Since the very beginning of time, humans have tried out various delicacies and edibles to expand their knowledge of the flavor, nutritional elements, and of course, toxicity of various substances. Many substances are instantly discarded as inedible or toxic as a result of their bad smell, outward appearance, or taste. However, some others don’t give any signs or features of toxicity, and that makes them dangerous and possibly fatal to human health- the nightshade berry is one of such fruits.
Image Source: woodland trust (deadly nightshade plant)
Nightshade berries are fruits of the black nightshade, also known as the blackberry nightshade or the deadly nightshade. The black nightshade is a perennial/annual species of plants with native ties to Eurasia that can grow up to about one meter in height, and produce tasty, but poisonous berries. Just like many plants, the black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) has a lot of applications, but a lot of care must be taken while handling them. The reason is because of the high toxicity levels in plant parts, but the focus is usually on the fruits (berries). The knowledge of the nightshade berry today makes one wonder how the early men survived the toxicity of the berries, and it can only be assumed that many died of ignorance to the fatal effects of these berries.
Image source: Woodland Trust
Generally, unripe nightshade berries are unsafe for consumption due to high levels of toxicity, and its effects can be fatal in children who have eaten at least two of these berries. For adults, it might take up to 10 of these berries to have any harmful health effects, but it is still quite dangerous, even in small amounts. Fruits from the black nightshade emerge after flowering as shiny, round berries about 5-10 millimetres in size and usually packed with a lot of seeds. Unripe nightshade berries are easily identifiable because of their characteristic green colors, but they ripen to become shiny purple-black berries that drop to the ground from the parent plant. Ripe nightshade berries are generally less toxic than the unripe ones, but even the ripe berries can be quite toxic/poisonous.
Throughout history, the nightshade berry has been addressed as both a savior and harbinger of death and suffering, and now we know why.
Here are a few interesting facts about the nightshade berry:
It Tastes Sweet And Looks Edible
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The danger that surrounds ingesting the nightshade berry is made invisible because it tastes sweet, looks shiny and dark-purple when ripe, and shows no symptoms of toxicity within the first few hours of ingestion. Victims of the nightshade berry have absolutely no idea what they are walking into because nothing about the berry alerts them of the possible danger and toxicity of what they are eating. Nightshade berries are said to have a taste/flavor similar to the combination of a blueberry, tomatillo, and tomato, with a bitter-acidic mouthfeel.
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The toxicity of the nightshade berry can be attributed to levels of Solanine, a toxic glycoalkaloid found in the berries, especially in the unripe ones. Consumption of unripe and even some ripe nightshade berries can lead to poisoning, which manifests in form of mild abdominal pains, diarrhea, sweating, convulsions, paralysis, vomiting, nausea, and slight loss of cognitive functions. If ingested in large amounts, solanine in the human system can lead to death by triggering respiratory failure and other cardiovascular issues. However, solanine is not only found in the nightshade berry. Other plants in the Solanum genus such as potatoes, egg plants, and tomatoes have considerable amounts of solanine in their leaves, stem, tubers, and berries.
It Can Be Weaponized
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The use of the nightshade berry as poison has been documented throughout history. Apparently, the poisonous essence of the nightshade berry can be extracted and used against a particular target, usually a ruler, heir, or any other individual. Extracts of the nightshade berries were added to meals and drinks of targets in history, without being detected by taste. Some of the most famous rulers that died at the hands of the nightshade berry include Emperor Augustus of Rome and Macbeth, King of Scotland.
It Has Medicinal Properties
For a plant with so many dangerous attributes, it is almost impossible to believe that it can serve any positive functions. Extracts from the nightshade berry can be used to treat many illnesses ranging from tonsillitis, fever, pneumonia, chronic pain, tumors, and stomach ache. It serves as a diuretic and anti-inflammatory substance, as well as an anti-oxidant to fight against harmful free radicals in the body. The berries can also be used as laxatives, in asthma, tuberculosis and ulcer treatments, and also as appetite stimulants.
Toxicity Is Not Uniform
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In some parts of the world, the berries and parts from the parent plants are cooked and eaten without any form of health repercussions, so not all species/strains of nightshade berries are poisonous. There are certain species and strains that are totally edible, whether raw or cooked, without inducing any form of toxicity in people that ingest them. The toxicity may also be affected by the environmental and internal conditions of growth of the plant such as soil type, water levels, nutrient levels, and so on. However, it is advisable not to eat nightshade berries of unknown strain, species, or source.
Cooking does not degrade the Solanine in nightshade berries
Subjecting nightshade berries to cooking temperature doesn’t automatically rid them of their poisonous potential. This is because Solanine has a natural denaturation temperature of 243°C which is much higher than normal cooking temperatures.
Judging from the range of health benefits of the nightshade berry, it is quite easy to assume that it is packed with nutritional elements. A single nightshade berry has considerable levels of caffeic acid, vitamin A, B, and C, calcium, phosphorus, iron, fiber, solanine, and some other healthy micro-nutrients.
Due to the range of species and strains of the nightshade berry, it is advisable to stay away from consuming them. You should only ingest them when you’re absolutely sure of the type of nightshade plants they come from, and that they do not have a history of toxicity.
Note: The shiny, purple-black nature of nightshade berries may deceive kids to try them out. Keep children away from the reach of these berries to protect them from possible neurodegenerative episodes or death.