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 thatwould 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 hobbyists. 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 fascination to me; now, 50 years later.
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 the 1950's?
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'sI'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 immatureand 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 growthand 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 Vallisto
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. The 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 palatable.
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. Ican'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 Wannabe's", Jaltomata was producing well by the hot days in late summer. The fruit 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.