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Edible Nightshades | New World Seeds & Tubers

Outside of the tropics, most sweet fruits come from woody plants, usually trees but grapes and a few others come from woody vines.

Crops from persistent, woody plants have both advantages and drawbacks. For the typical backyard gardener, fruits that grow on hardy or quick-growing annual herbaceous plants require less cost up-front, are easier to replace, bear crops quickly, and do not over-grow the scale of their backyard setting.

That’s why we like some of the other fruit-bearing crops of Solanaceae above and beyond the better-known but not particularly “fruity” fruits tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.

A single Nightshade, the notorious Atropa belladonna, better known as “Deadly Nightshade”, has given the rest of them a bad name. Most Nightshades contain some toxic alkaloids, but not typically as potent as those of the Deadly Nightshade.

I have to admit that I am shy about eating the greens of any Nightshade, even the ones that supposedly contain negligible alkaloid, but I’ll eat their fruits if I know they’re safe. It un-nerves a lot of visitors to my garden that I sometimes pop the raw fruit of “garden huckleberries” into my mouth.

Mine are the type known as “Wonderberries”, whose origins have not been agreed-upon. Luther Burbank (who called them “Sunberries”-you know, they’re jet black just like the sun (sarcasm)) claimed to have bred it crossing Solanum villosum and S. guineense. His contemporary detractors claimed it is just S. nigrum. However, at least some S. nigrum seem to be somewhat toxic. Avoid–spit out–any Nightshade berries that have bitter or bittersweet tastes.

Some have decided the Wonderberry is S. retroflexum. Sometimes it’s mixed up with S. scabrum, a similar-looking African species used as a pot-herb rather than as a fruit (very unusual for the family!).

Whatever it is, it’s easy to grow. It blooms and sets berries precociously, grows cooler than tomatoes do, and is more disease-resistant than either tomatoes or potatoes. Interestingly they seem to naturalize more easily than most annuals do, so you don’t necessarily have to replant them every year–you can let them reseed around the garden wherever they find an open spot.

The flavor is a little bland but they make adequate mock blueberries for blueberry muffins. They are far more disease-resistant and less fussy than real blueberries, and they’re prolific too.

Our good buddy Tim Peters developed one that has a little sweeter flavor than is typical.

The photo at the top of this article is of a Jaltomato. This is the first year I’ve grown them so I don’t know much about them. Some internet informants (all copying the same information verbatim) claim they “taste like grape and tomatoes”. I haven’t had one yet so I can’t confirm. So far as is typical of these sorts of Solanaceous fruits they seem to be very easy to grow and precocious to bear fruit.

They could be even easier to raise if you didn’t have to bother seeding them into trays every year. Some of the plants discussed in this article are annuals. Perennials are also cheap and quick to establish, and don’t require you to start them in trays every year as most annuals would. For better or worse unlike Wonderberries they’re more prone to staying in one spot.

The genus Physalis contains both annuals and perennials. There’s a three-way tradeoff between longevity, fruit quality, and coldhardiness: several of the species with palatable fruit are annuals, and the exception, P. peruviana (the “Cape Gooseberry”), is a highland tropical species tolerating only very mild frost.

We think we can probably work out a way to get it all: perennial, good-tasting, and cold-hardy. I think such a thing could be a popular backyard crop.

If you’ve never had them before, it’s probably worth pointing out that “Cape Gooseberry” is probably a poor name for them; they’re not really from the “Cape” (though I have heard this is actually a reference to the husk not the Cape of Good Hope), and they don’t taste like gooseberries. They taste more like tomatoes but slightly sweeter and with mild plum-like flavors.

I’ve mostly ever eaten them fresh and raw, though with their high pectin content they can be made into jellies and jams. I looked up a recipe for same and found that it called for added lemons, which makes me wonder if their delicate flavor survives cooking.

I’ve also had them dried, but they make poor substitutes for raisins, being too seedy.

I first encountered Solanum sisymbriifolium being grown in the UK as an ornamental. They might have some trouble ripening the fruit in the UK; it’s a fairly heat-loving plant. The whole plant, from its spiny dissected foliage to its white or preferably pale blue flowers, to its fruits that are a shade of red just a little more vivid than tomato-red, is fairly attractive. The flowers of the specimen in the photograph started the season pale blue, but have faded as the season went on.

I still tend to think of it as being a primarily ornamental plant that bears the bonus of a few edible fruits, but I may not have given it enough credit. For one thing, although not a particularly prolific bearer, the fruit quality is considered good enough for pies. It might bear more heavily if it survives your winters; it’s a semi-woody subtropical perennial.

Some people take advantage of the spininess by using them as deterrents to animals invading their vegetable beds.

Two more plants we tried in this family are not easily adaptable; they’re highland tropical species from the “land of eternal spring”, with little tolerance for heat or cold, and some hard-to-accommodate restrictions on blooming and setting fruit.

But they are very beautiful plants, and one of them reputedly has superb fruit. The first is the Naranjilla, Solanum quitoense.

Note the attractive purple veins and purple cast on the leaves. The fruit has some green on its interior walls, making attractive slices and dice–sort of reminds me of GREEN ZEBRA tomato! I wish I had some flowers or fruit to show you, but even in the tropics it is not a precocious bloomer, and it might be unwilling to bloom during long days of northern summers anyway.

In its native countries, the fruit is typically either juiced and sweetened, or cut into slices or wedges and salted like many people do tomatoes.

I don’t know if there’s anything we’ll be able to do for it to make it easier to grow. Right now it’s just for fun.

