Horse nettle is a weed that grows in disturbed soils (parking lots, gardens, pastures) and on the margins of woods. Horse nettle flowers in the summer and early fall months and is usually 10-20 inches tall with oblong lobed leaves and flowers. They have five whitish-to-light purple petals and a prominent yellow anther. Horse nettle is found in nearly all lower forty-eight states except Nevada and the upper central states.
Horse nettle is not a true nettle regardless of the name. It belongs in the nightshade family (Solanaceae) and that name usually makes people take notice. Horse nettle (Solanum carolinense) is a very common plant but most people don’t notice it or its the developing berries. In the summer, the berries are green and don’t look very appetizing. But in mid-late autumn the fruit begins to have the same size and appearance of a cherry tomato except for the more orange/yellow color. In the autumn, look for horse nettle fruits in dead foliage, note that no animal has feasted on them, and don’t be tempted!
All parts of horse nettle are toxic, but the fruit is especially toxic. Horse nettle fruits contain a toxic alkaloid (solanine) which can cause headache, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and circulatory or respiratory depression. Deaths have been reported and children are especially vulnerable if they eat enough of the fruit. Horse nettle is in the same family as tomatoes (Solanaceae) but horse nettle contains much more of the toxin and the toxin intensifies in the fall.
Horse nettle is the common name for this plant, but the source of its origin is unknown to me. Regardless of the name, horse nettle is not a true nettle and it has little to do with horses. According to the president of the equestrian branch of our county 4H, horses will sometimes graze on the leaves, but only if there is little else to eat. They may become ill but usually do not die. She also confirms though that horses will not eat the fruits.
This is because most animals are intuitive this way; they just know. However, many animals can digest toxins that humans often cannot. So while it is a good rule of thumb that if animals will not eat it, then it is definitely poisonous – that does not mean you should assume that if they will eat it, it is safe for you also. Birds, for example, will happily eat many poisonous berries that would cause a big problem for humans! Never eat berries or other inviting-looking fruits in the wild without doing ample research and always check with an expert.
The photos below were taken around parking lots and along the margin of woods. One of the photos shows the plant growing up through the gravel! They are also found growing in fields and along trails in the woods.
To summarize, horse nettle is in the same family as the cherry tomato and looks amazingly similar, but the differences can sicken or kill you. Horse nettle fruit is not on the menu for wildlife or for people, regardless of its resemblance to a cherry tomato. And remember, never forage for wild foods without doing some serious research and positively identifying the plant! It is always best to consult an expert. Be safe out there!
For some further reading on horse nettle, check out these links:
Mary is a naturalist who is interested in learning everything she can about the plants seen in everyday life and when hiking. Mary is not a botanist by trade but a citizen scientist like countless others out there she’s met in the field and online who share a common interest. During the day, Mary is a statistical programmer in the pharmaceutical research field. It’s really hard to spot a naturalist, isn’t it? Naturalists don’t fit in standard-sized boxes really well.
Mary discovered that Jo and Eddie were interested in wild edibles and wanted to help educate them and others about the plants she’s identified and to share information. She’s interested in keeping everyone safe and making sure an accurate identification of a plant can be made by readers. She wants to explain how to identify plants accurately and will include some information about how to identify the leaves, stems and flowers (if any) as well as where the plant is found and at what time of year.