Sunday, February 14, 2016

Sundays for house-bound foragers

Valentine's tray

What does a forager-gardener do on a February winter weekend when it's -11'C/14'F outside?

Stay in bed, of course.

At-home Sundays usually mean breakfast in bed, for me - the Frenchman makes a tray and I sip and eat and read while he does complicated things next door on his computer.

Grow Journey Seeds and reading

Today I dived into my Ben-Erik van Wyk books to read more about Solanum nigrum and other species after receiving some very interesting bonus seed from Grow Journey in my February seeds-of-the-month package.

The common name for the seed in this packet is garden huckleberry, a term I had never encountered before. The botanical name on the packet is Solanum nigrum var. melanocerasum. I had no idea black nightshade was actively cultivated in the States. How exciting. A brand new crop. And I thought I did not like surprises. This is one of the unexpected pleasures of the monthly seed membership: considering crops I had not thought of.

Garden huckleberry jam. Photo: Tyrant Farms

There is a recipe for the fruit and more background about it at the Tyrant Farms blog.

I grew up with black nightshade. In South Africa you can sometimes find jam made from the fruit at farm stalls, and the tender leaves are eaten cooked. The unripe fruit is considered very toxic.

Planting these will satisfy the forager in me. I saw the fruits maturing as late as October on a walk in Red Hook last year. And just around the corner from where we live, in a neglected side garden that has provided me with mugwort before, the black nightshade plants were still blooming in November.

Edible black nightshade - Solanum nigrum

Common names can freak people out. I know what you are thinking:

Deadly nightshade is another thing altogether - Atropa belladonna; the flowers are very ornamental, bell-like and purple-pink. Deadly nightshade's poisonous fruit are borne singly, each being framed by a helpfully conspicuous and oversize (wider than the berry) coronet of calyces (plural of calyx) which distinguishes it easily from edible black nightshade, whose calyces are petite. There are other differences, of course, but that is the easiest, if you are going berry by berry.

Deadly nightshade - Atropa belladonna. Photo: stefancek, Flickr

So many articles written by people who are not tuned to plants confuse the two. Read carefully. Even a Slate piece I found had to add corrections, after the fact.

Incidentally, with plants known to be poisonous, the ripe fruits can be the least poisonous part of the plant (if you except the seeds). The danger resides in the roots, stems, leaves, and seeds. Often, the ripe fruit pulp itself is innocuous. That does not mean that I advise you to go grazing on known poisonous plants, but it bears mentioning. For instance, you would not want to ingest cherry bark, eat the leaves of peach trees, or eat many of the seed kernels. But do we consider cherries and peaches to be poisonous? No.

And some day it will be spring, again. But right now the early buds are very, very unhappy.
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