Black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) and deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) are two very different plants that are often mistaken for each other.
Both are part of the nightshade family, Solanaceae, but deadly nightshade is far more toxic and hazardous to humans.
Here is a detailed guide to identifying these two species and understanding their key differences.
Black Nightshade Identification
Black nightshade is a short-lived herbaceous plant that can grow to around 3 feet (1 meter) in height. Some key identifying features include:
- Leaves are oval with smooth or lightly toothed edges, growing up to 4 inches (10 cm) long. They may have a faint purple tinge.
- Flowers have five white petals with yellow centers and bloom in summer.
- Green berries form in small clusters, ripening to dark purple or black.
- Native to Europe, Asia, and Africa but naturalized worldwide. Abundant in temperate regions.
- Often considered a weed in gardens, farms, and disturbed sites.
Deadly Nightshade Identification
Deadly nightshade is a perennial shrub that grows to about 4 feet (1.3 meters) tall. Identifying features include:
- Oval leaves are wider toward the base and grow up to 6 inches (15 cm) long. Edges are smooth.
- Drooping, bell-shaped purple or greenish flowers bloom from midsummer into early fall.
- Shiny black berries form individually rather than in clusters.
- Native to Europe, Southwest Asia, and Northwest Africa. Rare in New Zealand.
- Found in woodlands, scrublands, and other uncultivated areas.
Both plants contain toxic alkaloids such as solanine and atropine. However, deadly nightshade produces these chemicals in much higher concentrations, making it very hazardous even in small doses.
- Black nightshade berries and foliage are edible when fully ripe and properly prepared. Unripe or incorrectly cooked parts can cause numbing, nausea, and convulsions.
- Deadly nightshade is extremely poisonous; as few as 2-4 berries or leaves can be lethal to an adult. Symptoms include delirium, hallucinations, and muscle paralysis.
Final Tips for Identification
When trying to distinguish between these species, look for differences in berry color, cluster vs individual growth, and flower shape and color. If you cannot definitively identify a nightshade plant, do not consume any part of it.
Both plants have toxic potentials, but deadly nightshade poses a much higher hazard to humans.
Exercise extreme caution when foraging for black nightshade, and steer clear of deadly nightshade.