The Pepino, Solanum muricatum might be ever-so-slightly easier to raise, as it tolerates a few degrees of frost. Nothing particularly hard or prolonged though. It’s already in production in various warm-temperate climates such as in Chile, New Zealand, and Spain.

I’ve never had the fruit, but it is reputedly melon-like, hence one common name, the “Pepino Melon”. It’s not a melon though; wrong family.

We haven’t tried to grow Cyphomandra betacea, the “Tree Tomato”, yet, and might not ever bother because it’s an inconveniently large shrub to try to protect from frost, which it has little tolerance for. We’ll probably try its cousin C. corybiflora, which is cold-hardy enough to survive our winters, but its fruit is reputedly less agreeable than that of the tree-tomato. Hybrids are possible but tend to be sterile.

I can remember tree-tomatoes being hawked in Sunday newspaper inserts. The copywriters went over-the-top with hype. Reputedly they don’t taste all that much like real tomatoes, although some people do make sauce out of them after adding some sugar and salt.

I suppose that brings up another point: most of these fruits have the names of other fruits in their common names, typically “_tomato” while the Pepino is often referred to as a “melon” and the Wonderberry and similar fruits are referred to as types of “huckleberries”. The “Litchee Tomato” is ostensibly both a litchee and a tomato!

The names that imply comparisons are probably a result of trying to set expectations for relatively obscure or exotic fruits. We suggest that the ones that are easy and inexpensive to grow from seed are worth taking a chance on, and appreciating them for their own qualities regardless of comparisons to other fruits.

As for the more exotic ones, some of them have narrow tolerances for day-length and temperature. For now those are probably novelties for people who live in mild-temperate climates such as those of New Zealand, Tasmania, and coastal California. Stay tuned to see if we can do anything to make them easier to grow.


2 Responses to “Edible Nightshades”

  1. In Beaumont, California (about 2600ft elev) lighter freezes are mitigated by a south-facing stucco wall, which absorbs heat from the sun. There is a water heater on the adjacent wall, which would provide sufficient heat, if under a greenhouse.

    The succulent stems of tamarillo look like burnt matches, for months after a hard freeze, but large, tropicalesque leaves return, in the following Spring. I have had no luck with propagating the leaves, themselves, using crude methods, but an air graft of the stem may work. Seeds from a rare find at the grocery store were probably 100% viable. Had all the seedlings been covered with upside down plastic bottles, several dozen trees might have come from only a single fruit.

    Pepino was very simple to propagate from cuttings but were too tender for our winter. All were lost, and no more are to be found at the store.

    My Cape gooseberry has provided me with hundreds of seeds, and a dozen cuttings, which I’m trying to root in water. None of the leaves have so much as wilted. According to Wikipedia, “Scientific studies of the cape gooseberry show its constituents, possibly polyphenols and/or carotenoids, demonstrate anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

    The crude extract of the fruit-bearing plant has demonstrated antihepatoma and anti-inflammatory activities.

    It has shown possible antidiabetes and antihypertension properties in vitro.

    Some “withanolides” isolated from the plant have shown anticancer activity. The unusual 5-chloride withanolide, 9, displayed significant cytotoxic activity.

    Antihepatotoxic effects (in rats) against CCl4 were found.

    Melatonin (N-acetyl-5-methoxytryptamine) has been found in the plant. Evidence, mainly from animal models, suggests melatonin administration may help to prevent or cure diseases associated with oxidative stress, including neurodegenerative diseases, which frequently occur during aging.

    In folk medicine, Physalis peruviana has been used as a medicinal herb to treat cancer, leukemia, malaria, asthma, hepatitis, dermatitis and rheumatism.” So the goji-like raisins fetch exorbitant prices in local healthfood stores.

    I’ll be trying Wonderberry, next year, and hope reports, that it is not cross fertile with the native black nightshade, are true.

    I will also be working on cloning blue tomatoes and cocono, supposedly the domesticated, thornless, and less-colorful version of Naranjilla.

    • Wow, thanks for sharing your knowledge of phytonutrients with the rest of us. I didn’t know any of that, except for the Goji whose qualities I’m familiar with due to my wife’s Chinese background.

      I forgot about the Goji though truth be told I am sure there are a lot of others too that might deserve mention. The Goji probably isn’t in as much need of breeding work as the others; it’s already fairly easy to grow and useful as-is, which is why I didn’t think of it. I’ll keep posting articles every few days so anything I don’t cover in one I can always save for another day when I need a topic to write about.

      I’ve wondered about whether Wonderberries would cross with similar-looking (and probably mildly toxic!) feral Nightshades myself. Someone I know sickened herself sampling a few berries of something that looked superficially similar to a Wonderberry but in hindsight obviously wasn’t. I’ve gotten a few of what look like spontaneous crosses with the Chichiquelite, but that one is edible so no problem. The Chichiquelite with its glossier fruits closer to the tips of the branches, and its wavy leaf margins, is more attractive than the Wonderberry, but nowhere near as persistent in my yard.

      The Cape Gooseberry can survive freezing back if the frost is short and mild, but if it doesn’t overwinter for you, we might be able to breed a much hardier version that will. I’m really enthusiastic about the Physalis because they fit a lot of my criteria for ideal backyard crops. I also like the fact that they are “fruity” tasting as edible Nightshades go, but only mildly sweet. Something nice to nibble on without worrying about eating too much sugar.

      Please keep us posted about your work with blue tomatoes and Cocona. I don’t know the Cocona but just looked it up. Wikipedia says “a flavor explosion” like “tomato and lemon”.

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