Solanaceae are herbs and shrubs often of a poisonous nature, the most famous being Deadly Nightshade Atropa belladonna. Typically for plant names this one tells a story: Atropa is named for the Greek Fate Atropos who would cut the thread of life, so ending it, and belladonna is a compound of the words ‘bella’ and ‘donna’, the Italian for beautiful lady, reflecting the cosmetic use of the drug atropine that causes dilation of the pupils so making eyes seem bigger and darker.
Features of the family are: alternate leaves with no stipules, regular bell-shaped or wheel-shaped flowers, five sepals, five-lobed corollas, and five stamens projecting in a column in the Solanum genus. The fruit is a berry (e.g. the tomato) or capsule. Atropa belladonna was once present in the Harris Garden but is now extinct on campus, however other Solanaceae can still be found, including Bittersweet Nightshade Solanum dulcamara and Black Nightshade Solanum nigrum.
S. dulcamara, also known as Woody Nightshade or Douce Amère, is a perennial vine and a common European weed. It spreads with underground stems on disturbed sites such as wasteland, hedgerows, streams, beaches and gardens. The flowers are purple with a yellow centre and the berries are bright red when ripe. This plant has previously been used to treat asthma, skin and circulatory conditions. It can carry the bacterial species Ralstonia solanacearum, causing brown rot in potatoes.
S. nigrum, also known as Petty Morel, is a widespread annual which can be found in mainly arable and wasteland habitats. Flowers are small and white with a yellow centre and the berries are black when ripe. The plant toxicity levels vary throughout the year so it should not be consumed.
Information came from The Natural History Museum (2011), Plants for a Future (2011), Rose (2006) and Jonathan Mitchley.