Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the April 28, 2007 Newsletter issued from Yerba Buena Clinic just outside Pueblo Nuevo Solistahuacan, Chiapas, MÉXICO
about 1740 meters in elevation, ± LAT. 17° 11' 27"N, LONG. -92° 53' 35"W

At some point many years ago a certain book taught me to call SOLANUM NIGRUM "Deadly Black Nightshade." Because of that name, during most of my life I've regarded S. nigrum as poisonous and when I picked Lambs-quarters, for example, as a potherb, I'd make sure that no S. nigrum got into my pot by mistake. You can see some S. nigrum growing next to my casita below:


When I learned that Potato and Eggplant also are members of the genus Solanum, and that nowadays even Tomato plants are placed in the genus, I began wondering about S. nigrum's poisonous qualities. Of course it's true that green potato tubers are poisonous and that tomatoes used to be regarded as deadly, too, so the genus Solanum's aura of being possibly dangerous was never completely dispelled. Bailey's Manual of Cultivated Plants says that unripe fruits and leaves may be poisonous, but all my Mexican books agree that tender young shoots are edible.

In fact, people here, who call the plant Hierba Mora, regularly eat S. nigrum's tender shoots as a potherb, and I've begun throwing a few shoot-tips into my morning stews, too. There's not much taste to them, except a little bitterness, but when you're feeling the need for green, leafy vegetables, they're fine.

Solanum is one of the largest of all plant genera, holding about 1700 species, so it's good to be able to identify the genus in the field. Here's how to recognize the genus Solanum:

# flowers are somewhat like a tomato's
# 5 stamens grow together around the style
# anthers release pollen through holes at the top
# fruit is pulpy and not opening along sutures, and holds several to many seeds (technically it's a "berry," same as tomatoes are berries)