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.


  1. Thank you for making those important distinctions in edible/poisonous plants.
    A few years ago I had to point out to people (eventually, by notice boards!) that although a community garden was designed on permaculture lines, some of the plants were adventitious or only thought to be edible.

    1. ...adventitious meaning, they came up on their own? I'm not sure that permaculture dictates that all plants have to be edible, though. Some are used as companions, or for purposes of soil remediation, conditioning etc.

  2. The Frenchman made the butter pad and jam into heart shapes for his wife. You married well Marie.

  3. I remember my mother (Ouma) telling me how she remembered the local women coming to the door with baskets of these little black fruits. In Fauresmith, a tiny Free State town in S.Africa. They called them "soep-soepetjies" and her mother made jam.

    1. That is a nice story, Hen. And their name for them sounds Afrikaans, rather than Sesotho...miss you xxx

  4. For at least five minutes now I've been staring at the first picture, or maybe I should say, swooning over it. To me, even in the tiniest details it shows how beauty and love turn into a work of art. Simply beautiful, and heart-warming. Even the bread slices form a heart, and I imagine the cream in the coffee did too. :)

  5. What a lovely way to spend a lover-ly day! :) We had temps of -20F on Sunday morning and yet I had to crawl out of my toasty warm cozy bed and go to work. Uggghhhh.

    34 days until Spring....counting.

  6. I grew several Garden Huckleberry bushes alongside my blueberry shrubs, until the unpruned height of the uphill neighbor's rhodendendrons rendered my garden too shady. The berries were delicious! The location of wild huckleberry patches in the nearby Cascade Range is a secret locals guard as closely as some Japanese-American families here guard the location of the wild mushrooms they pick each year.

    1. I actually find 'garden huckleberry' a misleading common name, Leslie. I am betting you were growing real huckleberries - the blueberry relative, which is a shrub? Vaccinium genus as opposed to Solanum. Ripe black nightshade (the name I'd far rather stick to) does not actually taste delicious in the sweet sense - much more tomato-y.

  7. How lovely. I've still never tasted nastergalkonfyt, something I should remedy as soon as possible. On another note, it's worrying that the author of that Slate article (and that book!) confused those two species. It's disappointing when I see plant writers do stuff like that—I've still not forgiven Colin Tudge for calling chlorophyll a protein!

    1. Ja, it's odd verby. The chlorophyll made me laugh out loud.

      A year or so ago a very respectable journal published a picture of water hemlock and said Thoreau ate it. No mention of the fact that this is one of the few plants that will actually kill you morsdood, on this continent. Also the one they showed was a hemlock that occurs only in the western US, not the species from the East, and Thoreau was on this side of the Great Divide. They were very nice about taking it down when I wrote to them. I never got to the bottom of what Thoreau actually said or ate, but I'm guessing he was really thinking of Queen Anne's lace or wild chervil or some lookalike. Or maybe god himself was just plain wrong about his ID. But he sure as shit did not eat it.

  8. I grew garden huckleberries about 4-5 years ago. I found them bland. I did make some was okay. The robins loved them and pooped purple poo everywhere. Who knew?


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