Ask Friends of Rogers

Bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) is now a common sight along roads and trails in North America. It has distinctive purple and yellow flowers but its fruit looks like miniature tomatoes.

Dear Friends of Rogers,

I just found out tomatoes and belladonna are both in the nightshade family. I know belladonna is very poisonous, is it dangerous to eat tomatoes?

Worried about Nightshades


Dear Worried,

Plant families do share characteristics, but you can relax and enjoy your tomatoes! The nightshade family, Solanaceae, also includes eggplant, potatoes, and bell peppers. There are plenty of instances of food we love having some deadly cousins, but do not let that scare you away from vegetables. Toxins in plants can be very localized and the dose makes the poison. For example, tomatoes and potatoes are great, but eating their leaves can make you sick. However, you would have to eat a lot of leaves for it to be serious.

You are not the only one to be wary of this connection. When Europeans first came to the Americas, they were appalled to see natives eating tomatoes. The fruit looked so similar to deadly bittersweet nightshade berries they assumed it was the same plant. Supposedly, throwing tomatoes at bad stage performers to show dislike has its roots in this confusion. Bittersweet nightshade has since been brought over to North America and you can find it on our trails!

Throughout the centuries, humans have mistaken poisonous plants and their harmless lookalikes. Westward settlers on the Oregon Trail had to be careful they did not gather poison hemlock instead of parsnips. People today still confuse edible sumac with poison sumac which causes a rash like poison ivy.

Toxins in plants are not always bad. Some have led to medical breakthroughs. Nightshade plants have been used as anesthetics and pain relievers. A compound in yew, a common garden shrub, is being investigated as a cancer medication. All parts of the yew plant are poisonous and can cause death in a few hours.

Hope this clears up your confusion.


Friends of Rogers


P.S. If you want to discover what other deadly plants are lurking in your backyard come to “Everyday Poisons” our July Learning Lecture. It will be Tuesday, July 2nd at 6:30 pm at Rogers Center find more information from the flyer in this newsletter.