Garden Huckleberry, Burbank's Sunberry and other obscure Solanaceae
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The Garden Huckleberry (Solanum nigrum var.
melanocerasum) is probably not what one would necessarily add when
making up their seed lists for the garden. Often it may come with
your seed order as a free gift along with Vine Peach (Cucumis melo) or
some other oddity that would normally sit on the shelf of a seed
retailer for almost ever. My interest goes back to the late
1950's when; as youngster, I received a packet of the Garden
Huckleberry from Murvon Seed Company, a small Connecticut Seed Company
that apparently was in business since the 1930's and specialized in
selling some very unique seed varieties to home garden hobbiests.
Murvon introduced me to the Yard Long Bean (Vigna sesquipedalis),
Shoo-Fly Plant (Nicandra physalodes), The Unicorn Plant ( Proboseidea
sp.) and many other oddities that helped to catalyze my curiosity in
plants. Garden Huckleberry remains a facination to me; now, 50
Garden Huckleberry is not even closely related to the woody shrub that
we use the berries of in pies and cobblers. True Huckleberries
and Blueberries are in the heath family. Garden Huckleberry is an
herbaceous plant closely allied to the poisonous balladonna, a member
of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. Garden huckleberry has been
variously described as S. nigrum var. guineense; S. scabrum, also S.
melanocerasum (now considered S. nigrum melanocerasum) and is often
considered to be an edible form of the common weed plant, black
nightshade, in fact, most researchers now consider it to be a variation
of Solanum nigrum, common black nightshade.
The selection of black nightshade sold as garden huckleberry is a
branching annual to 2 feet tall with upright growth, oval leaves with
wavy margins, sometimes variably toothed. The tiny white flowers, borne
in clusters resemble very small tomato flowers which are in the same
family. The berry is green when immature, purplish-black when
ripe. The plant contains toxic glycoalkaloids which can result is
gastrointestinal irritation and/or effects on the central nervous
system which could be significant. There are some herbal sites
that allude to medicinal qualities of this plant. There are also
many references of people eating the ripe black berries without adverse
effect and, in fact; there are regions in the country where jams
and pies have been made from the berries of this nightshade for
generations. Black Nightshade and Garden Huckleberry do indeed
appear to be identical species but there is considerable variation in
the species S. nigrum and selection over a significant period of time
may have resulted in a plant with fruit of better quality and less
toxicity. We secured seeds of Garden Huckleberry from two sources
and grew plants of identical phenotype (photo below).
The preparation of the fruit of the Garden Huckleberry is simple.
Harvest the berries when they are completely ripe (turn black and from
shiny to dull). Some sources say that they may be eaten in
moderation when ripe and uncooked but they are considered to be
tasteless, some describe a bitterness or an irritating metallic
aftertaste. I would have to agree that the flavor is not
"choice". When used for jam or pies, they are often heated in a
saucepan with a pinch of baking soda added to some water which removes
the bitterness. They can then be drained and sugar is added to
the mix when hot but after the boiling process to prevent the
toughening of fruit. Often, a squeeze of lemon helps kick up the
flavor. I have heard that harvesting after frost helps to improve
the flavor. I remember as a kid, that the dull fruit really stood
out on the plant after frost and the berries looked a lot like
blueberries to me. I don't remember eating them though.
Another thing I remember is that the seed I received from Murvon Seed
Company was stained light blue right out of the packet. The seeds
I planted in 2007 looked like very small light tan pepper seeds and
didn't have the blue stain. Is this the same plant I grew back in
Garden huckleberry is also known as quonderberry, wonderberry,
sunberry, moralle, morella, petty morel, solanberry, black berried
nightshade, and houndsberry say my notes but now I'm not so sure.
This is one controversial plant.
