Are Garden Huckleberries Poisonous?

by Patricia H. Reed

"Bland-borderline-poison-berry" might be a more accurate name for the garden huckleberry (Solanum melanocerasum) -- also called sunberry or wonderberry -- but wouldn't sell as many seeds. This annual has a flavor described as everything from totally tasteless to similar to an unripe tomato, to pleasantly musky when raw. It is said to become sweet when cooked into jams, preserves and pies -- though the plentiful added sugar likely plays a role in the transformation. Whatever its flavor, it's wise to learn more about garden huckleberry's potential toxicity before giving the plant valuable real estate in your garden and serving up that first piece of pie.

1. About Garden Huckleberries

Garden huckleberries are warm-weather plants that grow in full sun and resemble pepper plants (Capsicum annuum). They grow 2 1/2 feet tall and produce clusters of small white flowers in midsummer, followed by 1/2- to 3/4-inch green berries that ripen to dark purplish black. Each plant produces hundreds of berries. They are considered ripe about two weeks after they turn black, the skin goes from shiny to dull, and the berries are soft to the touch with purple flesh. The leaves are sometimes cooked and eaten as well.

2. Nightshade Family

Like the peppers and tomatoes the plants resemble, garden huckleberries are part of the Solanaceae, or nightshade, family. Common or woody nightshade (Solanum nigrum) contains solanine, a toxin that causes vomiting and convulsions if berries or leaves are consumed, but is not as deadly as true nightshade (Atropa belladonna), which contains a range of toxins in all parts of the plant that can lead to death in children when enough is consumed. Garden huckleberries contain some solanine in the unripe berries. The leaves are high in protein, but also contain an amino acid called methionine, which can be toxic when eaten in large quantities.

3. True Huckleberries

The "huckleberry" part of the common name of the garden huckleberry comes from the ripe fruit's resemblence to the huckleberry (Gaylusaccia baccata), a blueberrylike fruit that grows on a deciduous shrub 1 foot tall and 3 feet wide and is suitable for U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 8. Several other berries are also known as huckleberries, primarily in Western states, and are members of the blueberry family.

4. Using Garden Huckleberries

When you choose to plant and eat garden huckleberries, be certain that they are fully ripe. Even when ripe, they aren't recommended for fresh eating, though more for flavor reasons than for any safety concerns. Recipes for pies and preserves have been developed specifically for garden huckleberries, or you can substitute the berries in any recipe that calls for regular blueberries. One plant should produce enough for a single pie in one harvest, so you may just want to start with a plant or two to see if they are to your taste.