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
THE NIGHTSHADE FAMILY
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.
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
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.
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Update: June 2012