Saturday Starting Out

42 and windy – cold, and gray. Typical November weather in Michigan, in other words.

I love looking at the bones of the land at this season. You can see where the water sources run and the full extent of the trees or where the wetlands begin. Our wetlands are completely sere and shades of tan and gold. Most of the wild grasses have been blown over by the grass, disguising the deer trails.

The bittersweet nightshade’s (Solanum dulcamara) berries are really lush and very visible in this landscape, glowing red and looking so lush and tasty. This Eurasia native was introduced to the US and quickly became a weed, so that it is quite common to see along roadways and paths.  The characteristic dark purple bloom and small oval, translucent red fruit are characteristic of this solanaceous plant and differentiate them from our native annual nightshade, that has white flowers and blue-black fruit.  All parts of the plant are moderately to extremely toxic, and that leads me to an interesting ethnobotany supposition.

When tomatoes (also a solanaceous species) were first brought to Europe, they were regarded as an ornamental plant, and people didn’t dare to eat them. The tomato species likely to have been imported to Europe would have been wild, un-improved species with small berry-like fruit and typical star-shaped yellow or white flowers, very similar to the flowers and fruit of the bittersweet and deadly nightshades, which were known toxins.  It makes sense that people in the Old World would think that the edible tomato would have toxic fruit like the nightshades: same family, similar flowers, similar fruit. I don’t recall ever reading anything about why tomatoes weren’t immediately clasped to the cooks’ bosoms and hailed as wonderful new addition to their repertory, but this certainly makes sense to me that they look too much alike.

Nightshades are used for herbal medicines, because they contain many active pharmaceuticals. But avoid eating this plant as it contains solanine, the same toxin found in green potatoes and other members of the nightshade family, as well as a glycoside called dulcamarine.