Thursday, January 5, 2012

Nightshade - A Family of Plants with a Dark Side

Nightshade Vegetables and Ornamentals - Are They Tasty or Toxic?

I called some of the vines and plants in my yard 'weeds'.  I didn't plant them there, and I certainly didn't like the intrusion. But, since I didn't want to upset the natural way of things in my garden, I researched these beasts to see if I would be on the nature lovers black list if I removed them.

Nightshade - Solanaceae

 I read murder mysteries, and I know of many victims who succumbed to this plant - belladonna seemed to ring a bell.  Yep,  belladonna is a nightshade too! It is often referred to as 'deadly nightshade'.

Datura, or Jimson weed, Mandrake, and petunias all are in the nightshade family.  All of these plants, stems, leaves and berries are poisonous!

Seed Pod of Jimson Weed

These seeds are a hallucinogen, and has also been call 'loco weed'.

Mandrake roots resemble humans and superstitions suggest the roots scream when they are pulled.  These roots have a place in Wica and other magical rituals.
Mandragora plant is attractive but deadly.

But I would never eat any of these, right?  Nightshade family has 1500 - 2000 species - many of them we do eat. 

Nightshade vegetables include potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers, Gooseberries, eggplant, and all kinds of chili peppers.  The vegetables are safe to eat but the leaves of the tomatoes and  potatoes are poisonous.
Eggplant should always be cooked well, and any potato that has turned green or has elongated eyes should be tossed.

All Nightshade plants have a substance called alkaloids.  Potato and eggplant produce a Solanine. Tomatine is found in tomatoes, capsaisin, in chili peppers. These elements are in high concentrations in the leaves and stems of these plants and should never be eaten!

Tobacco, Necotiana, is a Nightshade as well.  It produces nicotine, an alkaloid,  that has long been noted as addictive.


Chili Pepper

All of these are members of the Nightshade family.

Even though the alkaloids are dangerous to ingest, the plants have produced them to protect themselves from pests.  The medical community does use some of them too.  Atropine has been derived from Nightshade alkaloids, and is used as an eye dilator.  Useful drugs have been developed from these plant substances to treat poisons, treat side effects of chemo and even sarin, which is a chemical warfare substance. And some research has indicated that eating Nightshade vegetables can exacerbate arthritis and other joint and muscle pain.


Tomatoes and potatoes are a staple in our diets, and the vitamin and mineral benefits of each are well know.  Just as in any family, Nightshade is a family of contradictions. 
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