Discovering a new Wild Edible Berry: Solanum nigrum – Black Nightshade

At some point in my life I learnt about a plant called Deadly Nightshade. I’ve no idea when this was, possibly when I was young. All I knew was that it was deadly poisonous and I shouldn’t eat the berries. For most of my life, I didn’t think much about it, except briefly when I was living at Ecoforest a visitor there from Finland used to eat the berries. He stayed for 3 months and he didn’t die. For some reason I just ignored the inconsistency and continued with my life, believing that these berries were poisonous.

Fast forward to this year and a Facebook friend, Chris Lane, posted the following “Black Nightshade is a plant eaten worldwide, leaves and ripe fruit, yet shunned in Europe and North America due to a historical mix up between this species and Deadly Nightshade – Atropa belladonna” along with a link to an article which goes into a lot more detail. Something clicked in my brain, clearly my Finnish friend hadn’t been eating Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade, he had been eating Solanum nigrum, black nightshade…

So, I did some more research, looked at lots of photos, and worked out the difference between the two plants. They are both in the same family, so there are a lot of similarities, but the main differences as far as I can see:

Solanum nigrum (Edible) Atropa belladonna (POISONOUS)
Berries In bunches Individual
Flowers White with yellow centre Purple/Green

Black nightshade berries

Black nightshade berries

Deadly Nightshade photo copyright Wendy Cutler CC BY

Deadly Nightshade Atropa belladonna.  Photo by Wendy Cutler licensed under Creative Commons BY 2.0

A couple of weeks ago I identified the plants growing here as Solanum nigrum, so I tried a berry and it tasted a bit like a tomato! I had a few more – I like them! I’ve been eating them regularly since this and I’m still alive…

The berries are the size of a pea and you should only eat them when they are ripe – black or dark purplish black. They hang in little bunches, unlike the poisonous deadly nightshade which hang individually.

I recommend you do your own research and look at lots of photos before trying these berries yourself.

Personally I wouldn’t eat the leaves, it seems in some places they are eaten cooked, but they can contain toxic alkaloids and are poisonous raw.

This article was first published in Funky Raw magazine issue 33.

Black Nightshade Unripe Berries

Unripe black nightshade berries

Arbutus unedo – The Strawberry Tree

I first came across Strawberry Trees (Latin Arbutus unedo) when I was living in Spain, over 5 years ago. They have them in Madrid because the city’s coat of arms is a bear picking a tree strawberry. But they are tall and I never managed to reach one of the fruits (although also I might not have been there at the right time of year, they are ripe in November and December.)

When I lived in London, I found one in someone’s garden near Epping Forest and found a few ripe fruits on the ground on the street. They were delicious, with a flavour and texture like apricot jam. I always wanted to find another tree to eat more.

A few days ago we found a few Strawberry Trees on the island of Cres (Croatia), most of the fruit wasn’t ripe although we found a few good ones. Then yesterday we saw loads of trees with ripe fruit along the side of the road so we found somewhere to park and found some trees away from the road with loads of ripe fruits. I ate loads, when ripe they are so delicious. Ripe ones are generally dark red and very squashy, generally we found the best ones were on the ground under the trees.

But a little while later I started feeling ill. Thankfully not too bad, just a bit of nausea, but it did go on for a good few hours. We got the ferry back to the mainland and I felt really bad during the journey, thankfully it was only a 20 minute crossing.

So I did some more research, and some people say the when the fruits are over-ripe they start to form alcohol and you can get drunk from them. I didn’t feel like I was drunk though. Interestingly Jolita was fine, although she probably didn’t eat as many as me.

So if you do find a Strawberry Tree, go easy on them!

Wild Food Books Review

This article was originally published in the Spring 2009 issue of the Funky Raw magazine.

I regularly get asked what books I would recommend about wild foods, so here are my thoughts.

Lets start with the classic British wild food books are Food For Free and Wild Food.

Food for Free, by Richard Mabey, comes in several versions; one with colour photos, one with hand drawn illustrations and a pocket version (with less plants). I have the edition with colour photos, some of the photos are good, but many are not clear – if you already know the plant they help to jog your memory but are not for identification. This edition also devotes a lot of space to recipes (cooked, so not of much interest).

Wild Food by Roger Phillips covers sea food as well as plants and devotes even more space to cooked recipes so I’ve not purchased this book.

The Neighbourhood Forager by Robert K Henderson is an American book which has a lot of useful detail about a smaller number of wild foods but not great images for identification. Most of the information is also relevant for the UK.

As the number of wild food books available is limited, I started looking at other books about wild plants. I found that the books below work well in conjunction with a specific wild food book, or the PFAF website (www.pfaf.org) where you can look up whether a particular plant is edible or not. It even gives an edibility rating – some plants are edible but are hard to digest or don’t taste good so this gives a quick evaluation.

Wild Flowers of Britain by Roger Phillips is an excellent identification guide. Each plant is photographed on a plain background so you can see it clearly. This book is not specifically about edibles, although it does mention that some plants are edible.

This is probably my favourite book for identifying wild plants, and it looks like you can get second hand copies quite cheaply on Amazon now.

Wild Flowers by Neil Fletcher is very good for identifying plants, each plant has a photo of the plant, a photo of the plant in it’s habitat, a closeup of the leaves and a closeup of the flower plus text explaining identifying features.

