Thursday, February 24, 2011

Going Native: In the Dark About Nightshade

Once again, I have been fooled into thinking a plant is native! I truly thought the climbing nightshade I have growing on my fence was native. It turns out that while there are some nightshades native to my region, solanum dulcamara, was introduced. It is also known as bittersweet nightshade, climbing nightshade, or European nightshade (that last common name is a pretty big clue).

Well, I am in love with its bright red berries especially this time of year, but they are the reason why this plant has so successfully naturalized here. Birds eat these berries and expel the seeds elsewhere. Crows, eastern kingbirds, mimic-thrushes, thrushes, white-crowned sparrows, and waxwings eat the berries of bittersweet nightshade. In the Northeast, numerous other songbirds, game birds, and some mammals also eat the berries. Gray catbirds have been known to nest in bittersweet nightshade. But most interestingly, it is a recognized major food source for bumble bees and this I can attest to because it is rare to see one of its purple blooms (resembling a tomato flower) without a bumble bee clinging to it during the summer in spite of all the other plantings I have! Also, its leaves are quite "holey" throughout the summer so I believe them to be a food source for some type(s) of insects. The Nature Conservancy has given bittersweet nightshade a national ranking of "low" based on its overall low ecological impacts, but are moderately concerned about its widespread distribution and abundance.

Hmm, yet another native dilemma! A naturalized non-native that offers some wildlife value and a major source of food for bumble bees (who are declining). I think I will save a patch of this climber for now. As my garden matures and I add more berries and pollen sources (perhaps specifically for bumble bees),  I can slowly phase this plant out. I would be interested in knowing what you would do.

Sources for this post include Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the US Forest Service.


  1. I think I'd do what you plan on doing -- reduce it a little, keep it from spreading, but leave it until you no longer need it. I feel like there's a good balance a gardener can strike between native and non-native plants.

  2. Oh Dear! VF, I would do what you are suggesting and if you want to feed the bumblebees, but not let the berries spread their seeds, you could cut it back after flowering. I know that would be hard but it would keep it from spreading via the beautiful berries. If this plant is not on the invasive lists, I would not be too concerned. If you see it as spreading too fast in your garden, then maybe more action (cutting back) is called for. We all have non native plants in our gardens as Alan shares and the balance is a worthy cause to work upon. That is my take on it. I am sure you will continue to care for the environment with the same wisdom and concern you always do.

  3. I have often admired those flowers in a nearby woodland, but had been unaware that it was non-native. Thank you for sharing with us! I do think that your plan to phase it out is a good one. I remember, when I totally loved Verbascum thapsis and then found out that it makes over a 100,000 seeds that can live for decades. I had to rip it out~gail

  4. I agree, it's quite a dilemma. I planted natives and gave them a chance to mature before I took out the exotics (luckily, Blue Elderberry grows very quickly, so the cotoneaster was a goner pretty soon). So glad you've thinking of this change for the good.

  5. I 2 fell in love with the beautiful berries and purple flowers of the mysterious vining plant growing on my chain link fence. I later found out it was bittersweet nightshade. I only just learned that nightshade is extremely poisonous to humans. Just do an online search for nightshade-free food and you will read what I mean! It's frightening. I definitely plan to rip it out very carefully


Thank you for joining me in my garden in the making!

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