Nightshade Family


Chef Rosey was on Main Street a couple weeks ago talking about potatoes. It got me thinking about the significance of the Nightshade Family, of which potato is a member.

The nightshade family or Solanaceae consists of nearly 3,000 species, mostly native to Central and South America.  But with the exception of Antarctica, members of the family may be found on all continents where they occupy a wide range of habitats from desert to tropical rain forest.

The nightshade family contains herbs, shrubs, trees, vines, and epiphytes.  They may also be annuals, biennials, or perennials.  The leaves are typically alternate and simple.  The flowers have five sepals and petals of which the sepals may be separate or united, but the petals are generally fused to form of a saucer or trumpet shape.  In the center is one pistil and five stamens.

In addition to the potato, the nightshade family includes the tomato, tomatillo, eggplant, as well as the bell and chili peppers.  Tobacco, belladonna, and jimsonweed are also in the family.  And you might be surprised to learn that the petunia is a nightshade.

There are a couple dozen species of the nightshade family native to North Dakota.  Probably the most commonly recognized species are the groundcherries of which we have around half a dozen species.  Virginia groundcherry (Physalis virginiana) is the most widespread species and may be found across the state on a variety of habitats, particularly on sandy soils. All groundcherries produce edible fruits, but consider them poisonous until ripe.

One of the more poisonous plants in North Dakota is black henbane (Hyanocyamus niger).  It is most likely encountered south and west of the Missouri River, but may be found elsewhere.  It has a foul odor, which usually keeps livestock and humans away, but the seeds and leaves are poisonous.  O.A. Stevens reported in his Handbook of North Dakota Plants (1963), that two children were poisoned by the plant, one fatally, in Hettinger County.

And no doubt many of you gardeners have pulled cutleaf nightshade (Solanum triflorum), from your gardens.  It is a common garden weed. And buffalo bur (Solanum rostratum) is a close relative.  It is a spiny low growing weedy annual, particularly in the western part of the state.  Don’t go barefoot where buffalo bur is growing!

Chuck Lura

Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Dakota College at Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.

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