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Spotlighting the Deadly Night Shade Family
All gardeners should grow representatives from the Potato or Solanaceae family, if only for the splendour of their drooping bluish sprays of yellow-centred, bell-shaped flowers. These attractive blooms are symbols of a 2,000 member family that is saturated with nutritional, cultural, and medicinal attributes. Members include the traditional vegetable garden plants (hot peppers, potato, tomato, capsicum and eggplant), the aboriginal bush tucker plants (desert tomato, desert raisin and kangaroo apple), invasive weeds (the cruel boxthorn and blackberry nightshade), potent extract producers (tobacco and deadly night shade) and many colourful ornamentals (potato vine, angel's trumpet, Chinese lantern and petunias).
The Tasmanian ray flower and kangaroo apple
The Tasmanian and Southern Australian aborigines traditionally treated the cherry-sized fruits of the kangaroo apple (Solanum laciniatum) with all the respect that this potentially toxic bush tucker plant deserved. Feasting on these tomato-tasting fruits only occurred once the fruit was very ripe. To enhance the ripening process they buried piles of the yellow fruits in mounds of sand to soften and deepen their colour to an orange red.
Today as a bush tucker food, it is very versatile and can be substituted for tomatoes or eggplants to produce a delightfully spicy relish or chutney. The fruits can also be dried and preserved in herbed olive oil as a substitute for dried tomatoes.
As a short-lived, medium sized shrub, it is an excellent rapidly-growing addition to any backyard bush tucker patch. Its attractive potato-like blue flowers are reason enough. Additionally, as its lush foliage can grow rapidly, regular harvesting can provide plentiful supplies of rapidly compostable leaves.
The rare endemic Tasmanian ray flower, Cyphanthera tasmanica is ideal for backyard native plant patches. This small shrub has showy, creamy-white flowers with purple stripes and grey-green foliage. Like the kangaroo apple, they are drought tolerant and require hard pruning annually to keep them compact. Propagation is easy from seed or cuttings.
Bush tucker treats from bush tomatoes and raisins
The name 'bush tomato' has been applied to a number of small shrubs with purple flowers, furry leaves and fruits like small unripe tomatoes. In the scorching sun of the southern deserts these fruits can shrivel on the shrub, concentrating the sugars to produce sweet bush raisins. Thus the interchangeable common names.
The name 'wild' or 'bush' tomatoes and/or raisins have been applied to a number of plants, some of which are botanically identified as Solanum ellipticum, Solanum petrophilum and Solanum centrale. They are valuable aboriginal bush foods traditionally gathered in large amounts from the dry outback. Once collected, they are ground to form a paste and rolled into sizable balls, before being covered with red ochre ready for sun-drying.
As a tasty larder to be eaten when fresh fruits are scarce, they are either stored as tennis ball sized lumps hung in tree forks or strung on sticks which are carried from camp to camp.
As many wild tomatoes, eg. the acid berry Solanum esuriale, are rich in Vitamin C, the early desert explorers (including Charles Sturt) and drovers, prevented scurvy by cooking them with their meat stews or mutton chops. Aboriginal culture meticulously passed down through the generations accurate identification of the edible bush tomato-producing plants, being well aware that many, similar-featured poisonous bush tomatoes are to be found thriving side by side with edible ones (for example the edible S.ellipticum and the poisonous S.quadriloculatum).
Many have narcotic and/or toxic properties
The family's common name 'deadly night shade' reflects a precautionary note about the toxic nature of many of its members. This name is derived from the herb called deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna, which contains a potent narcotic extract called Atropine. This is used medicinally as an eye dilating drug and sedative.
Another plant with toxic properties is the foetid smelling thorn apple, Datura stramonium, commonly found in India. Even today Indian thieves and assassins are consistently administering high doses to their victims in order to render them insensible. However, it also contains beneficial alkaloids, which alleviate asthma and act as a pre-anaesthetic in childbirth and surgery.
Of the well known family members, tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) is a very hazardous plant. Less known are the allergies encountered by some regular consumers of potatoes, tomatoes, capsicum and/or aubergines. To illustrate their potency, a world-renowned ballet dancer became crippled with muscular and joint pains and was unable to dance. Following a diagnosis of intolerance to these foods she resumed her distinguished career within a month of excluding them from her diet. Other users report that within a short time of eating them they have difficulty in relaxing and/or sleeping. Vivid dreams are symptomatic of this intolerance.
Interesting glimpses into the history of potatoes and tomatoes
Through the millennia, and within many cultures, intriguing uses have been given to the potato tubers (Solanum tuberosum) and tomato fruits (Lycopersicon lycopersicum).
The early South American Indians cooked with potato flour called 'chuno' extracted by repeatedly freezing the potatoes overnight and kneading the thawed blackened tubers to express floury water. This dried flour extract was the basis for breads and savoury dishes. Of course all cultures were cautious about consuming the potato's toxic greenish-yellow, cherry-sized fruits or any light induced green portions of potato tubers.
In the 1500s the Spanish and French named the tomato 'Love Apple' as a response to its perceived aphrodisiac properties. Following its introduction into England, fears remained about its toxic nature, which relegated it to ornamental display only. It was the mid 1800s before it became accepted as an edible fruit.
Even notorious weeds have their uses
The berries from the common garden and crop weeds blackberry nightshade, Solanum nigrum, and the glossy nightshade, Solanum americanum, have a variety of taste sensations ranging from a sweet mulberry-like taste through to a somewhat bitter taste. The early settlers frequently made jam from the shiny black berries using ten ounces of sugar to the pound of fruit. The tender green leaves were also cooked and eaten.
The Cape gooseberry, Physalis peruviana, of South American origin is a weed of moist bushland forests. Its cherry-sized, sweet, tangy fruit are concealed in straw capsules. These small bushes are still worthy of cultivating in the fruit garden, provided any nearby native bush is constantly observed for seedlings sprouting from bird droppings. Preserves, chutneys and jams can be made and enjoyed from the harvest of a few small shrubs.
The vicious weed, boxthorn, Lycium ferosissimum, produces a succulent, edible orange fruit that birds eat and spread the seeds far and wide, thus perpetuating its invasive nature. Producing impenetrable thickets with vicious needle thorns, it often provides the only safe refuge for native birds and bandicoots in recently cleared landscapes. Although anyone weeding out this plant deserves a medal, leaving small bits on the ground or beach will have worse repercussions than broken glass.
The fruits of the Lycium genus are used medicinally throughout Asia. Processed fruits are used for diabetes treatments, alleviating sexual impotence and retarding the aging process. One of its active alkaloid ingredients, Physalin, is extracted to successfully treat Hepatitis B. Another, Betaine, is added to chicken feed and human nutritional supplements for enhancing muscle mass.
In conclusion, the Solanaceae family members produce a bundle of unexpected and attractive attributes for the backyard organic gardener. However, always take a cautious approach before enjoying their potential offerings.
From "Eucryphia", Newsletter of the Australian Plants Society (Tasmania), July 2003.
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Australian Plants online - June 2004
Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants