The Long Island Seed Project

Garden Huckleberry, Burbank's Sunberry and other obscure Solanaceae

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Garden Huckleberry
Burbank's Sunberry
Jalomata procumbens

Revised June 25, 2007

Garden Huckleberry

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 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.  

The selection of black nightshade sold as garden huckleberry is a branching annual, 1 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. 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 above).

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 boiled until tender in water with a pinch of baking soda 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 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.

Burbank's Sunberry

Luther Burbank (1849-1926) released the "Sunberry", considered to be a much improved kind of Garden Huckleberry in the early 1900's.   He claimed it was the result of many years of crossing of Solanum guinense now considered to be S. nigrum var. guinese (a species native to Africa) and S. villosum (indigenous to Europe).  Critics immediately claimed Burbank had simply reintroduced S. nigrum, Garden Huckleberry, as a new plant.

The legendary Luther Burbank was considered a genius plant breeder by some, others considered him a self promoter who couldn't document his claims because of the poor notes he kept.  I think the truth lies somewhere in between.  He was certainly a grand collector of cactus and fruit trees, berry bushes, grasses, flowers and vegetables who is credited for introducing 800 varieties of plants.  Some kinds of plants he simply introduced from other places, others he selected for particular characteristics, some were chance mutations that occur in every garden and many others were the results of laborious cross-pollination and careful selection.  I admire Burbank's work.  No plant seemed to escape his notice.  He saw potential in plant species that were mostly overlooked by others.  He became a kind of national hero in the league of Thomas Edison through the early 1900's and influenced a whole generation of plant breeders.  We still eat fries made from Burbank Potatoes and enjoy Burbank's Shasta Daisy.
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 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.

Chichiquelite aka Miltomate Vallisto

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 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. 

Jaltomata procumbens

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 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 are attached to a persistant fused calyx as you can see in the above image.  The fruit is harvested when it turns purple-black.


All of the Solanacea on this page are started from seed easily.  We sow the seed in flats of seed starting mix indoors as we would tomatoes and peppers, both in the same family.  A mid March sowing from seed and then transplanting outside when the garden soil warmed up in May resulted in plants bearing fruit in late June.  Production should continue into the fall.  My concern is that S. nigrum varieties may become a problem in the garden as birds scatter the seeds and if the seeds overwinter to become a weedy pest.  One of the weeds I have to keep after in my garden is indeed Black Nightshade.  The weedy nightshade I try to control looks most similar to the Garden Huckleberry I'm evaluating in plant habit and leaf characteristics and there too, are differences.

Last Modified:  June, 2007