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…
People watching is a widespread practice among urbanites all over the world and although Berlin may not have the popular squares of Rome, it does have its share of sidewalks lined with cafés. When the weather permits, neighborhood cafés and bars appear to spontaneously expand onto the sidewalks. This allows for better people watching, but it also gives us the opportunity to enjoy the little sidewalk gardens that are springing up more and more frequently around the city. A number of business owners have taken it upon themselves to beautify their sidewalks by planting flowers in the small rectangular spaces of concrete-free earth that used to (and sometimes still do) house ornamental trees. On the other hand, some of these gardens have been created by guerilla gardeners who actively reclaim these abandoned spaces and turn them into beautiful, green oases. Lastly, a third type of sidewalk “garden” exists: these are the accidental gardens, which plants have inhabited all of their own accord. It is in this last space where we have recently come across a number of fascinating plants, several of which are members of the nightshade family (Solanaceae) and which have inspired us to do a series of posts on a few nightshade species that grow in Berlin.
Chinese lanterns (Physalis alkakengi), otherwise known as Bladder cherry, Winter cherry, Cape Gooseberry, or even “Love in a Cage,” makes a stunning contribution to the autumn colors that Berlin is beginning to display. However, its bright orange, bladder-shaped husk (calyx) is not purely ornamental; it also hides a perfectly round and equally colorful fruit in its center. This little “winter cherry” is edible when ripe and is filled with twice as much Vitamin C as lemons, but the unripe berry, along with all other parts of the plant, is poisonous (due to the same solanine found in tomato leaves and raw potatoes) so care must be taken when harvesting these fruits! The plant has a long history of herbal uses including anti-inflammatory, fever-reducing, and cough-suppressing treatments.
After coming across one of the above-mentioned “accidental gardens” which could barely contain all of the Chinese lanterns that had made their home there, we were instantly intrigued. The brightly-colored lanterns look similar to the Physalis fruits which can be bought in grocery stores throughout the city, so we decided to investigate further. Once we learned that the fruit was indeed edible, we immediately tasted them and decided they would be a great ingredient for homemade salsa. In fact, the sweet and slightly acidic undertones were complemented perfectly by the tomatoes, onions, and cilantro. See our recipe and photos on our Foraging Recipes page. Now we just need to figure out where we can buy some decent tortilla chips in Berlin!