Plant of the day: common nightshade

Solanum americanum

As a kid I called this plant deadly nightshade, which may be why it has always looked sinister to me. It likes to grow in shady places, where its white or purple flowers gleam like little stars. Solanum americanum twines its narrow stem up through bushes, or drapes over tree branches. The deep green leaves are arrow-shaped–like a weapon, or the head of a rattlesnake or pit bull. It may look pretty but its very outline says “don’t mess with me.”

Despite being in the same family as peppers, potatoes and tomatoes, nightshade is quite toxic. My childhood respect was well-founded; eating the unripe berries has been fatal to more hapless tots. But just how poisonous nightshade is can vary with population, environment, and the age of the plant. Farmers don’t like it because the berries can’t be separated from peas and some beans, it is resistant to some herbicides, and the vines can gum up the harvesting machinery as well (according to the CA Department of Food and Agriculture).

I’m not sure whether this is a plus or not, but nightshade also contains salasodine, a natural compound that is used in some countries to manufacture steroid hormones.

Common nightshade is considered native, but there is a chance that it was an early introduction from South America.

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Filed under Non-native, Plant of the day, Poisonous

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