Another quick tip to help with identification – if you go to www.images.google.com and enter the plant name you will get lots of photos (although this is not always accurate, always double check before eating anything!)

Travelling in our van

Our exciting news – we moved out of our flat in London into a camper van:

Camper Van

We’re currently travelling in France, looking for an area we would like to live, where we can buy land to set up some kind of raw food retreat/holiday centre. I will try and keep this blog updated with our progress, photos and of course all the wild food we are finding.

We have found quite a few wild strawberries, but the other day Jolita spotted what looked like a massive patch but on closer inspection we realised that they weren’t strawberries:

Mock strawberry

And here’s a real wild strawberry to compare:

Real strawberry

When I next got access to the internet, I looked it up and found that it is called Mock Strawberry, False Strawberry or Indian Strawberry, Latin Potentilla indica (formerly Duchesnea indica and it is stilled listed as this in some places). It is edible, so next time we found some I tried one – it has almost no flavour and it is white inside just like real strawberries.

Edible beech nuts from Epping Forest

I was walking in the forest when I heard a pitter-patter sound, like the sound of water dripping from the leaves after it has rained. But it hadn’t rained recently so I stood still and watched to see what was falling. Beech nuts! I’ve seen the empty outer shells before but never the actual nuts – I think the squirrels get them if you’re not quick.

Beech nut outer shell

The individual nuts were falling out of the outer shells onto the ground. I picked up a nut and found that unlike most nuts it was very easy to open with my finger nails. The nut looks a bit like a pine nut, and surprisingly it also tasted a bit like a pine nut.

Beech nuts in shells

I’ve done a little research and found that beech nuts (also called beechmast) are high in tannins and shouldn’t be eaten in large quantities. Soaking them for 8 hours or more and then rinsing them removes some of the tannins and probably makes them easier to digest.

Beech nuts

We opened and then soaked the ones we collected and made pesto with them, not quite as creamy as when made with pine nuts but still delicious.

Spring is here, collecting wild greens again

Spring is here and the wild greens are back! It’s been a particularly bad winter for wild greens which makes it even more exciting to go forraging again. In the last week I’ve been picking garlic mustard, wild garlic, wild leek, dandelion, plantain, sow thistle, sheep’s sorrel, chickweed, hawthorn leaves and possibly more.

Here’s a photo I took of some sheep’s sorrel. It’s got a strong lemony taste. It’s not good to eat in large amounts due to it’s high oxalic acid content, but because of it’s strong flavour you usually only want to use it in small amounts mixed into a salad.

Sheep's sorrel

Wild fruit: Rose hips and Hawthorn berries

Here in London, the rose hips are ripe! They are one of my favourite wild foods, they taste great and if you read my post last year on the subject, you will know that rose hips are full of vitamin C.

There are a couple of indicators of ripeness:

  • they go a bit squashy and possibly look a bit wrinkled
  • the colour changes, ripe rose hips are a bit less shiny than the hard unripe ones

A very ripe rose hip

Rose hips have lots of seeds which are hairy and can be irritating to the throat. After picking, it is possible to pull the end off and squeeze all the seeds out at the same time, although this doesn’t always work. I do find that when they are properly ripe the seeds are not irritating.

Also still around at the moment are hawthorn berries. These taste a bit like avocado and are supposed to be good for your heart.

Hawthorn berries

When picking wild food, always make sure you have the right plant, especially with red berries. With hawthorn berries, check the leaf shape to make sure you have the right tree.

Edible Wild Flowers – Colour and nutrition for your salad

Spring is here, brining with it lots of wild flowers, many of which are edible. Here is a selection I found yesterday. Click on an image to enlarge.

Hawthorn flowers are a good flower to start with, they don’t have a strong flavour. White dead nettles are another easy flower, not too strong and can be quite sweet. They are not related to stinging nettles so they won’t sting you!

Dandelion flowers can be a bit bitter and can take a bit of getting used to, but I like them now. Wild garlic (ramsons) flowers have a delicious sweet garlicky flavour while Jack by the hedge flowers have a stronger flavour – garlic and mustard with a little bitterness.

As always, take care when picking wild food and make sure you are certain about what you are eating.

Spring Flowers

The wild garlic (ramsons) is just coming into flower. The leaves are great in salads or made into pesto.

Wild garlic with flowers

The flowers are delicious, they have a strong garlic flavour with a nice touch of sweetness and creaminess.

Wild garlic flowers

Tulips are beautiful, this is taken in Nunhead Cemetery. According to Twinkel’s article in the latest Funky Raw magazine they are edible but somehow they look too good to eat!

Tulip flower closeup

I don’t know what this is but it is very pretty. It’s in Peckham Rye Park.

Peckham rye pink flowers

Close up of pink flowers

(Click on any photo to enlarge.)

Wild Garlic Pesto

Wild GarlicI like making pesto with basil, but it’s not really in season at the moment, so I used some wild leaves I collected. I used mostly wild garlic (pictured) (Edit: this is not actually wild garlic, it’s Wild Leek. Photos of wild garlic here.), a few chives and a few sorrel leaves. I ground up a couple of handfuls of pine nuts, then added the leaves and some flax oil and blended. It had a strong flavour, delicious on a green salad of dandelion leaves and other wild greens.