One of the many enjoyable things about being a gardener is connecting with the wide community of people from different walks and viewpoints in life who share interest in horticultural skills. Whether it’s ornamental, edible, water, rock or xeriscape gardening, it’s fun to be a part of the conversation and collective accomplishment creating productive or aesthetic spaces.
Last year, our friends Pete and Sandi from West Jordan shared some starts from plants in their yard. They live in the city and have created a great yardscape all around their home. They have several Rose of Sharon plants scattered throughout the grounds. Mature Rose of Sharon plants can naturalize well, and our friends dug up several young plants and gave them to us in buckets. We were able to transplant them in the late spring, and they did just fine. When the warmth and longer days return next year, they’ll really take off and get established. It will be fun to see what colors they are. They could be any of the beautiful Rose of Sharon colors, because Pete and Sandi have them all.
For me, this is part of the fun — not knowing exactly what you’ll get. Some randomness is an attractive thing in a garden space, along with batching and placing of colors. It’s one more thing to look forward to in the next outdoor gardening season.
However, there was a hitchhiker that came along in the generous gift our friends gave us. It was a low vine-type plant, with attractive flowers, foliage and berries. I planted it in several spots, and all the plantings took root, and grew well. What I didn’t know was that I was giving a home in my garden to a toxic species of nightshade. And, Pete and Sandi were unaware of the extra “gift.”
Some of you are shaking your head right now. You know what I’m talking about. Yep, I should have known better. The fact is, it’s the first time, as far as I know, that I had encountered this type of nightshade plant. I learned of the mistake, corrected it, and am coming clean. This gardening writer doesn’t know it all. However, we gardeners are lifelong learners, so I happily pass on my (somewhat shameful) experience to you.
Others of you don’t know the significance of what I just said. Read on, and discover the fascinating realm of nightshades.
The nightshade family of plants possesses a wide range of clan members, some infamous, and others a part of your everyday life. The most notorious of the Solanaceae family is Atropa belladonna, commonly known as belladonna or deadly nightshade. Belladonna is a perennial herbaceous plant native to Eurasia.
Belladonna has rightfully earned its horrific reputation. There is no part of the plant that is not toxic to humans. The root structures are especially potent. In smaller doses, it can be used medicinally. Atropine, which is used in ocular medicine, can be derived from deadly nightshade, black henbane, and thornapple — all members of the nightshade family.
What does atropine do to the eyes? It dilates the pupils. It’s this property that actually gave deadly nightshade the moniker “belladonna.” The meaning of this Latin term, “bella donna,” is actually “beautiful woman.” Huh? In the middle and early ages, it was common practice for women to rub belladonna juice into their eyes (yeow — that’s gotta be uncomfortable!) to open the pupils and make the eyes beautiful and the woman more alluring — thus a beautiful woman. The things we do for love!
You’ll be pleased to know that the use of belladonna as a cosmetic was eventually dropped because of all the complications it caused, including compromised immune systems, resulting infections and even death from poisoning. In hindsight (pun firmly intended), it had a very negative effect on eyesight as well but — who didn’t see that coming (see what I did there)?
As we now know, toxic substances in the right dose can treat medical conditions. The foxglove plant produces the toxic substance digitalis. Yep, that is the same digitalis that is used in small amounts to treat heart conditions. Chemotherapy drugs are — for the most part — highly toxic to fast-growing cells. Administered correctly and for certain conditions, they can be highly effective as a disease treatment. The compound, salicylic acid, used to form aspirin, was originally derived from willow and myrtle trees. Again, in the right amounts, the substance provided pain relief, fever reduction and treatment of inflammation.
And, so it was with our friend deadly nightshade. An extract from its leaves was used as an antispasmodic to counteract cramps of smooth muscle tissue.
However, let’s not overlook the colorful history this plant has had when it was used as a poison. The genus name of nightshade (Atropa) is actually out of Greek mythology. The god Atropos was one of the three gods of death. There could be some tie as well to our modern-day word “atrophy” — to waste away. Assassins used it for many centuries in their attacks. The Romans harnessed the power of the toxin and were able to create poison arrows that were highly lethal in battle.
The main threat of this plant today is that it grows readily on its own and can overrun neglected areas. Some animals can eat it without detrimental effects, but not so for humans. Because the berries are shiny and sizable enough to easily get hold of, they can be especially attractive to children. Worse, their taste is initially moderately sweet. And even if only a few berries are consumed, it can be lethal.
On the positive side, the nightshade family is a strong contributor in other areas to our lives. Did you know that common vegetable garden plants, such as potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, goji berries, tomatillos and peppers are all part of the Solanaceae family? And that’s not all! Tobacco is an infamous member of the fraternity as well.
All of these plants contain toxins — mostly in the foliage (especially tobacco!) — that can be harmful, so prolonged contact by animals and humans should be avoided. Yep, that includes tomatoes and potatoes!
Nightshade plants are common in the ornamental plant realm as well. Ornamental tobacco plants, trumpet vine and petunias are part of the family.
And as for the plants that Pete and Sandi unknowingly gave me? Thankfully, they weren’t deadly nightshade. But what I planted wasn’t good either — and is being removed. Hello, bittersweet nightshade, formally known as Solanum dulcamara! While still toxic, it is much less so than belladonna. Reports of poisoning from it are quite rare, but have been documented. It’s a nice-looking plant — at least in its juvenile phase. The leaves and vining habits are attractive, the flowers are blue and pretty, and the berry pendants are quite nice.
Suffice it to say, looks can be quite deceiving. Plants mature quickly and overrun other plants while using them as a climbing scaffold. Bittersweet nightshade is a semi-woody, herbaceous perennial vine. That means it comes back year after year and picks up where it left off last growing season. The ripe berries are attractive to some species of birds who are immune to their toxins. The birds cast droppings with viable seeds, allowing the plant to quickly extend its local footprint. And they are toxic. With the little ones in our life, I’m not going to take a risk. Well, that’s it for this article. Parting with you, is, well, bittersweet.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.