Garden huckleberries (Solanum nigrum var. melanoserasum) are a fruit in the nightshade family that have earned a “must-grow” status in our summer garden. Here’s more about the fruit, plus a delicious garden huckleberry recipe.
The many edible wonders of the nightshade plant family
Admittedly, we have a bit of an infatuation with plants in the nightshade family. Each year, our garden is loaded with eggplants, tomatoes, tomatillos, ground cherries, cape gooseberries, wonderberries, and other berries that all belong in the Nightshade family (Solanaceae).
Yes, tomatoes and eggplants are technically berries, not fruits or vegetables.
Each nightshade is uniquely delicious in its own regard, and really shouldn’t be compared. We usually make savory dishes out of our eggplants, but have also made an acorn flour, eggplant cake that was to die for.
Most gardeners have plenty of recipes for tomatoes, but unless they’re familiar with Latin American cuisines, they may feel a little lost when it comes to preparing tomatillos (which are fantastic eaten raw, made into salsa verde or various cooked sauces).
Ground cherries and cape gooseberries rarely make it back inside because we devour them on the spot. When it comes to garden huckleberries or the closely related wonderberries, many gardeners haven’t heard of them, or if they have, wouldn’t know what to do with them at harvest.
The truth is that there is a huge range of nightshade berries that American gardeners either don’t know about or grow. We think there is enormous potential for many of these varieties to become popular with adventurous home gardeners and gourmet chefs. (Not to mention, the potential to breed “new heirloom” varieties.)
Wonderberries vs. Garden Huckleberries – What’s the Difference?
As it turns out, the names wonderberries and garden huckleberries are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same plant. The berries of each are vastly different in both flavor and how they need to be prepared prior to consumption.
Both plants likely have a common ancestor in Africa, as this fascinating report from the National Resources Institute at University of Greenwich details. And, no, they’re not genetically related to true huckleberries in the Ericaceae family, which we call “blueberries” here in the southeast.
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Wonderberries, a nightshade fruit dating back to (at least) the time of Luther Burbank, whose plant breeding work was the catalyst of plant patenting which started in the 1930s. These are quite good – very sweet with blueberry notes. You’ll never see these in a grocery store because picking the small berries is very tedious work and the thin-skinned fruits damage easily while picking giving them a very short shelf life. One of the nice things about gardening is profitability doesn’t have to factor into your plant selection. Your garden should be as weird as you are. 😛 #wonderberries #heirloomseeds #organicgardening #gardening #gardenideas #gardentotable
Wonderberries, aka sunberries
Wonderberries were bred by the famed botanist and plant breeder Luther Burbank, who introduced as many as 1,000 new cultivars of fruit trees, veggies, flowers and other plants during his remarkable career. Burbank supposedly bred wonderberries by stabilizing a hybrid between two other nightshades, S. villosum and S. guineense.
As the story goes, he then sold the rights to wonderberries to another seed company, which then renamed them “sunberries.” Apparently, this set off a feud between the company and Burbank that spanned decades, leaving his reputation somewhat tarnished.
Until recently, wonderberries’ scientific name was Solanum × burbankii, in honor of Burbank. However, they’re now technically supposed to be called Solanum retroflexum. (We’re fans of Burbank, so we like to fight “the man” on this name change!)
Further complicating matters: there is another plant in the nightshade family that also produces small, black fruits that sound very similar in description to wonderberries: garden huckleberries.
The scientific name for garden huckleberries is often listed under Solanum scabrum or Solanum melanocerasum or Solanum nigrum, depending on which seed company or university extension you reference.
See why both the common and scientific names of wonderberries and huckleberries are often mixed up? Frankly, it’s very difficult to determine the correct scientific name for actual garden huckleberries. As best as we can tell from our research, it’s Solanum nigrum var. melanoserasum.
Comparing Wonderberries and Garden Huckleberries
Growth Habit Comparison
Wonderberries are smaller, less robust plants than garden huckleberries. We’d almost call them “dainty.”
Their maximum height is about 2-3′. They get loaded with tiny green berries that turn black and soft when ripe. The ripe fruit is about the size of a small pea. Each plant will produce 3-5 cups of fruit in a growing season.
