Saturday, January 14, 2017

Disturbed ground

On a recent walk in Cape Town I stumbled - as I do - on a whole pantry of edible weeds growing in recently disturbed ground. Weeds are opportunists and pioneers and love them some disturbance. 

I went straight back home and brought Tipsy back to see them, because I know she loves one of them in particular: black nightshade in English, nastergal in Afrikaans, umsobo in Xhosa, and there I will stop; this plant seems to have a name and use in almost every language and every culture. Solanum nigrum (to get botanical about it) is considered a complex rather than one genus and species because it hybridizes so readily. Tipsy grew up eating it, and she is pretty healthy at 72 years old.

It is possible that both local conditions and its tendency to hybridize have led to some cultures viewing every part of black nightshade other than the ripe black fruit as poisonous, while others consider it food. Academic literature harps on the toxin solanine, present in the green parts of the plant. (Most people who suffer from solanine poisoning have eaten green potatoes). But Indonesians eat the raw green berries - calling them green nightshade in English and leunca in Sundanese - and cook them as part of warm dishes, saying that they are similar to tiny green eggplants. Don't take my word for it: search Instagram for #leunca and see what you find. [Update: an informant tells me that leunca may be Solanum torvum, but that the waters are very muddy, with a great deal of misappropriation of names.]

At home Tipsy showed me how she makes potele (Sotho), mixing cooked black nightshade leaves with a little mealie meal (cornmeal). It makes a hearty and filling bowlful.

Friends who have tasted black nightshade greens remark that they are bitter. These were not, and I am guessing it is because they grow in an area that is mostly shaded. (My reference point is dandelions - bitter in sun, mild in shade.) I am using more leaves for experimental dishes, but am blanching them in boiling water, as solanine is water soluble, to be on the safe side. I would love to try the raw fruit, but am still asking a lot of questions, and watching from the sidelines.

And if you are wondering about deadly nightshade, read this post. And this one. Different plant.


  1. Very invasive. I am old fashioned and would not attempt to eat anything from this plant.

    1. Invasive indeed, that is why most people call it a weed. It's the most old fashioned folks who eat it, though: the people who have been doing so for centuries and longer :-)

      Be sure not to confuse it with deadly nightshade - Atropa belladonna. So much confusion in American literature about the two even though they are quite distinct.

  2. Marie, you might be interested to see this article in the NYT about the nightshade family. It's been around for a while. Interesting.


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