Nightshades are an interesting family of plants. Many of them are poisonous with lethality that goes mostly like this –
- mmm, yummy
- woah, trippy
- eww, I don’t feel so good
- omg, I wish I was dead
- ugh, (clunk)
Even the non-deadly ones have deleterious effects for some people. Those would be potatoes, tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers and eggplant. Basically, nightshades produce powerful alkaloids that can exacerbate inflammatory responses, lead to leaky gut and irritable bowel and auto-immune diseases, which is sad because they’re really tasty. Except for eggplant. Tobacco is also part of the nightshade family and we all know what enough of that does.
So what the heck am I on about? I can’t grow tomatoes, but boy can I grow the less edible kinds of nightshade. A few years ago I photographed the deadly or bittersweet nightshade (belladonna) that’s been growing in my yard for years. It’s a messy, sprawling vine with gorgeous little purple flowers and the fruit ripens to a deep red color. It’s pretty cool and I call them Dr. Evil’s tomatoes because I’m silly that way. So when I spotted this little baby in the yard –
I ran right back inside for the wildflower book and the camera. Isn’t it wonderful? Ok, sure, it’s a weed, but come on, it’s a stunner, right? The flowers in the shooting star pose are less than 1/4 inch wide and about that when 1/2 opened. This little cluster has almost the full range of the blooming sequence and I’m so happy I got lucky and caught it. Here’s the same little group with some backlight and in black and white.
When I learned that they make tiny green berries that turn purple when they ripen, I knew this would become a mini-project for me. I kept a close eye on them and soon little green fruit appeared. Oddly, I never did catch the pollinator(s). Whether, bee, fly or ant, it remains a mystery although I do suspect ants have something to do with it since they were all over the plants, weirdly hanging out on the undersides of leaves. Ants, who knows?
I even spied a tiny jumping spider hiding in the green berries. He wouldn’t come out and give me a smile though. He’s hiding in this shot –
From my work with this plant and with the deadly nightshade growing nearby, and because I’m a veggie lover, I found a lot of similarities between species in this family. Take black or common nightshade – it makes tiny spherical fruit that start out green like tomatoes, but they don’t grow on a vine – the plant is self-supporting as are potato plants. The smell of the plant itself is similar to tomato plants, too and the way the stem attaches is just like them, too. They don’t stay green for long either. Check it out –
OMG!!! Aren’t they cute? Like tiny, pea-sized eggplants. Because these are right by my deck in a planter, I could move them all around for the best light and backgrounds. I wish everything I shot was this easy to work with!
Eons ago, when I was a girl, I read or was told that tomatoes were considered poisonous for a really long time before someone got brave enough to try one. When they didn’t die, tomato cultivation began. Like cousin the potato, this first happened in South America where it spread to Central America and what is now Mexico. When the invaders came, they couldn’t be convinced to eat them since they were so similar to belladonna, mandrake and others whose potency as poisons or hallucinogenics associated them with murder, witchcraft and weirdly, lycanthropy. It would take their exportation to Europe and re-importation to North America for colonists to do more than cringe at the sight of them. More’s the pity. Native Americans had been eating them for centuries.
As I did research about this plant, I discovered there are several varieties all commonly referred to as Black Nightshade which comes from the Latin name for the Solanum nigrum species native to Africa and India. What I most likely have growing in the yard is Solanum americanum because of the way the berries grow in an umbel cluster from a single stem and are shiny when ripe. Also, the leaves are uniformly light green whereas a similar species, Solanum ptycanthum, has purple on the undersides of the leaves. S. americanum and s. ptycanhum are thought to be New World species although that’s in dispute as well. It’s also rumored that Euell Gibbons used to make pies from the ripe s. americanum berries, but I’m not that brave!
Phew! Botany lesson over. You thought this was a photography blog, didn’t you? As you probably guessed, all of these were shot with the legacy Olympus 90mm macro. No extension tubes and all natural light. I continue to be amazed at the combination of that lens and my GH3. The detail is jaw-dropping and I’m so happy to have found these little beauties right in my yard. I hope I get a crop next year, too.