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 preserves 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 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
About 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.
About garden huckleberries
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 but that could change depending on which reference you use or future genetic analysis.
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 to a large pepper plant, although they produce longer branches.
All along the branches, clusters of berries form, turning from green to deep 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 with garden huckleberries.
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 huckleberries (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.
Recipe: Garden huckleberry preserves (a nightshade berry)
A delicious preserve made from a rare nightshade fruit that tastes like a cross between blueberry and concord grape jelly.
- 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.
Other similar recipes you’ll love:
- Ground cherry (Physalis pruinosa) preserves
- Calamondin orange marmalade with baby ginger
- Green tomato marmalade with smoked paprika & brandy
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Homeschool MomOctober 24, 2021 at 4:00 pm
We grew garden huckleberries for the first time this year. We followed your recipe exactly, with the exception of adding a pinch of aluminum-free baking soda during the boiling process. When 4 members of our family tasted the bit of jam still in my saucepan that wasn’t going into jars for processing, I tasted a strong metallic aftertaste very quickly after the initial hit of wonderful-grape-blueberry flavor. Enough to make me crinkle my nose and not want more. My husband got the “aftertaste” after having swallowed the jam. One son did not taste an aftertaste or metallic taste at all, and another son thought there was a mild hint of aftertaste. I’m convinced that this taste, which is a tad bitter, is possibly from some of the fruits being not perfectly ripe and containing higher levels of the toxin solanine, which is also found in the green skin of potatoes exposed to daylight. From what I’ve read, to be safe, garden huckleberries should only be harvested about 2 weeks after the black berries have turned dull, or matte in finish, rather than shiny, and the fruits are soft. Our fruits were mostly dull (some may have been on their way there, but not having arrived fully, but were not all “soft” like a perfectly ripe blueberry. We have a shorter growing season where I live and needed to pick these before a freeze. If we grow them again, I’ll cross my fingers for a longer season and not serve any that may not be fully ripe to my family. I just thought I’d share as I couldn’t readily find a reason why some people are noting a metallic/bitter taste and others are not when following the same recipes.
Aaron von FrankOctober 25, 2021 at 12:19 pm
Thanks for the tip! We’re in Zone 7b in South Carolina, so we have a long summer growing season down here, plus we start our garden huckleberries indoors around early February. That means we always get VERY ripe garden huckleberries by the time we’re ready to start using them. Good to note that they can have an off flavor if not very ripe (even if cooked).
Judy MorningstarSeptember 18, 2021 at 10:40 am
Next batch: this was successful. I have a really big pot.
10 cups garden huckleberries, washed. Put in heavy big cooking pot with 1/2 cup water. Slowly bring to boil and cook for about 20 minutes on low temp, stirring often. Add 6 cups sugar, 1/4 tsp salt, 1/3 cup lemon juice. Mix and bring back to boiling. I used immersion blender here to mash, but did try the potato masher first. Boil carefully , stirring, till it reaches get stage (220F). That took about 25 more minutes. Bottle in sterilized jars and process. These were a bit riper and softer than the first batch, and taste a lot better. This made about 5 pint jars.
Judy MorningstarSeptember 16, 2021 at 6:29 pm
I followed your recipe for preserves, and found it set too hard. It didn’t need the pectin, and maybe less cooking. I am going to experiment with more huckleberries tomorrow, and will let you know how I ca=hanged the recipe. The plants are extremely prolific! Our first year of growing them in Manitoba.
Aaron von FrankSeptember 17, 2021 at 5:31 pm
Thanks for the feedback, Judy! We’ve had some people say the preserves didn’t set as well for them and others say it set too hard. We’re not quite sure what’s happening. It may be that people are using a different species of fruit since “huckleberry” is a common name that can refer to a wide range of fruiting plants. Please do check back in to let us know what you find with additional experiments.
Frances GilesSeptember 18, 2021 at 2:33 pm
Dear Aaron, thanks for posting your info about garden huckleberries. About to do my first test batch in rural Southern Ontario. Re: jams setting too hard or too soft, the local humidity can make a difference to cooking times for jams. Likely your readers know – both are ‘fixable.’ See below. Cheers, Frances
Too soft – empty the jars unto the pot, add a bit more sugar based on running and quantity. Let sugar dissolve before boiling again. I usually do small batches of 4-5 jars, everything cooks more evenly.
Too hard, empty jars and cook again with more liquid. Distilled water keeps the product clearer, if you live in hard water areas.
Aaron von FrankSeptember 19, 2021 at 12:48 pm
Thanks, Frances! This info will likely come in handy for other folks trying to get just the right consistency.
