Dear Readers, when I spotted this potato-y, tomato-y-looking plant close to Walthamstow Wetlands last week, I was a little puzzled as to what it was. Fortunately a quick glance at my Harrap’s Wildflower Guide was enough to guide me to identifying it as black nightshade (Solanum nigrum), an annual/short-lived perennial plant native to great swathes of Europe and Asia.
Although, like other members of the nightshade family, black nightshade is poisonous, it has also been used both for food and for medicinal purposes. However, there is a problem – black nightshade is an extremely varied plant, and some botanists refer to the Solanum nigrum ‘complex’, meaning a group of closely related species which hybridise and so make identification extremely difficult. One easy way to tell this plant from the much more dangerous deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is that although the berries of both plants are black, those of deadly nightshade are borne singly, and those of black nightshade are held in bunches.
Like all nightshades, the berries of black nightshade contain a poison called solanine, which in this species can cause diarrhoea and vomiting in both humans and livestock, though it is rarely fatal. The unripe berries are thought to be the most poisonous parts of the plant. This doesn’t stop a rather impressive bird, the Great Bustard, from eating the berries and dispersing them, particularly in its stronghold in central Spain. This magnificent bird also used to roam the grasslands of the UK, until the last wild bird was shot in 1832. There is, however, a thriving population on Salisbury Plain, where the danger of being blasted by a tank or mown down by machine gun fire has presumably deterred the egg hunters and poachers who might otherwise have targeted it.
It might seem strange that this ‘dangerous’ plant has been so widely used as a food plant, but as it grows prolifically and easy the ripe berries and leaves have been harvested and eaten for millenia. The berries are said to taste of liquorice and and melon, and the well-boiled leaves are used in quiches, served with Ugali (a form of cornmeal) in Kenya, and mixed with other bitter greens in the horta of Greece. In Ethiopia, the leaves fill the gap in the year before the corn is harvested.
Clearly, this is one of those plants which are considered dangerous in much of Western Europe and North America, and yet it is eaten all over the world by those who know when to gather the berries and leaves and how to prepare them. On the Plant Lore website, the author recounts the story of a contributor who
“..talked to a Philippino man in Finsbury Park, who was gathering tips/shoots of black nightshade, he told me they used it in cooking as a flavouring for chicken! “[London, N1, February 1997]
Clearly, we have much to learn.
The ripe berries are eaten all over Africa and Asia, and in South Africa they are used to make a jam called Nastargal Konfyt. No wonder that this species is sometimes known as ‘blackberry nightshade’.
As with many poisonous plants, black nightshade also has a long history as a medicinal plant. In Europe it was considered a ‘dangerous remedy’ but it was used extensively as a narcotic, to induce sweating, and as a painkiller. In traditional Indian medicine it is used for all these purposes, plus as a treatment for stomach complaints and fever. It has been used as a treatment for ulcers and tuberculosis as well. Interestingly, some recent studies suggest that extracts from the plant could be useful for stomach ulcers and also possibly for some cancers. It is clearly extremely chemically active, and it will be interesting to see if anything beneficial is discovered.
And finally, a poem. The only link to our plant is the title, but still I found it moving. I remember times when I have broken, but couldn’t tell you exactly why. And the fact that this is set in the Hermitage, St Petersburg, somewhere that I hoped to visit but that now could well be off limits for the rest of my life, moves me further. See what you think.
Portrait in Nightshade and Delayed Translation
C. Dale Young – 1969-
In Saint Petersburg, on an autumn morning,
having been allowed an early entry
to the Hermitage, my family and I wandered
the empty hallways and corridors, virtually every space
adorned with famous paintings and artwork.
There must be a term for overloading on art.
One of Caravaggio’s boys smirked at us,
his lips a red that betrayed a sloppy kiss
recently delivered, while across the room
the Virgin looked on with nothing but sorrow.
Even in museums, the drama is staged.
Bored, I left my family and, steered myself,
foolish moth, toward the light coming
from a rotunda. Before me, the empty stairs.
Ready to descend, ready to step outside
into the damp and chilly air, I felt
the centuries-old reflex kick in, that sense
of being watched. When I turned, I found
no one; instead, I was staring at The Return
of the Prodigal Son. I had studied it, written about it
as a student. But no amount of study could have
prepared me for the size of it, the darkness of it.
There, the son knelt before his father, his dirty foot
left for inspection. Something broke. As clichéd
as it sounds, something inside me broke, and
as if captured on film, I found myself slowly sinking
to my knees. The tears began without warning until soon
I was sobbing. What reflex betrays one like this?
What nerve agent did Rembrandt hide
within the dark shades of paint that he used?
What inside me had malfunctioned, had left me
kneeling and sobbing in a museum?
Prosto plakat. Prosto plakat. Osvobodi sebya
said the guard as his hands steadied my shoulders.
He stood there repeating the phrase until
I stopped crying, until I was able to rise.
I’m not crazy, nor am I a very emotional man.
For most of my life, I have been called, correctly, cold.
As a student, I catalogued the techniques, carefully
analyzed this painting for a class on the “Dutch Masters.”
Years later, having mustered the courage to tell
this ridiculous story, a friend who spoke Russian
translated the guard’s words for me: “Just cry. Just cry.
Free yourself.” But free myself from what, exactly?
You see, I want this whole thing to be something
meaningful, my falling to my knees in front of a painting
by Rembrandt, a painting inspired by a parable
of forgiveness offered by a father to his lost son.
But nothing meaningful has presented itself. Even now,
after so much time has passed, I have no clue
what any of this means. I still haven’t figured out
whether or not I am the lost son or the found.
Photo One by Katja Schulz from Washington, D. C., USA – Black Nightshade, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49953203
Photo Two by H. Zell, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo Three By Andrej Chudý from Slovakia – Drop fúzatý (Otis tarda), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39987827