Turkey Berry

Solanum torvum

Turkey Berry

Turkey berry, photographed at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Boynton Beach, Palm Beach County, in December 2014.

Turkey berry? Yes, turkey berry. Strange as it might seem, there is a plant that goes by that name. Even stranger, it's not from around these parts. It's an invasive.

Turkey berry, Solanum torvum, is a member of Solanaceae, the nightshade family. You can see the resemblance in the shape of the leaves but especially in the shape and color of its star-like flowers. It is much larger than native members of the family, such as American nightshade, and the stem is much more woody. It can reach 16 feet, the size of a small tree.

The plant we found in the cypress swamp at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge was a couple of feet over our head — while we were standing on a boardwalk two or three feet above the swamp. Tall enough to qualify as a small tree. It is a native of tropical America, but has spread throughout the Pacific and across the Atlantic into Africa. It's found in tropical areas around the globe and a pest in many of them. It's also cultivated for use as both food and medicine, which is a bit ironic, since nightshades generally are considered poisonous.

As the story goes, turkey berry was brought to Florida as an agricultural test plant some time before 1899. It never really made it as a crop, but once it here it stayed here and established itself in the wild. Birds eat the fruit, each of which contains as many as 200 indigestable seeds, sowing new patches of turkey berry as they fly and poop. The plant can spread from its roots and quickly form impenetrable thickets displacing native plants. It isn't picky as far as habitat; wet or dry will do.

In the United State, turkey berry is only found in Florida, Alabama, Maryland and Hawaii. In Florida, it's mostly found in the southeastern counties, including Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade but also as far north as Columbia. It's on the federal noxious weed list and the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council classifies it as a Category II invasive as it monitors what damage it might be doing to native habitats. Nine other states list it as a noxious weed or prohibited plant .

Scientific studies have found turkey berry full of nutrients, including B vitamins, vitamin C, iron and salts, and a medicine cabinet's worth of pharmacologically useful compounds with antioxidant, antifungal, antiviral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. And more.

Turkey berry is a member of Solanaceae, the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes and potatoes. Other names: susumber, gully-bean, Thai eggplant, devil’s fig.

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Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.