground cherry, bell pepper, chili pepper and eggplant. Tobacco is another useful family member.

Common nightshade hiding among the cherry tomatoes.
Common nightshade hiding among the cherry tomatoes. Photo taken 25 July 2011.

Being in the tomato family suggests some similarity between these plants. Common Solanum characteristics include the flower shape with five petals that are often reflexed backwards, yellow stamens that form a beak around the central pistil, and somewhat triangular-shaped leaves.

Bug-bitten leaves of nightshade and five-petaled white flowers.
Bug-bitten leaves of nightshade and five-petaled white flowers. Photo taken 17 August 2011.

Tomatoes, ground cherries and tomatillos are similar to the common nightshade. It seemed a little odd that the nightshade leaves were full of holes whereas the others were not. Of course they all had insect damage, but the small roundish holes in the nightshade leaves weren’t seen as much in the other tomato relatives.

Large lower leaves of Common Nightshade. Note the black or green berry clusters that arise in between leaves right from the main stem.
Large lower leaves of Common Nightshade. Note the black or green berry clusters that arise in between leaves right from the main stem. Photo taken 17 August 2011.
Leaves of the ground cherry plant look similar to the leaves of nightshade.
Leaves of the ground cherry plant look similar to the leaves of nightshade. Photo taken 25 August 2011.

Common places to find this nightshade are disturbed areas, waste ground and cultivated grounds, such as found in the vegetable garden. We probably have birds to thank for dropping seeds wherever they go.

Green and black berries of Common Nightshade. Note the five, star-like sepals of the berries.
Green and black berries of Common Nightshade. Note the five, star-like sepals of the berries. Photo taken 17 August 2011.

DO NOT INGEST NIGHTSHADE BERRIES OR ANY PLANT PART! A chemical called solanine is found in all parts of the plant and it is toxic. See comments below.

6 thoughts on “Deadly Nightshade Volunteers in the Vegetable Garden

  1. Please read the article by Samuel Thayer on black nightshade. It is available on the Internet, and can be found on his website, foragersharvest.com. He says the toxin, solamine, is not present in the ripened berry of black nightshade. I am most interested in receiving a reply from you after you have read his article. Please let me know what you think, as the two of you (at the time you wrote this article) have opposing beliefs about the fruit of black nightshade. Did his article change your mind? If not, why not?
    Thankyou in advance for any consideration you are willing to give this matter.
    Sincerely, Dean Graves (deangraves1@yahoo.com)

  2. Hey Dean,
    I remember being shown by my mother that the black nightshade berries were not to be eaten. And, always, the word nightshade seemed to be preceded by deadly. I guess that’s the safe way to instruct the curious child, go for safety.

    However, I can’t argue with the guy who’s written the book on foraging for food as Samuel Thayer has also been inducted into the National Wild Foods Hall of Fame. Who knew?

    Thanks for letting me in on the secret. I did read his article on black nightshade and learned that the black berries are supposed to be delicious and non-toxic. (To that end I’ve removed my cautionary statement at the end of this post on eating this plant.)

    That’s contrary to what I was lead to believe as a child and as an adult reading Peterson’s Guide on Edible Wild Plants. A skull and crossbones and the word POISONOUS marks the entry of Common Nightshade where it’s stated, “Warning: Although there is some controversy as to the edibility of the fully ripe berries, they should be left alone. The green berries contain solanine and can be fatal if eaten in sufficient quantity.”

    The word fatal is kind of strong there, so I’m still hesitant to try eating a berry. If Samuel ate some in front of me and he was ok in a few days, then I’d try it for sure!

  3. My mom ate these found in fields when she was a kid. I have been eating them since I was little. Just the black ones are edible.

  4. My mum also ate these and us children ate them frequently but not a lot at one time when we were growing up. Anyone that ever saw us eating them shreaked out saying they were poisonious.

  5. LOL, Tamara! The way you put it that people shreaked! How funny. I guess they didn’t do y’all any harm, huh? The poison is in the dose so you must not have had too much. Good on ya.

    Do you remember what they tasted like? Sweet, sour?

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