African Nightshade: An Underappreciated Native Comes into the Light

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By Matt Styslinger

The term “nightshade” refers collectively to a wide-ranging group of plants, including poisonous, medicinal, and edible species (from the genus Solanum). This includes three major crops of global importance: tomato, potato, and eggplant. The broad-leafed African nightshade (Solanum scabrum)—often confused with its poisonous North African/ Eurasian cousins, Atropa belladonna and Solanum nigrum—is widely cultivated in sub-Saharan Africa on smallholder plots and in home gardens. The African native crop is also gaining popularity near cities, for city dwellers who crave a taste of home.

African-indigenous-crop-vegetable-nightshade-Solanum-scabrum-leafy-nutritous-West-East- Mary-Onyango-Abukutsa-Jomo-Kenyatta-University-of-Agriculture-and-Technology

African nightshade is one of the most important indigenous leafy vegetables in West and Central Africa (Photo credit: PROTA)

African nightshade is sometimes referred to as black nightshade or garden huckleberry. There are numerous African words for the plant, including: mnavu (Swahili), managu (Kikuyu), namaska (Luhya), and osuga (Luo). The species name Solanum nigrum is often incorrectly used for all of the Solanum species occurring in Africa, including the broad-leafed African nightshade.

Unlike some other nightshades, the fruit of the African nightshade is not eaten. The bud, flowers, and fruits are removed, and the leaves and fresh shoots eaten as a cooked vegetable. The vegetable can be very bitter, and milk or salt is often added to reduce bitterness. It is sometimes served with fufu, which is made from cassava, plantains, yams, or maize.

The vegetable is an excellent source of protein, iron, vitamin A, iodine, zinc. The high nutritional value makes African nightshade especially important for poor people, as well as helping people suffering from HIV/AIDS get better nutrition.

Nightshades are traditionally used worldwide as medicinal plants, especially to treat stomach ailments. Leaf extracts from African nightshade are used to treat diarrhea, eye infections, and jaundice. The raw fruit is sometimes chewed to treat stomach ulcers or stomachache.

Other uses for African nightshade include fodder for cattle and goats. Dye can be made from both the leaves and the fruit.

The African nightshade is naturally common in both lowland and highland areas in West, Central, and East Africa. It can grow in a wide range of soils, but it does better in nutrient-rich soil with high levels of organic material.

There are no solid statistics on how much African nightshade is currently cultivated. But the crop is one of the most important indigenous leafy vegetables in West and Central Africa, and to a lesser extent East Africa, according to Plant Resources of Tropical Africa (PROTA). Cameroon produces enough African nightshade to export to neighboring countries. According to Patrick Maundu at Bioversity International, demand for the crop has recently risen significantly since East African supermarkets started stocking it. “When the crop first hit the Uchumi supermarket shelves in Kenya and Uganda, it was just a matter of time before Nakumatt supermarkets and other major chains took it up. In Tanzania, the crop is widely sold in the vegetable markets. As a result, farmers in peri-urban areas have also increased production to keep up with local demand,” says Maundu.

In September of 2010, Kenyan Professor Mary Onyango-Abukutsa—who is quoted in State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet—was awarded a US$147,000 grant by Kenya’s National Council for Science and Technology to lead research on African indigenous vegetables at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. Her research will focus on three key vegetables, including African nightshade, spider plant, and amaranth.

To read more about crops indigenous to Africa see: Wild Ethiopian Coffee: Harvesting the Perks of an Indigenous Crop, Black Plum: Fruit, Timber, and Agroforestry, Safou: the “Butterfruit”, Traditional Food Crops Provide Community Resilience in Face of Climate Change, and Monkey Oranges: Mouthwatering Potential.

Matt Styslinger is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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