Garden Huckleberries are larger, very robust plants. Apparently some subspecies in tropical African climates can even be short-lived perennials. Our plants grow to be about 3-4 tall, and have a similar growth habit as a large pepper, although they produce longer branches.
All along the branches, clusters of berries form, turning from green to black when fully ripened. The mature berries are about the size of a big blueberry and have a tough, almost leathery skin. Each plant will produce 1-3 gallons of fruit in a growing season.
Wonderberries offer a pleasant, sweet flavor when eaten raw right off the plant. The berries are very thin-skinned and will fall from the plant when overly ripe.
They’re not quite as good as blueberries in flavor (in our opinion), but they’re definitely worth growing for fresh eating if you have the space in your garden or have some open pots. We’ve heard they make excellent pies and preserves as well, but we’ve never gathered enough to give it a try.
Garden huckleberries are not good eaten raw. They have almost no flavor (similar to a raw eggplant) and the skin is quite tough in comparison to a wonderberry.
If raw fruit was the only option, garden huckleberries wouldn’t be worth growing. However, when cooked and sweetened, something magical happens. They can be made into beautiful deep purple-colored sauces, pies and preserves—and the flavor is out of this world delicious. If you could combine the best flavors from blueberries and grapes into a single fruit, that’s what cooked, sweetened garden hucklberry (such as garden huckleberry preserves) taste like.
Now that we’ve experienced how robust the plants are, how easy they are to grow, how many berries each bush produces, and the wonderful flavor their cooked berries have to offer, we’ve decided that garden huckleberries will be part of our summer garden every year hereafter.
Recipe: Garden Huckleberry Preserves
Here’s a simple garden huckleberry recipe to get you started in the right direction. Once you’ve had a chance to experience the primary flavors, you can start experimenting with future batches: pure vanilla extract and other flavors would likely add nice nuance and variation as well.
Or you may decide that the grapey-blueberry deliciousness of straight garden huckleberries is all you want!
Recipe: Garden Huckleberry Preserves (a Nightshade Berry)
- 2 pounds roughly 8-10 cups of ripe garden huckleberries
- 3 cups of organic granulated cane sugar
- 1 package of regular pectin
- 1 lemon zested and juiced (optional but citric acid is usually a good idea when preserving/canning)
- 1/4 cup water used at the beginning of cooking to prevent fruit scald
Sterilize your canning jars and screw lids by boiling them for at least 15 minutes (*don't boil the flat lids that actually go on the top of the jar or you'll remove the gum/adhesive seal).
Sort through your garden huckleberries to remove any stems. Then rinse them in a strainer.
Put berries and water in a large pot over medium heat. The 1/4 cup of water is added to prevent the fruit from scalding or sticking to the bottom of the pan. Bring slowly to a boil and allow to boil about 20 minutes to reduce water content.
Add lemon zest/juice if you plan to use it.
Boil for an additional 40 minutes. Many of the garden huckleberries will still have maintained their shape/form, so you might want to "mush" them a bit here. A potato masher works great.
Add your pectin and bring back to a full rolling boil, stirring until all of the pectin has dissolved.
Add sugar to the boiling garden huckleberries and stir until completely dissolved (only takes a few minutes). Remove from the heat.
Ladle huckleberry preserves into your sterilized, hot jars. You'll want to leave room for expansion, about 1/4" between the top of your preserves and your jar lid (called "head space"). Using a magnetized canning lid lifter, dip each lid into the boiling water for about 10-15 seconds. Place lid on top of jar, and screw on rings—not tight, you want them to have a bit of give.
Boil jars with preserves in them for 15 minutes, making sure the water is at least 1-2" over the top of the lid so that air bubbles out of the jars.
Remove jars from boiling water and place them on heat-proof countertop or stove top. Each jar should make a single "pop" sound shortly after being removed from boiling water, indicating that it has sealed. The lid will also indent downward. If a jar does not seal, place back in boiling water for 5 more minutes and repeat the process. Do NOT eat unsealed preserves. If you can't get your jars to seal or don't feel like going through the steps above, freeze them or stick them in the fridge.
Now you know what garden huckleberries are and how to use them in the kitchen! You’re on your way to enjoying one of the most delicious preserves you’ll ever eat.