The Solanaceae

The Solanaceae

Family is important. Few among us would argue differently. In the plant kingdom, just like the animal kingdom (which includes us!), families can be large or small, limited to a small area or spread far and wide, and have desirable and useful members as well as some less so. My focus this month is no exception. The Solanaceae, or Nightshade family is a huge one that is familiar to all of us. It includes some of the most important food crops grown, like tomato, eggplant, peppers and potato. Tobacco is another family member with enormous economic importance. Let’s jump in and explore this family that has served us as food, medicine and poison throughout history.

The tomato, eggplant and peppers that we all know and love all produce a fruit- technically a berry- that most would consider to be a vegetable. The first examples of these that were brought back to the old world by Spanish explorers in the 16th century would have appeared very different from what we know today. In fact, these crops that we consider essential today were slow to catch on due to the mistaken belief that they were poisonous. This belief has a basis in fact, but the parts of the plant eaten do not have significant amounts of the compounds that can have adverse effects. Some have suggested that the humble potato was in part responsible for the rise in the power of Western Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. For the first time these populations could feed themselves reliably. Try to imagine Ireland without the potato, or Italy without the tomato!

There is another aspect of this family that bears mention. It is said that the poison is in the dose, and that is certainly true with the Nightshade family. Many familiar medicines are derived from it, including Atropine. If you have ever had your eyes dilated for an exam, you will know one of its effects. Also, if you have ever popped a sea-sickness pill containing Scopolamine, you have availed yourself of a plant-based medicine with a multitude of uses.

The inspiration for this article comes to me from our vegetable garden here at The Fruit and Spice Park. We have some beautiful examples growing, lovingly tended by our dedicated volunteers and staff. We want everyone to benefit from the knowledge imparted by the study of Ethnobotany, how plants and people affect each other. It also bears mentioning the tomatoes and potatoes (among many other crops) helped make our beloved Redland Agricultural Area what it is today. Our steadfast local farmers carry on producing these staple crops, in the face of market headwinds, much to the benefit of our individual health and national economic stability. It is my opinion that to tend the soil and bring forth nature’s bounty is among the most honorable of professions.

On another note, I would like to remind the reader of our upcoming events. Our festival season is upon us! First up is the famous Asian Culture Festival, March 7-8, 2020. More information at It is truly a spectacle to behold! On April 4-5, 2020, we have the Redland Blues and BBQ Festival, with great music and even better food and drink!

Check our website for more details. I hope to see you at the Park!