Our favourite plants!

Solancae - deadly nightshades.

By Kevin Redd

Welcome to the (almost) spring edition of our gardening column. In this article, we’d like to introduce you to a very diverse group of plants that many of you will have heard about before.

These are the Solanacae. You might have heard them called the ‘Deadly Nightshades’ which is a rather sinister sounding name for some very useful and occasionally quite beautiful plants. We can almost guarantee that every gardener either currently has some growing or has eaten some for dinner in the past few days- after all there are over 2000 species in this group and many of them thrive in Australian conditions.

So which plants are in this group? Well, the most common are the tomatoes, capsicums, potatoes and eggplant. Also in this broad group are the lovely Brugmansia (Angels Trumpets), Brunfelsia (Brazil Rain Tree) and Petunias. Economically important commodity, tobacco also belongs to the Solanacae.

So what is so ‘deadly’ about these plants?? And what does Nightshade mean? Great questions….

Several of the species are known to produce toxic compounds- perhaps to deter animals and humans from eating them! The famous poison ‘Belladonna’ comes from a shrub in this group of plants, and the use of Mandrake and Henbane goes back to Greek and Medieval times when witches and ‘sorcerers’ used these plants and their extracts to induce madness and death. Of course not all of the Solanacae are deadly, but they certainly produce nicotine (tobacco) and the compounds from chillies are used to make ‘pepper spray’ (capsaicin).

We’re not entirely certain of exactly when the term ‘nightshade’ first came to be used, but many of the plants in this group do prefer shady locations and tend to flower at night, so it has been suggested that’s how the name came about when early botanists were beginning to classify plants by grouping them together.

Do we need to avoid them?? Another great question- and in many areas there are some of the Solanacae that have become very troublesome weeds – the blackberry nightshade ( Solanum nigrum ), apple of Sodom (Solanum linneanum) and wild tobacco (Solanum mauritianum) are a few that are particularly prevalent and certainly invasive plants around the country.

On the other hand, some are absolute favourites of home gardeners – with bragging rights for delicious homegrown tomatoes, a big crop of pinkeye potatoes and a bumper harvest of chillies right up there with some of the most joyful moments in the vegetable patch!

So treat the Solanacae with the respect they deserve and get out there and garden this spring. It’s a great time to plant most of the ornamental and edible plants in this group so happy gardening!!

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