Now, in August, the Garden Huckleberry has become a much
branching plant with a spread of nearly a meter. Each plant
produces large numbers of glossy berries (they do not seem to become
dull as they mature as I have read), certainly enough to make a pie, if
that is what you want. I've been snacking on these berries (raw)
for several weeks (in the interest of science) and I finally decided to
have a small bowlful the other day. I can now tell you that in
spite of good digestion, I thought I would be ill. I can't help
but feel uneasy about eating these rather tasteless, maybe even
distasteful to many folks, seedy berries. Even with sugar, there
is nothing positive that I can say about the flavor of the Garden
Huckleberry. Solanum nigrum is after all black nightshade.
On Long Island we can still harvest REAL huckleberries and blueberries
(highbush and lowbush) in the woods and although it seems to take a lot
longer to fill those containers with fresh berries from the woods, I
opt for those over this weedy garden plant any day. E-mail me
your recipes, convince me that I'm wrong about this plant!
The Sunberry created quite a controversy and for decades Luther Burbank
found himself having to defend his development. Burbank
considered his Sunberry (sold by some seed companies as the
Wonderberry) an interspecies hybrid (Solanum burbankii); others
now, over 75 years after the plant breeders death, still consider it to
be nothing more than Black Nightshade or a variation of S.
nigrum. But is it? I was able to obtain what was labeled as
the Sunberry and also Mrs. B's (which is considered to be the same as
the Sunberry) from two different sources. They turned out to
produce the same phenotype. I don't really know if the Sunberry/Mrs.
B's I'm growing is the one, in fact, developed by Burbank.
Over the years, Burbank's Sunberry fell out of favor. Garden
Huckleberry, a popular name, may have been used by seed vendors to
describe the Sunberry and vice versa. Unfortunately, that kind of
mislabeling in the seed industry is not uncommon. It's not clear
to me that we see the Sunberry (as available today) in it's original
form. There may have even been some unintentional crossing with
other Solanum species.
So for the record, Garden Huckleberry available through commercial
sources today is not the same as the solanacea marketed today as
Sunberrry. The two are quite different. Different
cultivars...yes. Different species? I'm not sure. The
flower structure of both and the flower petals (white) seem identical
in both. The flea beetles really prefer the Sunberry to the
Garden Huckleberry possibly due to less toxic alkaloids in the Sunberry
but there are other notable differences. The berries of the
Sunberry are dull green when immature and hang in small
umbel-like clusters, the distinctively low spreading plant has wavy
edged leaves that are also moderately toothed unlike my Garden
Huckleberry plants which have fruit that are glossy green when immature
and are borne more upright in umbel-like clusters. The
Garden Huckleberry plant is also more vertical in growth and the
leaves are entire. It really does looks a lot like a weedy black
nightshade. I would have to say that the Sunberry produces more
fruit but smaller fruit mostly hidden below the foliage. I find
the flavor of uncooked berries interesting, bland, but not bitter like
the Garden Huckleberry. I've heard from people I trust on
this that the Sunberry produces supurb desserts with enough added
sugar. We'll see. I don't plan to do any
cooking with the berries until fall, maybe after frost.
After wondering why Luther Burbank ever bothered with developing the
Sunberry which is considered to be Garden Huckleberry by some, I
understand the motivation. Burbank was raised on a small farm in
Massachusetts and was part of a large family. He undoubtedly ate
his share of blueberry pie made from foraged berries in season. I
can tell you from personal experience, blueberry season is a cherished
childhood memory if you live in a location where blueberries grow
wild. Moving to the desert-like Santa Rosa, California might have
left him longing for a substitute. Did he find it. I think
so. The Mexican Chichiquelite (Miltomate Vallisto) is another
variation of black nightshade but it is slightly sweet and juicy.
I've been eating more than a few of these bright glossy berries raw
with sugar and without. They are tiny, smaller than Garden
Huckleberry but what a difference in flavor. They are not
blueberries nor huckleberries but they're not terrible like Garden
Huckleberry. Working with this naturalized plant (originally from
Africa) and other black nightshades, I believe that he was able to
develop hybrids that produced very pleasant fruit.
