Not So Deadly Nightshade Berries Provide Food for Favoured Few

When my children were too young to teach, I would vigorously search out and remove any nightshade plants from our yard. While I vaguely remembered reading that you have to eat quite a few of the candy-coloured red, yellow and orange fruit to die, I wasn’t taking any chances. I had grown up calling the plant with the pretty purple and yellow flowers “deadly nightshade.” I certainly didn’t want to test the name.

Photo of Sunlit Bittersweet Nightshade Berries

Years have passed and my children know what is not safe to scarf down. A few nightshade plants have grown. I didn’t pull them all out because I think the flowers and berries are actually rather beautiful. One vine twines through a euonymus bush against our fence. Another has sent sprays of berries out over a limestone retaining wall.

Living in a suburban world of grass lawns and pruned trees, I suppose I should have given some thought to how the plants were getting here in the first place, but I was too busy chasing toddlers to think much beyond “Wait. Don’t. It will—“ and then get a towel to dry them off.

Cardinal Consumes Bright Red Berry
Then this weekend, I was watching a male cardinal. He was snooping around eating something off the peach tree branches, then poking amongst the pinks and the Echinacea in the garden bed. I was trying to take his photo, when I clearly saw him pluck a single ruby red berry.

Photo of male CardinalHe tapped it on the limestone at his feet and seemed to rip it open. Thanks to an annoying Echinacea branch, I couldn’t quite see what he did. Did he eat the flesh? Did he eat the seeds? Or did he disdain both and just leave it there.

And now that I do have time to think about it, how are all these nightshade plants getting a start in my yard? They don’t have fluffy airborne seeds like the dandelions and thistles that also want to make their home here. We don’t have a stream to float incoming berries. My kids are so suspicious of them, they wouldn’t even pick them, much less carry them home to plant.

Bird poop seems like a chief suspect.

Since I couldn’t see whether the cardinal ate the berry or the seeds, I had to look for information elsewhere. As usual, I did a bit of a poke and search around the internet and flipped through my field guides.

Bittersweet but Still Somewhat Deadly
The first thing I discovered is that the plant I have called “deadly nightshade” for decades isn’t named that. The plant is actually Bittersweet Nightshade, Solanum dulcamara. Bittersweet Nightshade is an alien, not native to Canada. The one called Deadly Nightshade has black berries.

Photo of Bittersweet Nightshade Berries

Both nightshades are toxic and should never be eaten. The Bittersweet Nightshade is less severely toxic. My Peterson Field Guides to Eastern / Central Medicinal Plants says that it contains “toxic alkaloids and steroids” and can kill by “paralysis and weakened heart.” So keeping the kids away from the berries and plants was a good idea.

Can Birds Bite It, or Will They Bite It?
Having identified the plant properly, I continued trying to find out whether birds can eat the seeds safely. Birds can often eat things that would kill us. For instance, have you ever seen a vulture eating 3-day-old road kill? I’d suggest that we humans skip trying that.
(And of course, my wise Mom once observed when a chipmunk was eating a wild mushroom, “I wouldn’t eat it just because the chipmunk is. Who knows if it’s going to run off, hide and die?” Even wild animals can make toxic mistakes.)

Various internet sources stated that birds do eat bittersweet nightshade berries, but to me one source was more authoritative than the others. A study done by Kent State University in Ohio in the 1950s actually examined the contents of the stomachs of dead birds. They found bittersweet nightshade berry seeds in the stomachs of 4 cardinals. So cardinals do eat nightshade berries. Whether they should or not.

On the US Federal Fire Service website, it states “In a controlled experiment, bittersweet nightshade was found to be highly palatable to cedar waxwings, [and] moderately palatable to American robins and white-crowned sparrows….”

Photo of the leaves and blossoms of Bittersweet NightshadeAccording the various other sources including government weed control sites, birds eat the nightshade berries and spread the seeds in their droppings. This has lead to a widespread distribution of the plants.

