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Everyone is familiar with the most popular members of the Solanaceae family: potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. We buy them from the farmers market, we grow them in our gardens and we serve them on our tables in meals ranging from salads to pizzas. But there are many other members of this family, also commonly known as nightshades.
Some nightshade plants are poisonous, such as jimsonweed and the aptly-named deadly nightshade, but many lesser-known edible nightshades can make great additions to your garden and culinary endeavors. If you want to expand past the well-known tomato into some more unique crops, here are four great nightshades to try as well as tips for growing and using them.
1. Ground Cherries
Ground cherry plants (pictured above) are similar in size and appearance to tomato plants, and the cherry-sized fruit is enclosed within thin, papery husks. A native plant that has been enjoyed by generations of farmers dating back to the Pilgrims, the cherry-sized ground cherries can be eaten fresh or used in pies, salads, preserves and more. Because they require several months to mature and can’t withstand frost, start them indoors at least six weeks before your expected planting date. They should be planted in well-drained soil with full sunlight: ground cherries—like most nightshades—thrive in hot, sunny weather. A tomato cage or trellis can be used to help your ground cherries grow upright, but they are also strong enough to support themselves on their own.
2. Goji Berries
The remarkable goji plant is a disease-resistant shrub—typically 7 to 10 feet tall—that produces abundant berries filled with antioxidants, beta carotene and other nutrients. A touted superfood, goji berries are among the healthiest fruits to be found, as they’re high in iron and vitamins A and C. The goji plants, which are grown commercially in their native China, enjoy full sun or partial shade and tolerate drought quite well. In the United States, they grow best in zones 5 to 9. Goji berries, like ground cherries, can be eaten fresh or used in a variety of other ways, including juicing and drying.
A close relative to ground cherries, tomatillos produce large green fruit enclosed in paper-like husks. A long-time staple of Mexican food and a key ingredient for salsas, tomatillos should be grown in much the same fashion as ground cherries, starting off indoors about six weeks before transplanting to allow them ample time to mature, and trellis them to ensure they grow upright. Tomatillos require warm weather, full sun and well-drained soil and should be watered frequently to help them reach their full potential. Because they are not self-fertile, you will need to plant at least two tomatillos for pollination purposes.
4. Garden Huckleberry
Unlike its close relatives, the modest-sized garden huckleberry enjoys temperate conditions, growing successfully in partial shade while showing a preference for rich soil. A very productive plant that grows an abundant amount of black berries, the garden huckleberry also sturdier than the tomato and can be grown without a stake or trellis for support. The berries can be bitter when eaten raw, but take on a more pleasant flavor when cooked with sugar. As with ground cherries and tomatillos, garden huckleberry plants should be started indoors to avoid the risk of frost, but they mature sooner than their fellow nightshades, bearing fruit within 75 to 80 days.
Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants may have rightfully earned their place in our gardens and on our tables, but their close relatives deserve attention, as well. One of these little-known nightshades might just turn out to be your favorite one of all.
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About the Author: Samantha Johnson is the author of several books, including The Beginner’s Guide to Vegetable Gardening, (Voyageur Press, 2013). She raises Welsh Mountain Ponies in northern Wisconsin and enjoys gardening, especially heirloom vegetables. Visit her online portfolio.