ReneeSeptember 6, 2021 at 3:41 pm
Hi! I’m making this recipe for the first time with the Garden Huckleberries I grew from Baker’s Creek seeds. I am also having a problem with the fruit scalding. I’m wondering if medium heat is too high for the reduction process. I’ve turned it down to low and seem to be doing better now.
Aaron von FrankSeptember 7, 2021 at 1:35 pm
Adding a bit of water to the pot before putting the fruit in helps prevent scalding. Then once the fruit gets hot enough to burst (or be burst via a spoon, masher, or other kitchen tool, there will be more than enough liquid to prevent scalding. Still need to stir the mix though so the fruit doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. Also, to your point, turning the heat lower until the fruit bursts can also help. Hope your garden huckleberry preserves turn out well!
Brytanni ParrettMay 2, 2021 at 2:49 pm
Hi. I think I have some of these growing in my backyard, however I’m concerned they might be deadly nightshade or some other poisonous plant. After doing some research, I’m pretty sure it’s black nightshade and read somewhere that it is toxic but after it’s boiled, the poison goes away. Just to confirm, do the berries in this recipes have green insides? When I crushed one of the berries, it kinda looked like a small tomato with tiny seeds but it’s green on the inside. Also, I handled the leaves before reading that deadly nightshade leaves could irritate your skin and so far, my skin isn’t irritated. Please help! I would really like to put these berries to use if they’re not toxic!
Aaron von FrankMay 3, 2021 at 9:59 am
Hi Brytanni! Unfortunately, I don’t have a 100% clear memory of the inside color of garden huckleberries and they’re not in-season now for me to check. If my memory serves, they are dark through-and-through when ripe. Given that garden huckleberries are a rare plant from Africa, it’s unlikely to be the same plant you have growing wild in your backyard despite some physical similarities. I’d be extremely cautious with wild black nightshades since some/many of them do contain high levels of toxic compounds, some of which are not degraded by cooking. While there are wild edible black nightshades, we’ve never bothered to try to delineate or use them given the health risks.
AqualynMay 13, 2021 at 10:42 am
I have tons of this growing wild in my backyard too. I forage as a hobby, so I have reference material citing it as safe to eat. The important difference between it and deadly nightshade (aside from being from different families) is the flower. Black nightshade has a white flower instead of a purple one. Another important difference is the insects love black nightshade leaves. Just make sure they are completely black before eating. If you aren’t sure what you have, finding several similar species online and learning to identify plants based on characteristics will help you be more confident.
AllisonOctober 18, 2020 at 2:50 pm
Hello! I grew some of these, and you’re right, the cooked fruit is amazing.
Can you reference the safe canning source you used for this recipe? I should have researched more before I grew them and I’m not finding much.
Aaron von FrankOctober 19, 2020 at 8:47 am
Hi Allison! Glad you enjoyed your garden huckleberries. I’d be happy to help, but I don’t quite understand your question – can you elaborate? We have safe canning instructions in the recipe card at the bottom of the article. You can use either Weck jars or standard canning jars – either is perfectly safe for canning/preserving if you do the water bath canning method.
AllisonOctober 23, 2020 at 9:04 pm
Thanks for the reply!
I guess I’m asking how you know it is safe. Site your sources.
I’m looking to see if it is a tested recipe if you found guidance from a University Extension, a canning company, a book, or…?
For example, a source like those listed here: ehttps://www.healthycanning.com/reputable-sources-for-home-canning-information/
Aaron von FrankOctober 26, 2020 at 3:41 pm
Sorry, we haven’t conducted a lab analysis on this particular recipe. We’re the guinea pigs in that we’ve made and eaten this garden huckleberry preserve recipe multiple times over multiple years and continue to remain alive and healthy. 🙂 Of course, if someone isn’t comfortable canning in general or canning using the water bath method, they should avoid making this recipe or get a pressure canner to remove all doubt.
Karen CrusherOctober 8, 2022 at 3:39 pm
Oh my god Allison are you really this thick, or are you an insufferable know-it-all trying to prove some ridiculous point?!? If you’re too insecure to make traditional canned preserves, just pop them in the freezer and go on with life. This is not brain surgery, but I bet you have a website link all cued up that will back you up. You people always do.
Elizabeth O'HamJuly 21, 2020 at 1:51 pm
grew these this year from the seed available from baker creek. I was afraid they would have an unpleasant metallic flavor as many seem to report, however i am pleased to report no such flavor detected by anyone in my household. I ad a pinch of baking soda at the beginning of cooking which may help. Also for anyone interested: Commercial pectin is not necessary for a great jam! these berries have enough native pectin, when simmered with more water for about an hour, to set up into a great medium firm jam. Commercial pectin is so expensive these days, and is an industrially processed additive, that I love to stick to simpler methods when possible.
