Originally created 03/07/03

Nightshades have it all

As you put together seed orders, you'll be coming across nightshades - what a tasty, lovely, and eerie group they are. Besides tomato, pepper, potato, petunia, and tobacco, this botanical family includes a slew of other fine, but less well-known, garden plants.

Ground cherries, for example, are sweet enough to be a dessert fruit, and each comes prepackaged within its own papery husk. Naranjilla is another delectable nightshade, an orange fruit that makes a sprightly juice similar to orange juice. Both are perennial shrubs in the subtropics, but can be grown as annuals, just like tomatoes.

Tamarillo, a tropical tree, looks like a red egg and tastes like a rich, tart tomato. This tree can be kept small and can be grown in a pot to bring indoors in winter.

What about the "lovely" nightshades? Flowering tobacco, Jerusalem cherry, even eggplants, are familiar and attractive plants. In warm climates or in a greenhouse, you could also grow shrubs such as the potato vine or the paradise flower.

Among the most beautiful of the nightshades are the angel's trumpets. The pale flowers - in some cases fragrant and opening only at night - dangle or stand like giant ice cream cones. That eeriness is more than visual, for with these angel's trumpets we move into the realm of poisonous nightshades.

Three other plants round out this group of deadliest nightshades, all containing powerful nerve poisons. At one time, Italian noblewomen put drops of belladonna into their eyes to make their pupils appear large and dark even in bright light; the plant's name translates to "beautiful lady." The human-shaped root of mandrake supposedly imbued it with the power of increasing energy and fertility. And henbane, literally "chicken killer," was used for thousands of years as a painkiller. Angel's trumpets, belladonna, mandrake, and henbane were once well-known to those schooled in the art of the occult and the art of poisoning.

Even edible nightshades were once looked upon with a suspicious eye. The tomato, when first introduced into France, was considered dangerous. Don't snicker: Every nightshade - even edible ones - contains natural toxins. This is why you should never eat tomato leaves or green potatoes.

Questions about the dangers of certain nightshades are not settled. Recent research suggests that you are better off not eating potato skins, because of their toxins. Nobody has ever keeled over from eating potato skins, but more questionable is a nightshade sold as garden huckleberry, but sometimes known as "poisonberry."

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