Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Black nightshade vs deadly nightshade

Black nightshade

[Published annually, since 2016, with occasional updates.]

Late, late summer, and the black nightshade is ripe, on cue. I tasted these and they had a good, sweetly earthy flavor. It can vary. Some are quite bland.

"But isn't it deadly?"

Noooooo. Deadly nightshade is another plant. And it looks different. 

The problem with common names versus botanical - that is, scientific - names is that occasionally you run into real confusion. So people hear "nightshade" and freak out. But the same people happily wolf potatoes and tomatoes and peppers and eggplant. All nightshades. Also, the Web is rife, riddled, with misinformation about the two plants. Read carefully.

Our black nightshade friend, pictured above and below, is Solanum nigrum - or, possibly one of several different species belonging to the Solanum nigrum complex. There is eastern black nightshade (S. emulans), and there is S. americanum; there are subspecies. But all ripe black nightshades are edible. 

Deadly nightshade is Atropa belladonna. It looks very different. 

A fear of and prejudice against black nightshade as a food persists where people are not familiar with how plants in general, or with how they are classified. Most people suffer from plant blindness. And that's to be expected. Fortunately, it's curable.

Both black and deadly nightshades belong to the tricky family Solanaceae. As mentioned, other edible members of the nightshade family include potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and chiles. (When they first encountered them, Europeans were afraid of tomatoes. Green potatoes are toxic. But we don't tremble when we walk down the fresh produce aisle. Death and deliciousness are in the details.) 

In South Africa I grew up snacking on black nightshade, and there, and in other parts of the world, the cooked greens are eaten, too. Black nightshade is edible, and not to be feared.

Read on to learn to identify edible black nightshade versus toxic deadly nightshade. Luckily, the differences are quite obvious, once you start paying attention. 

Edible black nightshade

Edible black nightshade fruit occurs in clusters (above). And you almost always see clusters of ripe as well as green fruit on the plant at the same time. The fruits have a matt appearance - no shine. And here is the real tell: the calyces of black nightshade (the green bits like lapels or a collar between stem and fruit) are smaller than the fruit

Black nightshade flowers

Black nightshade has tiny, star-like white flowers with prominent yellow anthers. Sometimes the petals are furled back. Not always.

Black nightshade

The ripe black fruits of black nightshade range in flavor from insipid to delicious (like a sweetish tomato with dark undertones). 

The green, unripe fruit of black nightshade are considered toxic, so avoid those (the same way you would avoid a green potato). As Ben-Erik van Wyk writes in his encyclopedic Food Plants of the World, "Care should be taken to only pick ripe berries, because the unripe (green) fruits may contain toxic levels of alkaloids (6 - 8 berries may kill a child)."

Note that uses he word "may" twice. 

He goes on to write that "the dark purple to black berries are delicious to eat raw and make excellent jams. The juicy pulp may be used for pie fillings, jellies, and drinks. Young leaves are commonly used as pot-herb in rural parts of Africa and Asia." 

Black nightshade jam at the Daggaboer Farmstall in South Africa

My aunt calls black nightshade fruit soepsoepertjies (an Afrikaans word) and used to make jam from them, before her fingers became too sore. She is 93. Nightshade jam is sold at regional farmstalls in South Africa. 

Black nightshade with its tomato cousins, peaches, and burrata

I like more savory applications. A fermented black nightshade ketchup lasts indefinitely in the fridge, and I deploy the raw fruits in luscious salads.

Tomato and mugwort confit with sheep cheese, lambs quarter and black nightshade

And as beautiful garnishes for seasonal tartlets I carry on forage picnics.
In the US, garden huckleberry is the user-friendly and exceedingly confusing common name given to a black nightshade variety (Solanum nigrum var. melanocerasum) that is cultivated as a garden crop. Huckleberries belong to the genus Vaccinium, like blueberries, and this name is all about marketing, rather than botanical accuracy. Its fruits are somewhat larger than the feral versions of black nightshade. You can buy it online at Baker Creek and elsewhere. I was introduced to it by the lovely folks at Tyrant Farms, who sent me a package years ago.

