The Sunberry: A Parable of Ambiguity

This past weekend I attended Seedy Saturday, a community run and sponsored seed exchange that was held in the basement of a church in east Hamilton. The event included a seed swap, obviously, where individuals could donate a surplus of seeds that they either purchased or collected from their own gardens and trade them with other individuals for seeds that they did not have. There were also a wide variety of different local heirloom and organic seed companies which offered a rich diversity of vegetable, fruit, wildflower and ornamental seeds for purchase. In addition to local bakeries selling bread and bagels, vendors selling everything from garden equipment to home-made chemical-free soap and workshops on a wealth of different subjects being offered for free, this was certainly the place to be if you are a gardener and want to ‘nerd it up’ with other like minded individuals in anticipation of the upcoming growing season.

After returning home after the event and organizing all of the different seeds that I had managed to swap with anonymous gardeners in the community, I came across a folded paper packet labeled ‘sunberry’. Not having a single idea as to what this plant might be, I consulted the overly vast repository of knowledge that is the internet for some botanical clarification. I honestly had no idea what to expect, but despite having researched plants on a professional and/or recreational basis for the last decade, I should have known beforehand that this would end up being a long, arduous and complicated journey that wouldn’t result in a conclusive answer. But, alas, my optimism took the wheel and I would end my research not based on the satisfaction of achieving the foundation of a solid answer but rather due to my eyes crying out for relief from continuously staring into a bright screen.

The [not so] innocent sunberry.
The fruits of my Google scouring came up with heaps of conflicting evidence. It turns out that the name sunberry can refer to any number of Solanum species, the same plant genus that includes such familiar crops as the potato (S. tuberosum), tomato (S. lycopersicum) and eggplant (S. melongena). Most often the name refers to either S. retroflexum or S. burbankii and according to at least one source this plant was developed as an heirloom crop in the early 1900’s by a gentleman of the name of Luther Burbank. To make things even less straight forward, sunberry may not be just an individual species but potentially a number of hybrids such as S. x burbankii which is sometimes confusingly written as plain S. burbankii, indicating that it isn’t a hybrid but rather a straight species.

Hopefully I am not the only one that is perplexed and deeply concerned by this lack of specificity. As with many musings in the endlessly extensive taxonomic world of botany it seems that, all things considered, nobody really knows what they are doing, especially when it comes to plants that have been deliberately cultivated for centuries and their exact identities are unknown due to either inadequate or a complete lack of record keeping. That’s the main flaw with identifying objects or individuals with names or symbols as we humans love to do: it only works if there is consistency. Otherwise, nobody would know what anything is because nobody can agree on what it’s called.

One of my favorite go-to websites for information on edible and medicinal herbs, Plants For A Future, lists two species in the Solanaceae family (to which the genus Solanum is the type or representative genus of the whole family) when ‘sunberry’ is entered into the search field, those species being Physalis minima (the same genus to which ground-cherries and tomatillos belong to which are delicious, nutritious and adaptable garden plants) and Solanum retroflexum, largely considered by many gardeners to be an unwanted pest. Each profile for these two plants describes the fruit of each as ‘scarcely worthwhile’ for P. minima and ‘not one of the most appetizing fruits to eat’ for S. retroflexum. Doesn’t sound like something worthwhile to me, but many other sources identify the fruit as ‘akin to blueberries but less sweet. Cooked in pies and jams it is yummy’. Well that certainly clears things up, doesn’t it? *insert healthy dose of sarcasm*

It is also worthwhile to mention that the Solanaceae family as a whole is definitely not something that you want to fool around with in terms of edibility. Many of the species (save for a few that we have domesticated and selected over centuries for their palatability, yield, adaptability etc. that makes them suitable as agricultural crops) contain poisonous alkaloids in their leaves, stems and, depending on the species, ripe or unripe fruit. For example, even though both ripe and unripe tomatoes may be edible, eating the leaves of tomato plants can make you seriously ill. Green potatoes, the result of exposing them to warm temperatures and sunlight, also produce toxic alkaloids that can cause a host of unpleasant symptoms and should not be eaten.

Bittersweet nightshade, deadly nightshade, or just plain nightshade or bittersweet, are all common names originating from different dialects and regions that can refer to the species Solanum dulcamara which is a cosmopolitan weed that is closely related to what the sunberry could be. S. dulcamara is a perennial woody vine originally native to southern Europe. It is generally regarded as completely poisonous and the bright red, juicy berries that are produced throughout summer and early autumn have ruined the days of more than a few people throughout history. Children, in particular, given their inquisitive nature, are the most common victims of S. dulcamara‘s cruel joke of appearing to offer a sweet, juicy treat that results in a whole host of terrible side affects and also tastes absolutely dreadful.

The consequences of ingesting a few S. dulcamara berries include but are certainly not limited to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dilated pupils, paralysis of the central nervous system, slow heart and respiration, low temperature, vertigo, delirium, convulsions and death. I’m not sure if death should rightly be noted as a side effect but rather a conclusion or a result there of, but that’s besides the point. What’s important to gather from all this is that whatever the sunberry is likely closely related to a number of considerably poisonous plants and it itself may even be slightly poisonous and best not consumed in large amounts in a short period of time. This is the danger of common names and generalizations: sometimes casually writing down a name on a seed packet and donating it to a seed exchange could result in you unintentionally harming someone, or at the very least, hopelessly confusing and enraging an amateur botanist that just wants to, understandably, know for certain what exactly it is that he may be including in his vegetable garden.

Today’s Lesson: Please include the latin or scientific names of plants that you are giving someone that you are not directly corresponding with. If it is something like a variety of tomato, apple or parsnip then I think most of us have a good idea of what those commonly cultivated crops are and so misinterpretations can be kept to a minimum. However, if you are donating or blindly exchanging a less conspicuous or well known plant like sunberry, you might want to include some additional information, such as a scientific name or a seed package so that the receiver knows what they are getting into. From one gardener to another, let’s keep our vegetable gardens safe, consistent, and with as little ambiguity as possible.

For more information on the lack of taxanomic consistency surrounding the sunberry, you may find THIS article particularly interesting as well. I most certainly did.