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Mystery solved: Nightshade is plant growing in reader garden

Because the nightshade group contains toxic species, no fruit should be eaten without positively identifying it as a ripe, edible type. Special to Forum News Service

Q: The plant in the photo was growing in our garden. Can you identify it?—Mary Denis, Harwood, N.D.

A: It must be a good year for nightshade, based on the number of people who found it popping up in gardens and flowerbeds. The plant in your photo is black nightshade. The nightshade family is a large group of plants that includes tomato, potato, pepper, eggplant plus some toxic nightshade species.

Black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) is sometimes grown in home gardens for its berries, and is known as wonderberry and garden huckleberry (no relation to the true huckleberry.) The berries are toxic when green, but edible when fully ripe for jams, jellies and pie. They were popular with immigrants and descendants from Germany and Norway, and my mother used to grow them in our garden, but I can't say I enjoyed their flavor. Reportedly, they're better after frost.

Nightshade is often spread by birds who eat the fruit and drop the seed. Because the nightshade group contains toxic species, no fruit should be eaten without positively identifying it as a ripe, edible type.

Q: I have the most uneven, lumpy lawn imaginable. People have suggested it's night crawlers. I haven't noticed any. Any thoughts?—Sarah Kaspari Baker, Fargo.

A: The lumpy lawn is probably caused by nightcrawlers, which are more likely to be seen on sidewalks after a rain. Anyone who's experienced nightcrawler problems knows the difficulty of walking across an affected lawn. It's almost like walking across golf balls embedded continuously in the turf.

Nightcrawlers keep the lawn healthy, aerating the soil, decomposing thatch and releasing nutrients. But that's small consolation if you turn an ankle walking in your yard. Reduce the effects by power raking in September and late May, which smooths the lumps somewhat. Insecticides aren't recommended, because they can upset the natural balance of the lawn, killing beneficial organisms that combat destructive turf insects. Hopefully power raking will make the nightcrawlers tolerable.

Q: Are there any precautions we should take before moving our hibiscus indoors? Several years back when doing so, it developed aphids. I tried spraying the plants but it didn't do much good and we finally threw the hibiscus out. - Ray Brown, Enderlin, N.D.

A: Hibiscus easily become "buggy" indoors. Before bringing the plant inside, wash it with the garden hose to reduce insects that might be present. Washing doesn't totally eliminate insects protected in branch crevices or other hiding spots, and insects like aphids and spider mites are difficult to see.

It's wise to treat hibiscus preventatively, almost assuming that they will have insect problems by mid-winter. Treat the soil with systemic insecticide granules made for houseplants, which can usually be found at garden centers. The granules dissolve in the soil, and the insecticide is taken up by the roots and into the plant, protecting it from the inside out. Then when aphids and spider mites begin feeding on the sap, they're killed. Plants like hibiscus are often too far gone when insect damage is noticed, so prevention is the key.

If you have a gardening or lawn care question, email Don Kinzler at All questions will be answered, and those with broad appeal may be published, so please include your name, city and state for appropriate advice.