Wild South Florida — Turkey Berry
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Turkey Berry
turkey berry
Turkey berry, photographed at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Boynton Beach, Palm Beach County, in December 2014.
turkey berry

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. In fact, 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. In fact it's found in tropical areas around the globe and a pest in many of them. It's also a useful plant, providing 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 cultivated plant, but once it got 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.

Once established, 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.

turkey berry

Among the lower 48, turkey berry is only found in Florida, Alabama and Maryland. It's also found in 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. It's listed as a noxious weed or prohibited plant in nine other states.

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 familiar edibles such as tomatoes and potatoes. Other names: susumber, gully-bean, Thai eggplant, devil’s fig.

Photographs by David Sedore
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Links for Turkey Berry
Institute for Regional Conservation Natives for Your Neighborhood Atlas of Florida Vascular Plants USDA PLANTS Database Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants
  Flora of North America     Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Unless otherwise stated, all photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without their express permission.