So now I have another reason to allow one or two bittersweet nightshade plants to twine around my garden. They produce bright blossoms and attractive berries, and they provide food for visiting birds. I’ll keep the plants in check, though, because I know not everyone likes them.

Join In
Have you seen a bird eating nightshade berries? Did it eat more than one? Please share your observations with a comment.

12 thoughts on “Not So Deadly Nightshade Berries Provide Food for Favoured Few

  1. Hello,

    Interesting article! Since April I have had a Ruffed Grouse stalking me through our forests which has provided me with an excellent opportunity to observe his behaviour and what he eats.
    One day I saw some red berries on a suspended vine and tossed them down for the grouse, who we’ve named Herald. He seemed delighted at this and picked up the berries and swallowed them each whole. The ingestion of the berries has not killed him, and he seems perfectly fine these three weeks later. It was not until I tried to find out what kind of berries they were, that I discovered they might be Nightshade berries.
    However, after hours off scouring the internet and books, I still can’t determine whether or not they are Deadly Nightshade, or Bittersweet Nightshade. I can’t seem to find the differences between the two. In your article you say that Deadly Nighshade berries are black, but other sources say their red.
    Also, before I knew what they might be, I had handled them quite a bit, and never did I develop a rash like the internet warns, so perhaps these aren’t even Nightshade berries.

    I can get some pictures if your interested!

    Thanks,
    Aliuh

    • If you’re in Ontario, they are probably Bittersweet Nightshade as it is by far the most common plant here. The problem with “common names” for plants is they vary depending on where you live. There’s a tree called “Box Elder” in the USA. I never knew what it was until I discovered it’s what I call a Manitoba Maple.

      Birds can eat many berries that would kill us, including Yew berries. I’ve seen the birds eating the berries from our Bittersweet Nightshade, and as you say they are fine afterwards. That doesn’t mean I’d try it though!

  2. I have rescued a wild chipmunk who was found with these berries in her mouth (I actually used tweezers and removed them from her cheek pouches). She was gasping, ataxic, blown pupils, twitching and rolling around unable to walk. These are classic signs of atropine overdose or nightshade poisoning. Clearly, animals WILL eat things they ought not to. She has started taking sugar water by syringe so I am hoping the poison will clear her system and I can release her.

  3. My chickens love the berries. I watched them jumping up and snatching them off the vine. They have been doing this for a couple of years and I’ve seen no ill effect.

    • Yes, most birds seem to enjoy them: which is probably why is spreads so easily even in residential neighbourhoods. It’s interesting to know your chickens think they’re good too. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I had always thought that the Deadly Nightshade (which I now know is Bittersweet Nightshade) in my yard was toxic as well. I have tried to eradicate it for years – until this year. I allowed it to grow on a trellis usually reserved for morning glories. Since the berries arrived it has been visited daily by a mockingbird family, adults and juveniles. They have never come to my bird feeder for seeds. Now I’ll be growing Bittersweet Nightshade every year!

    • Thanks for sharing this: I didn’t know that Mockingbirds like the berries! As long as any visiting young children are warned not to eat them, your plan should work well. Nightshade grows in almost every city park and most school yards along the fence line, so most people know to leave the fruit alone.

      Thanks again for taking the time to comment!

  5. I did not even know I had nightshade growing in my forsythia bush. I even brought stems of the purple flowers indoors for a bit of color during the summer. Not until I had a family friend who is a landscaper clean up our yard did he identify the vine of purple flowers as nightshade. We have no small children in the vicinity but we and our next door neighbor have dogs and curious ones at that. I will be notifying her immediately because today I learned the red berries are nightshade too. People beware of what is growing in our yards!!!!

    • Luckily either dogs are immune or they don’t like them these berries, as these plants grow throughout southern Ontario in big cities like Toronto and I’ve never heard of a dog getting sick from them. (I think they don’t like the smell of the plants and stay away from them but I’m not sure.)

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