My Huckleberry, Friend or Foe


Life can become very confusing when you start talking about some crop plants, because many are known by a large number of very different regional names. A single name can be used time and time again to describe completely different, unrelated plants in different parts of the world. The simplest explanation for this must be human migration.

Whenever we encounter an unknown fruit or vegetable in a new part of the world it is only natural to name it after a familiar one that it vaguely resembles from ‘the old country’.  Thus, Chinese gooseberries and Cape gooseberries have little in common with true gooseberries, except that they are sharp to the taste. This would be an even more convincing explanation if they actually came from China and South Africa. This can only  be a partial explanation at best because many name duplications are even more completely and utterly baffling. The fig, for example, is a fruit that has been known since the dawn of time when Adam and Eve covered their embarrassment behind its hand-like, moderately sized leaves. This knowledge can make the average European male feel totally inadequate when they visit the Caribbean to find that the name fig is used to refer to the banana. It is hardly polite to enquire if the locals in these parts really need fig leaves of several metres length to hide their nether regions!

Perhaps the most obvious justification for name changing occurs with widespread plants that are not eaten in one part of the world, but are considered good fare in others. Here name changes can take on the function of marketing, re-branding or image enhancement. Would you fancy tucking into to a bowl of delicious poisonberries, or do wonderberries or sunberries sound a little more appetising? I think you see the point, because poisonberries, wonderberries and sunberries are all alternative names for the fruit the British usually call, black nightshade and the Americans typically call garden huckleberries.

In fact true huckleberries are a pretty difficult group of fruits to put a name to, because the term huckleberry is used for several related low shrubby species that grow in the acid hill and boggy lands of Oregon, Washington and Idaho. This area is home to; evergreen huckleberries, bog huckleberries, mountain huckleberries and red huckleberries, all of these species live where their name implies or look like their names suggest. The whole gang are closely related to what Americans call blueberries which are in turn related to what the British term, bilberries, blaeberries, or whortleberries (this is not getting any simpler is it?). A few of these fruits have made it into cultivation, but generally they are not far removed from their wild ancestors and many are still actively consumed by hill walkers or even bears.

Re-branding the black nightshade as the garden huckleberry is a stroke of advertising genius, if a little economical with the truth, because the two plants are completely unrelated. The only thing they have in common is the fact that they produce small black berries, which turn a wonderful purple colour on cooking. Nightshades are related to tomatoes, potatoes and peppers, all of which contain potentially poisonous chemicals. It really is not a good idea to eat those green potatoes after all. In European culture this family has a long history of being known for its toxic properties which resulted in the edible species from the new world being regarded with some suspicion on their introduction.  Although there are few hints in the text, Shakespeare’s poisons in Hamlet, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet are all thought to have been derived from this family of plants.  The most infamous species in the family is the deadly nightshade, which has devilish associations that are lost in the darkness of medieval history. Deadly nightshade has frequently been implicated as a constituent part of witch’s potions that gave them the power of flight (or at least the illusion of flying). You do not need a particularly dirty mind to realise that the image of a witch astride a broomstick has sexual connotations. Tradition has it that witches would anoint their broomsticks with ointments made from deadly nightshade before mounting them. Similarly you do not need to be much of a biologist to realise that this method of applying the drug may speed its delivery into the blood stream, but limit the amount absorbed. The resulting hallucinations are thought to have been responsible for the sensation of flying. Although the entire ritual was associated with leaping into the air and dancing, there are no reliable records of witches genuinely flying.

The chemical responsible for the potentially poisonous effects of black nightshade (sorry garden huckleberries) is called solanine and this is also found in tomatoes, potatoes and green peppers. Fortunately solanine breaks down as the fruit ripen so there are few cases of poisoning reported with any of these crops. Even so, old herbals recommend that you do not feed children black nightshade berries and that adults should only eat them when they are very ripe and preferably after a frost. The effects of solanine poisoning include excessive stimulation of the nervous system. Curiously enough atropine, which is the active toxin found in deadly nightshade causes exactly the opposite effect, as it results in depression of the nervous system. So theoretically black nightshade and deadly nightshade could be used as antidotes to each other. However, if you are feeling a bit under the weather after consuming garden huckleberries, I would not recommend following them down with a few deadly nightshade berries, unless you fancy taking your black cat for a ride across the moon on your broomstick.


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