Horse Nettle: Flowers, Prickles, Fruit, Toxicity

When I walk through the open areas of Eliza Howell Park these summer days, I often focus on flowering plants. One that is currently blooming is Horse Nettle.

Horse Nettle in the park is usually only about two feet high and not very conspicuous. A closer look clearly reveals the 5 petals (white to sometimes pale purple) with yellow anthers.

Originally found in southeast North America, Horse Nettle has spread north, being in Michigan since about 1890. It is is often found in fields and pastures, and spreads by both seeds and rhizomes.

It has often gotten attention — and been considered a “weed” — because it is poisonous to grazing animals and it retains its toxicity in dried hay used as winter feed. Mammals tend to avoid eating it when other food is available, however, in part because of the prickly spines found on the stems.

It was the fruit that first led me to want to know this species better. The berries ripen from green to yellow and look somewhat like small yellow tomatoes.

This photo is from October.

The berries later lose much of their firmness but hang on the stems into the winter.

All parts of Horse Nettle are toxic. It contains solanine, which affects the digestive system. Grazing mammmals (like horses) are at risk of eating the leaves and humans are more at risk of eating the berries. The most serious consequences result from more than minimal consumption.

As is often the case with plants that have an effect on human functioning, Horse Nettle has historically sometimes been used medicinally.

Many of the wildflowers in Eliza Howell become more fascinating as I get to know them better. Horse Nettle is one.

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