The sodom apple, scientific name solanum incanum, is a shrubby plant commonly found on the roadsides of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

Used by living beings for both its medicinal properties and for consumption, the sodom apple is a member of the night-shade family— bearing fruits that share a physical resemblance to tomatoes, eggplants, and gooseberries. These fruits first grow in green—at which point they’re at their most poisonous—then fade to yellow, eventually turning dark brown.

Forest Starr and Kim Starr, flickr

While the sodom apple is thought to be native to East Africa, the overabundance of this road-side plant, in combination with its overpowering growth, has caused it to be considered a ‘native invasive’ species in Tanzania and Kenya. In areas where livestock have overgrazed, the plant quickly crops up to replace depleted native grasses. The issue with this? The fruits of the sodom apple are poisonous to grazers— further demarcating the plant species as negatively impacting the East African ecosystem.

While the plant is poisonous to cows, sheep, and other grazing animals— it is not poisonous to browsers, herbivores that subsist on woodier plant matter that typically has higher toxicity levels. In the browser family of East African animals is the elephant, who both has a strong appetite for the plant, and can withstand the consumption of the sodom apple at very high levels. In fact, a 2014 Princeton study found that elephants may play a vital role in protecting grazers in areas where the sodom apple is abundant; elephants eat the sodom apple plant, limiting its consumption by other nearby grazers, and regulating the plant’s growth in areas where grazers are commonly found. While more research must be done to understand how elephants can assist in limiting grazers’ consumption of the poisonous plant, preliminary studies on the subject are promising.

Despite the plant’s poisonous properties, sodom apple is also used medicinally by the East African Maasai, as well as other indigenous communities in the region. Pulp from the sodom apple is often applied directly to aching teeth and gums, acting as a pain reliever, and the plant’s stem is used as a tooth brush due to its known anti-bacterial properties. Not only that— the stems are boiled and consumed to relieve stomach pains, and the plant is also known to be applied directly to external wounds to aid healing. While the plant is used in a variety of ways, it is highly recommended that one never swallows or consumes the sodom apple fruit.

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