When you think of nightshades, you might think of eggplant, or tomato, or perhaps some of the poisonous ground cherries that take over empty lots. However there are a few fascinating nightshade plants out there that are getting popular in the gardens across the US. Let’s take a look at a few. Many of the are from the new world tropics and are making their way to farmer’s markets and specialty groceries around the country. They are gorgeous plants and easy to gro; well worth looking into as a fun crop to grow in the garden or grown in containers about the patio or greenhouse. At the least you will have a curiosity for sparking up conversation.
A few years ago I picked up poha berry (Physalis peruviana) from Kitazawa Seed Company. I was surprised at how tasty it was and how copious of a fruiter it was. Looking like a tiny yellow tomatillo, Poha berries (also known as cape gooseberry) are tangy-sweet, slightly tart fruits encased in a papery sheath. I eat them fresh but they are probably suitable for making preserves.
Wonderberry (Solanum retroflexum, sometimes still sold under it’s old name Solanum × burbankii) is an historic heirloom that produces tasty purple fruits that are eaten fresh or cooked, or made into preserves. The plant was bred by Luther Burbank in the early 1900s and is a hybrid of S. villosum and S. guineense. Don’t confuse this with the poisonous black nightshade (Solanum nigrum). This species is also sometimes confused with Garden Huckleberry (mentioned below).
Pepino Melon (Solanum muricatum) looks like an eggplant, but tastes like a sweet cucumber (or slightly less sweet than a melon). Native to the Andes, they are now grown around the world, especially in New Zealand and are found in specialty produce markets, even in the United States. They are eaten fresh or cooked. Though easy to grow from seed, if you have a particular plant you like, plants are very easy to make cuttings of, but you will need to protect those cuttings from the frost.
Naranjilla or lulo (Solanum quitoense) bear strange but tasty little orange-colored fruits. The citrusy juice of these fruits is green if squeezed, yellowish if juiced in a juicer. The juice is tastier of squeezed, but probably more nutritious if juiced. These are great greenhouse plants that can live for a long time in containers. They are delicate, so if grown in the garden, give a protected spot, particularly from winds. Plants and fruit are often covered in very ornamental purple hairs and spines. A strange plant that should be grown a lot more.
Garden huckleberry (Solanum melanocerasum) is not to be confused with the huckleberry that grows in the northwest USA (a close relative of blueberry). This fruit is not often eaten raw, and when not quite ripe can be poisonous if eaten. Fruits should be allowed to turn from green to purple on the inside. Even then, they are usually sweetened and cooked, and made into pies. Tasting a bit like blueberries, they are much easier to grow, especially in dry climates.
There are other edible Solanum and Physalis species available in various catalogs. Be careful when eating nightshades. Many are indeed poisonous, be sure you have your plants properly identified before ingesting. Also, some people are more sensitive to nightshades than others, and some even have severe allergies to this family.
All these species grow with fairly low needs. Average garden soil is best. Avoid too much nitrogen (don’t grow around peas or beans) and if you feed, use kelp or compost tea only occasionally. If your plants are lush, but producing no fruit, you probably have too much nitrogen in the soil (also too much manure will cause this).
Grow in full to part sun. Many of these plants can sprawl all over the place. Use a tomato cage for support.
Water should be consistent and moderate. Mulch plants with a good layer of compost and straw.
Forgive this gringo’s horrible spanish pronounciations, but here is a little video on making juice of naranjilla.