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Nightshade and Ground Cherry - how deadly are they?

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October 2013

I think everyone has heard stories of Nightshade and the black berries of death. No doubt your folks yelled at you as a kid about never eating anything out in the woods no matter how pretty. Well is it true? Will these attractive shiny berries kill you?

American Black Nightshade
Solanum americanum

This is a general description of the Solanum family from the FL Center for Aquatic & Invasive Plants

The Solanaceae plant family includes a very large genus of herbs, shrubs, trees and even climbing plants.  It also contains plants such as tomato, potato, eggplant, petunia, and many invasive species such as tropical soda apple, aquatic soda apple and horsenettle. Plants in this family are usually hairy and often prickly, with a distinctive tomato-like smell. Most species within the genera Solanum are poisonous and should not be consumed by humans or wildlife.
While poking around the web I learned that our American Nightshade was confused early on with the similar looking European native Atropa belladonna. The common names for this species include belladonna, deadly nightshade, devil's berries, naughty man's cherries, death cherries, beautiful death, devil's herb, etc. I think you get the idea - death. And this new world plant looked just like the old world plant (now naturalized here), thus the name.

But it is not the same plant. This site called Eat the Weeds has a lengthy discussion about the Nightshade plant and its history. The writer has tried the berries and offered stories and research from others but it is all so mixed up I would never eat one. After all, the native and non-native plants sure look the same to this uneducated eye.

On to the next member of the Nightshade family....

Cutleaf Ground Cherry
Physalis angulata

From the North Carolina State University:

Poisonous Part - Unripe berries and leaves.
Symptoms - Headache, stomach pain, lowered temperature, dilated pupils, vomiting, diarrhea, circulatory and respiratory depression, loss of sensation; may be fatal.
Toxic Principle - Solanine and other solanidine alkaloids.
But then another bulletin states: "The whole fruit with the husk removed is used in preserves. Pies may be made from fruits that have dropped and matured on the ground."

Confused? I am, and I'm not sure I want to try one yet. And if you think it looks a lot like a tomatillo - you are correct. In fact its scientific name is Physalis ixocarpa.

Here's more from Eat the Weeds

The fruit is edible raw or cooked, as in pies or preserves. The fruit can fall from the plant before it is ripe. That usually takes a week or two or more until the husk has dried and the fruit a golden yellow to orange. Each fruit is wrapped in a husk that is NOT edible. The fruit will store several weeks if left in the husk.  Unripe fruit — light green — is toxic.
It's an interesting website with lots of things like "Beautyberry: Jelly on a Roll." I looked at the recipe - basically 3 cups of tasteless berries to 4 1/2 cups of sugar. Okay... put that much sugar in anything and it will probably taste fine.

Back to Ground Cherries.

This garden guide talks of the varieties that could be grown.

On the other hand, the UF/IFAS Extension Service calls it a weed. "This ground cherry usually grows in fields, along roadsides, in pastures and in open woodlands or disturbed sites throughout Florida."

My plant is growing alongside my dirt driveway. I guess it's a weed; it's kinda pretty, different for sure. I'm going to let it go and if it spreads too much, I can always pull them up next year. As far as eating the berries - NO! You'd have to have an awful lot of these plants to get a cupful and from what I am seeing, it's taking a long time for these rather small fruits to ripen. I won't be making Salsa Verde with them.

Well that wraps up another bucket. I learned a little trying to find out what grows in my backyard, hope you did too. Now I'm heading outdoors to work on this before it gets hotter and wetter here in the Florida Panhandle.

A fallen water oak from a summer storm that passed thru while I was up north.. These trees are notorious for looking fine on the outside but rotting on the inside. This one had grape vines running up into the top so it made quite a mess when it fell into a lovely colony of Horse Sugar (Symplocos tinctoria). Back in a few hours.......

And The Daily Bucket is now open for your thoughts and observations.

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