Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
Nature Bulletins
Newton Home Page

Introduction and Instructions

Search Engine

Table of Contents



The Nightshade Family
Nature Bulletin No. 460-A   June 3, 1972
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

In our forest preserves we frequently find a vine-like plant, with long slender woody stems, twining or climbing at the base of a big tree. It is also found next to buildings, along fence rows and on ditch banks. It has modest clusters of blue 5-lobed flowers with yellow centers, and these are followed in mid-summer by little scarlet berries, with thin transparent skins. that look like tiny tomatoes. They should not be eaten, because they are mildly poisonous. This is the Climbing or Bittersweet Nightshade introduced from Europe but now naturalized and widespread in this country.

The Nightshade Family has about 1700 species, most of them native to or originating in the tropics. It includes the "Irish" potatoes, the tomatoes, the eggplant and the peppers. Several plants famous for their narcotic and poisonous properties belong to this strange family, notably: tobacco, belladonna or Deadly Nightshade, henbane, and the Jimson Weed. So do such ornamental species as the petunias, matrimony vine, and the Jerusalem Cherry.

Belladonna, which has escaped from cultivation as a drug plant and become naturalized in some parts of eastern United States, is a shrub with purple bell-shaped flowers and shiny black cherry-like berries. The Black Nightshade also bears drooping black berries but it is a herbaceous plant and has white flowers. One kind was introduced from Europe but others are native here. In Iowa, Nebraska, and along the Pacific Coast, the berries are used in pies and preserves. A cultivated variety called "wonder berry" has been developed.

The Ground Cherry or Husk Tomato is another kind of nightshade, and there are any species native to the United States. The most common one in this region is found in meadows and old fields, usually on poor soil. The round yellow berry is enclosed in an inflated papery husk resembling a Japanese lantern. Unripe, the berries have a strong unpleasant taste but when ripe they taste somewhat like tomatoes and can be eaten raw or cooked to make preserves.

The Bull Nettle or Silver-leaf Nightshade, native here, has spiny stems and prickly silvery-white leaves, blue flowers, and a juicy yellow or orange berry full of seeds. Very similar but having green leaves and pale violet or white flowers, is the Horse Nettle or Sand Brier native in our southern states and now widely spread over the central and eastern states.

The Sand Bur or Beaked Nightshade, is a pest that grows in waste places and especially on sandy soils. The plant is small, very prickly, with yellow flowers. It bears numerous little berries each enclosed in a bur with long, very sharp spines. These cling to your clothing or to the feet and legs of animals, get between a dog's toes, and cause much anguish to barefoot boys.

Jimson Weed, so-called because the early colonists in Jamestown became crazed after eating it, is a tropical plant often found in hog lots and barnyards. It is a tall coarse plant with white or violet funnel- shaped flowers and large spiny fruits. It stinks. Some people get a bad rash by merely touching it. All parts of it contain a deadly poison.

To return to the Nature Bulletins Click Here!
Hosted by NEWTON

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Sponsered by Argonne National Labs