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A native of South America as its common name suggests, the Apple of Peru (Nicandra physaloides) is an annual that is incredibly resilient and well-adapted to vastly different environments, from the tall mountains of Peru to the metropolis of Germany. In some Midwestern states, such as Ohio, it is an aggressive, invasive species that often colonizes soybean fields. Its other common name is Shoo-fly plant, which conveys the plant’s chemical prowess in keeping bugs away. To this end, people familiar with the properties of the plant will rub some crushed leaves on their skin as an impromptu, organic insect repellent. Still, being part of the nightshade family comes with a lot of misunderstandings. Depending on the source, the Apple of Peru is generally classified as either poisonous or mildly poisonous, but there seem to be no scientific reports regarding the actual toxicity of the plant and its effects on humans. In contrast to the friendly name it has been given in English-speaking countries, in Germany, the Apple of Peru is somberly called “Giftbeere” (poison berry). Yet, in parts of Tanzania, the young leaves of the plant are eaten regularly and even considered a delicacy (according to a recent Finnish study on wild plants used by the Sambaa). It is possible that certain methods of preparation are used which lower the level of alkaloids, thus making it more agreeable to the digestive system. As for the “apple” or “berry” of the plant, it is a dry and rather colorless fruit encapsulated by a bladder-shaped, papery husk. Perhaps the reason we know so little about whether or not this fruit is poisonous is due to the fact that it looks entirely unappetizing (especially in contrast to the tasty-looking berries of the Chinese lanterns discussed in our last post!). Leslie Kuo, a fellow forager and plant enthusiast (at Urban Plant Research), has described us as “adventurous foragers” but we are – admittedly – not adventurous enough to try this strange fruit! So we will simply content ourselves with admiring its beautiful lavender flowers…

Nicandra physaloidesGiftbeereNicandra physaloides