Chichiquelite aka Miltomate
I believe that the Chichiquelite could (even without breeding effort)
cook up into something very nice and something Burbank wouldn't mind
attaching his name to. The Sunberry which I am also studying in
the garden and which is believed to be the hybrid that Burbank
developed, has a very similar taste to the Chichiquelite.
berries are also small but dull. The low growing Sunberry hides
it's berries well under the foliage and are a bit more difficult to
harvest. Both the Sunberry and Chichiquelite are very rich in
anthocyanin (the purple pignment in the berries) and may have useful
antioxidant properties (my hunch is that they exceed the content in
blueberries). I believe that the Garden Huckleberry that I grew
from Murvon Seeds in the 1950's was actually Burbank's Sunberry and not
the weedy Garden Huckleberry with the distasteful berries. But it
is not the the Sunberry that is marketed today and is also not the
Chichiquelite I am growing. Murvon's Sunberry was
different. It had very large clusters of dull blue to black
berries intermediate in size borne on small upright plants. How
readily does the Chichiquelite, the Sunberry variation I am growing and
Garden Huckleberry cross? They may indeed be just three of the
variations of an extremely diverse species with a large gene
pool. Burbank's greatest ability was in his eye for
selection. Could it be that his selection has crossed over the
decades with others losing it's unique character? Perhaps next
year I will be able to shed more light on all of this.
We found that both the Chichiquelite and Miltomate Vallisto from
two different seed sources produced plants of the same phenotype.
They seem to be the same by all accounts. The plants resemble the
Sunberry, wavy leaves, hang down fruit but the berries start out glossy
similar to Garden Huckleberry not dull like the Sunberry. Also
the tiny flowers, although identical to both Sunberry and Garden
Huckleberry in form have a lavender tint instead of the pure white
corolla. The plant growth is more like the Garden Huckleberry.
My initial observations is that Chichiquelite have small pleasant
flavored fruits with some fruitiness and an odd complexity.
Oddly, this solanum is the least known of the Garden Huckleberries in
North America (Solanum nigrum var. guineense - L.) from western Africa
but introduced to Mexico. This is presumed to be one of the
parents of Luther Burbank's Sunberry and I can see the similarity to
the Sunberry I have growing in the same patch of my garden. It
may prove to be the best culinary variety of the three "Huckleberrys" I
am evaluating this summer. In the tropics of Africa and Central
America the leaves are used as a potherb and is similar to cooked
spinach, always cooked, never eaten raw. The toxic alkaloids are
destroyed in the process of cooking. Like all of these Solanum
species, the unripe fruit, uncooked leaves and stems are considered
potentially toxic and should never be consumed. Again, there may
be some selections that have lower toxicity than others and selections
developed for better "cooked greens" or berries. The berries of
the Chichiquelite have been used for pies, cobblers, sweet preserves
and even wines. The ripe berries, uncooked are certainly
This is a very different Solanacea than the above three and indeed
belongs in a separate genus. Sometimes called Creeping False
Holly it is native to the American Southwest and the ripe fruit has
been used economically in parts of Mexico fresh, dried, in jams or
preserves. While evaluating the "Huckleberrys" I couldn't resist
growing this close relative. The fruit on my plants haven't yet
ripened (late June) so I can't vouch for the flavor which has been
described to me as part tomato, part grape. Hmm. I
can't even imagine that but some see it as a potential new fruit.
The plant is much branched and bright yellow-green, leaves are toothed
a bit like the American Holly. The flower is much larger than the
Garden Huckleberry and is yellow mottled with green. The single
fruit is attached to a persistant fused calyx as you can see in the
above image. The fruit is harvested when it turns
purple-black. A bit later than the other Solanaceae "Huckleberry
Jaltomata was producing well by the hot days in late summer. The
drops easily from their green calyx when ripe. You might recall
that this berry is being viewed by some as a potential new crop.
The flavor of grape and tomato, now I don't think so.
While not as objectionable as the Garden Huckleberry, the raw fruit of
Jaltomata is most like one of the worse winter supermarket tomatoes you
have ever eaten. Those that lack any flavor. No sweetness,
no tartness. Cardboard-like. On top of that, there is the
annoying grittiness of the multitude of tiny seeds inside each
fruit. The berries are about the same size as Garden Huckleberry.