But even seed sources muddy the identification Internet waters by saying inane things like, "Caution should be advised not to confuse the fruits with those of nighshade [sic] (a very close relative), as nightshade fruits are highly poisonous."

Um... It is a nightshade. They're all nightshades. 

Deadly nightshade. Photo: Stefancek

Let's move on:

What about deadly nightshade identification? Atropa belladonna fruit is borne singly, never in clusters. Deadly nightshade fruit is glossy. (Even though a reputable source like Illinois Wildflowers flips this distinction, and incorrectly states the opposite! Head explodes.)

The green calyces of deadly nightshade are very prominent, more Elizabethan ruffle than collar, extending beyond the fruit.  

Deadly nightshade flower by Bojana Matic

The flowers of deadly nightshade are tubular and bell-shaped, and range from purple to lilac, with green. They are distinctly ornamental, versus the hard-to-spot tiny white flowers of black nightshade.

Incidentally, deadly nightshade is not very widespread in the US - it occurs mostly on the West Coast, but that will inevitably change (since first publishing this post it has crept to the East Coast). 



  1. According to the website I've linked below, posted by a university (so you would think that they should have the correct information available to them), the Black Nightshade, while not as toxic as the deadly nightshade, still has a certain amount of toxicity, especially when the berries are still green. Other websites mention edible and poisonous varieties of Black Nightshade (though they could be getting confused with Deadly Nightshade for all that I know, but on the other hand, maybe not).

    Moral of the story: Just because it doesn't kill you if you eat them from one area, it doesn't mean that the "same plant" won't kill you when it's growing somewhere else (it might be a more toxic variety of the same plant).


    1. I agree and the regional changes happen withere mushrooms.

    2. Hm, that brief article - more about herbicide application than the plant - doesn't really address specifics about black nightshade being eaten. The only reference to ingestion by humans is this: "There is some toxicity involved with black nightshade though, especially with the unripe green berries." That is vague, with no citations.

      Ripe black nightshade is 100% edible.

      But if you are allergic to tomatoes, say, avoid black nightshade. That's just common sense that requires a smattering of botanical knowledge.

    3. To the Unknown mushroomer - mushrooms do not magically turn toxic from one region to the next. But people mis-identify mushrooms. Often.

  2. We have a mass at the end of the garden. Not sure what to do with them. If not toxic when ripe can they be used for jam?

  3. Huh. I'll have to check again that "odd new thing with berries" that mystically appeared under the new dogwood tree. The tree is not doing so well, the berry-thing seems quite robust.

  4. ooh, I'm not much a photographer but I did try and sent you an email. But what I have is green and ripe fruit clusters (so far, mostly green), white flowers with yellow anthers, and demure calyces. I would call theses shiny but I don't have the other to compare.

  5. Deadly nightshade flowers would look lovley in a flower crown.

  6. THANK YOU for your clear pics and ID tips! I'll leave the Black Nightshade I've found in my garden to live another day :) cheers from Mansfield, Australia.

  7. Thanks for the ID help. I found out about eating the black and american nightshade berries and cooked leaves from the Foraging TX site. But I wanted to be sure to rule out deadly nightshade, and armed with your article I think I can confront the plant by my chicken shed that I have been avoiding foraging from. Can the flowers be used for tea of the edible nightshades in your article? I have spent so much time trying and failing to grow tiny tomatoes, the tinier the better (ex. grape tomatoes.) And while not knocking them, since they looked great in your pictures, here is something that at least is a consolation for the failure of those efforts. ---Ksenia G

    1. The flowers will probably not do you any harm, but I have not made tea from them. Why tea, actually?

  8. This looks like the Black Nightshade based on the identifiers yes? So what can I do with them? There are branches sprouting up along the back and front of my yard

    1. There are two plants here. Black nightshade and deadly nightshade. So when you say "this" which do you mean?


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