“You say po-tay-to and I say po-tar-to,
You say tom-ay-to and I say tom-ar-to,
Po-tay-to, po-tar-to, tom-ay-to, tom-ar-to,
Let’s call the whole thing nightshade instead!”
I remember experiencing an almost unseemly level of excitement when I learned that potatoes and tomatoes were part of the nightshade family.
Nightshade…the very word draws you (me) in…
Maybe it was reading Mists of Avalon as an impressionable teenager: all those strong, misunderstood women who knew how to heal a handsome knight or take down a rogue one with a tea made from this or that garden clipping.
Perhaps it was learning (at that same dangerous age) about Renaissance ladies dilating their pupils with drops of belladonna, to appear more alluring.
The nightshades, it was clear, were not to be underestimated.
Let’s meet some members of this extensive and important plant family:
“You say po-tay-to and I say po-tar-to,
You say tom-ay-to and I say “eugghhhh, no thanks!”
Yep, you read it right.
I don’t like tomatoes.
I remain steadfastly unmoved, in fact, slightly repelled, watching foodies work themselves into a frenzy in the search for the perfect tomato.
Foodie: “Oh, there’s just nothing like the smell of sun-ripened tomato!”
Moi (cringing): “You can say that again.”
Foodie: “Oh, this heirloom beefheart variety is the juiciest tomato you’ll ever taste!”
Moi (backing away): “Get that disgusting thing away from me.”
I know tomato-lovers don’t/can’t/won’t understand.
It’s the slime, you see. 3M should forget about post-it notes and double-sided tape and start researching tomato slime instead: that nasty goop sticks to everything. Ugh.
Sorry, not a fan.
Some people (crazies, not rational types like me) feel the same way about eggplant.
Others can’t stomach (literally) capsicum.
I met a woman once who was allergic to all members of the nightshade family, which certainly sounds more exotic than some of your everyday food intolerances.
Potatoes though, now there’s a people-pleaser.
One bite of a triple-cooked, duck fat potato chip and you’re its slave for life. (Why is it you only hear of duck fat chips, and never drake fat??? a question intrepidly pondered by smart people over lunch recently.)
The duck fat and the deep frying might have something to do with our love of potato chips, but all the nightshades also contain alkaloids, naturally occurring, nitrogen-containing substances, which cause diverse physiological reactions in humans ranging from beneficial to toxic.
Remember how you’re not supposed to eat spuds with green bits? That’s because of the alkaloid Solanine, the median lethal dose of which is 2-5mg per kg of body weight*.
So Death-by-Spud is pretty easy to avoid, and, happily, spuds are pretty damn easy to grow.
First, get a spud, stick it in a dark spot in the kitchen and forget about it for a bit.
Fish it out once it starts sprouting little eyes, and chop it into bits, each with an eye.
Have a garden bed ready that you can keep building up, or use a few hessian bags, rolled down with a bit of soil in the bottom.
Stick the spud bits in, with the eyes pointing up, and cover them with a bit of soil.
As the leaves start to come through, you keep adding soil, and the plant grows up and up, trailing a string of wee spuds behind.
If you get over-excited (guilty) you can occasionally clear a bit of soil away to gaze in anticipation at your bounty. Otherwise, once the leaves start withering away you can start harvesting. Nom nom nom.
The alkaloid Tropane is the one found in belladonna (Atropa belladonna). It’s named after Atropos, one of the three Greek Fates - the one who cut the thread of life. Are you getting a sense of where this is heading?
Belladonna is also known as Deadly Nightshade.
In old English legends it was the devil’s plant, and he tended it personally, devilish gardening tools in hand (claw?). All parts of the plant are poisonous.
If you are interested in growing your own Deadly Nightshade, the not-so-dark corners of the interwebs will provide you with lots of useful information.
Remind me never to pop over for afternoon tea though, would you?
Another cute little tropane-containing nightshade is mandrake (Mandragora officinarum).
Mandrake stars in many tales of witchcraft, and puts in quite a few Shakespearean appearances.
The mandrake has roots in the form of a human, and is said to shriek when pulled from the ground, killing everyone in earshot.
Don’t try this at home. Although if you’re interested in seeing the plants, many of the nightshades are growing in the Garden of Medicinal Plants at London’s wonderful Chelsea Physic Garden.
Well, it seems we have ventured down quite a garden path.
Let’s turn our backs on alluring Cousin Belladonna and attention-seeking Cousin Mandrake by having a quick chat with cheery, dependable Cousin Petunia.
Cousin Petunia is from the subfamily Petunioideae, genus Petunia. Favoured by those seeking a ‘quick splash of colour’ petunias grow easily and do indeed come in a wide array of bright colours.
They won’t kill you, either.
* thanks Wikipedia!