The Long Island Seed Project
Garden Huckleberry, Burbank's Sunberry
other obscure Solanaceae
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- Garden Huckleberry
- Burbank's Sunberry
- Jalomata procumbens
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 Garden Huckleberry (Solanum nigrum var. melanocerasum) is
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.
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.
Luther Burbank (1849-1926) released the "Sunberry", considered to be a
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
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
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.
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
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.
We found that both the Chichiquelite and Miltomate Vallisto from two
different seed sources produced plants of the same phenotype.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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