Fruit of Horse Nettle: Attractive, Seldom Eaten

Leonard Weber

December 11, 2022

Horse Nettle is one of the few perennials in Eliza Howell Park that hold their fruit into Winter. The berries, which remind me of small yellow tomatoes, are still on the plants well into December.

Horse Nettle (also known as Carolina Horsenettle and a variety of other names) is a native species. It is not truly a nettle; rather, it is in the nightshade family. All parts of the plant are poisonous to some degree, the mature fruit probably the most so.

Horse Nettle grows 2 to 3 feet tall, often in small patches. Now that most of the the leaves have falken, the fruit clusters are easily visible. Each berry is about 1/2 inch in  diameter

Horse Nettle is a field plant that both attracts and repels. The flowers and the fruit, both developing and mature, are quite  attractive…

…but all parts of the plant are poisonous, at least to mammals. And the plant has sharp spines (perhaps the reason for being called “nettle”) that discourage browsing by livestock and other plant-eating mammals.

Reports indicate that some birds, like Ring-necked Pheasants and Wild Turkeys, eat the fruit, but I have not yet seen any evidence that animals consume the berries here. The more common fruit-eating birds (such as Robins and Cedar Waxwings and Starlings) have shown no interest.

Plants often promote the next generation by spreading seeds, using a variety of  dispersal methods. The seeds of fruit-producing plants often get scattered by being eaten by animals and deposited elsewhere in scat.

Horse Nettle fruit is seedy,…

…but its poisonous nature discourages consumption of it. This species spreads primarily by underground rhizomes and by dropped fruit/seeds. So it is not a surprize that it is usually found in patches.

I am often asked whether a particular fruit is edible. The answer for Horse Nettle is clear: it is NOT. 

The poisonous nature of the fruit directs attention to the fascinating methods plants have developed to produce future generations.

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