Aaron von FrankJuly 24, 2020 at 5:46 pm
Glad you enjoy garden huckleberry preserves as much as we do, Elizabeth! We don’t get any metallic tastes from them either. Perhaps it depends on the soil they’re grown in or other environmental factors. Thanks for the pectin tip as well.
medievaldigger .July 16, 2020 at 4:35 pm
Thank you for the recipe! 🙂
Aaron von FrankJuly 20, 2020 at 12:09 pm
Sure! Hope you enjoy your garden huckleberry preserves. 🙂 It’s amazing how good garden huckleberries are once cooked and sweetened considering how non-exciting they are raw.
Edward SnyderAugust 13, 2017 at 6:58 pm
I have been making garden Huckleberry jelly for years. There are some steps I do prior to making the jelly. I parboil the fruit in baking soda water, then rinse several times to remove the baking soda. then I food process the berries. Lastly I strain them to take the seeds out. The resulting mix is then boiled, and strained. I repeat the process until the strained material no longer has the purple color to it. Then I boil the juice and remove any of the brown colored foam. The resulting juice mixed with lemon juice makes a very delicious jelly. It also can be mixed with another fruit such as blueberry or blackberry to make a delicious mixed berry jam. I also have saved the seeds of the largest fruit, and it has improved the size of the plants as well.
Adventures in Self-SufficiencyOctober 25, 2015 at 3:10 pm
I grew garden huckleberry for the first time this year, and am looking forward to trying this jam! Thanks for the recipe 🙂
AaronNovember 10, 2015 at 11:54 pm
Thanks for stopping by! Just subscribed to your blog. 🙂 Hope you enjoy this recipe.
Aaron von FrankFebruary 4, 2016 at 12:59 pm
You’re welcome! Hope you enjoy yours as much as we’ve enjoyed ours.
MicaelaOctober 23, 2015 at 9:10 pm
Thanks, Aaron. 2 pints is about exactly what I got (well, I’m doing them in the smaller jam jars, but I’m guessing it’s about 2 pints’ worth). I did have a lot of scalding of the fruit, though. Are you supposed to add water during the long boiling process? Maybe I was cooking it at too high of a heat. Also, I realized after I was done cooking them that I hadn’t allowed the pectin (or maybe it was the sugar?) to fully dissolve. I’m hoping it will do so while boiling in the water bath. Have you ever had that happen before? I was wanting to save these for Christmas presents, so I don’t want to open a jar tonight just to check to make sure it dissolved. Well, at any rate–it did taste yummy!
AaronNovember 10, 2015 at 11:59 pm
Micaela, Sorry for my delayed response! Just realized we’re not getting alerts when comments are posted. Hopefully fixed now. Yes, we add water at first to prevent scalding. Once the fruit bursts, you shouldn’t have to add any more unless your heat is too high. To prevent your pectin from clumping, quickly whisk it in a small bit of warm water in a bowl or glass to dissolve it, THEN add it to your pot of jam. Sometimes if you add the powder right to the fruit mixture it will clump. Hope things turned out well!
MicaelaOctober 20, 2015 at 9:54 pm
Thanks for the information and the recipe! Can you tell me how many pints this makes?
Aaron von FrankOctober 21, 2015 at 3:46 pm
Micaela: Embarrassingly, we didn’t record exactly how much we made and most of it has already been eaten. Our estimate is that it will make roughly 2 pints. It may be a little under this but prep enough jars for two pints just in case. Hope you enjoy!
gracie mead-rickmanAugust 17, 2015 at 4:44 pm
I ran my garden huckleberries through my food mill, which did not work well, but I got about 2 cups of juice as well as purple, turning to green foam that I eventually scooped off and washed down the sink. now what do I do with this? I did not cook my berries first which may have helped them go through my mill better. the juice is a beautiful dark purple color but I’m not sure i can proceed to make jelly or if it needs special processing or what. Anyone done this before?
Aaron von FrankSeptember 9, 2015 at 10:02 am
@gracie_mead_rickman:disqus unlike many other physalis fruits, garden huckleberries really need to be cooked before being palatable. We also prefer not to waste skins, seeds, etc – which are all loaded with good nutrition and dietary fiber, so perhaps try the preserve recipe above to see what you think (all parts of the fruit are used)? Or just make a tasty pancaked sauce with them if you don’t want to go through the canning steps. Once cooked and sweetened, garden huckleberries are absolutely delicious; they have a blueberry-grape flavor.
gracie mead-rickmanSeptember 9, 2015 at 7:12 pm
Yes, about the cooking first, I learned that one too late for the first batch but live and learn….there are plenty more and I will make something tasty yet. TY for the encouragement. I’ll do jam next time!
gracie mead-rickmanDecember 22, 2015 at 5:30 am
I tried again. Made jam and it was wonderful tasting and a gorgeous color. I also canned some pie filling.