Posted on | August 7, 2012 | 3 Comments
Walking around the garden this morning through light drizzle – well it is high summer after all – It struck me how many members of the Solanaceae family (nightshade) are growing here at the Exotic Garden. Eating a fresh tomato straight off the vine (absolutely delicious) in one of the Polly tunnels dedicated to edibles, got me thinking about this diverse family of plants which include tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, chilli peppers, capsicum, tobacco, petunias and many others, in fact, over 2000 different species.
The Tomato for instance, Solanum lycopersicum, was spread around the world following the Spanish colonization of the Americas, Peru being the centre of diversity for the tomato’s wild relatives which are perennial in their native habitats often scrambling over the ground or up bushes and shrubs. While it is botanically a fruit, it is generally considered a vegetable for culinary purposes and a wonderful one at that, especially if you are able to grow your own, as they have a much better flavour than those bought at the local supermarket. Most of the ones they sell are bred to have tough skins for transport and often have little flavour! The ones growing here though are absolutely delicious and so far haven’t made it to the kitchen as it is such a joy to eat them straight from the vine.
Earlier in the year I bought some young grafted Aubergine plants and being grafted they are much more vigorous than those grown from seed producing more and larger fruit. The ‘Devil Plant’ Solanum capsicoides is usually used for the rootstock as it is very vigorous. It’s called ‘Devil Plant’ because it really is a ‘devil of a plant’ to work with as it is covered in vicious spines, but when used as a rootstock, they do not appear. Aubergines are very attractive and exotic looking plants with large downy leaves and pretty, largish purple flowers which are followed by the dark purple-black fruits which swell to a good size – a quite magnificent sight and of course very tasty when cooked. The popular name ‘eggplant’ used in the US and Canada is derived from the fruits of some 18th century European cultivars which were yellow or white and resembled a hen or Goose egg. The fruit is botanically classified as a berry as contains numerous small, soft seeds.
There are also several different types of pepper that Jamie Spooner (my tree house resident and gardener extraordinaire) has been growing from seed with some already producing 12cm long chillies. Chilli peppers have been eaten in the Americas since at least 7500 BC and were one of the first crops to be cultivated in Central and South America. When Christopher Columbus encountered Chillies, he called them ‘peppers’ because like black and white pepper corns, they have a spicy hot taste. When they were first introduced into Europe, Chillies were grown as botanical curiosities in the gardens of Spanish and Portuguese monasteries, where monks experimented with their culinary potential and discovered that their pungency offered an excellent substitute for black peppercorns, which at that time were very expensive.
The ‘Scoville scale’ is used to rate the hotness of chilies: Mild red bell peppers (the large ones we put in salads etc.) rate zero all the way up to Habaneros at over 100,000 heat units. The heat in peppers comes from an alkaloid compound called Capsaicin which itself doesn’t have any flavour; instead, it stimulates the pain receptors in your mouth rather than your taste buds. The heat they produce is especially nasty if you get it in your eyes, hence in the US the strongest peppers are used by the police force in pepper spray which can cause temporary blindness and will certainly stop anyone in their tracks!
A far more benign member of the Solanaceae family growing in the new veggie garden here is the humble spud, Latin name Solanum tuberosum. Like the Tomatoes and Peppers, Potatoes hail from the Andes in South America and are used as a main food crop throughout the world and is the world’s fourth-largest food crop after rice, wheat and maize. Genetic testing of a wide variety of cultivars and wild species found a single origin for potatoes in the area of present-day southern Peru and extreme north-western Bolivia, where they were domesticated some 7,000 –10,000 years ago.
One of the most absurdly beautiful members of Nightshade family has to be Solanum pyracantha the ‘Porcupine Tomato’ also known as the ‘Firethorn Nightshade’, a very bizarre looking Madagascan native. It has bright orange-yellow spines down the midribs, and the upper and lower surface of all the leaves. It is not conventionally beautiful, but never-the-less stunning in its alluring viciousness!
Another rather prickly one I grow is Solanum quitoense, more commonly known as ‘Naranjilla’ which roughly translates as ‘little orange’ because it produces orange edible fruit. The specific name for this interesting species of nightshade is derived from ‘Quito’, the capital of Ecuador. It has attractive, large heart-shaped green leaves up to 40cm in length that are covered in short purple hairs and dark purple spines.
In large containers in the garden I grow Solanum rantonnetii, the ‘Blue Potato Bush’. It is a very fast growing shrub, though mine are trained into standards so the flowers can bee seen up high. It produces masses of small deep purple, yellow centred flowers throughout the summer though they haven’t done as well as in past years due to the lake of light!
Solanum crispum ‘Glasnevin’ the ‘Chilean Potato Vine’ is fairly hardy form with typical potato/tomato-like flowers in violet-blue with bright yellow centres held in bunches throughout the summer months. There is also a rather delectable white form called Solanum crispum ‘Album’. Both look superb growing over a wall.
One that I don’t grow in the garden, though I’m sure you have heard of, is ‘Deadly nightshade’, Atropa belladonna, which is a wild species native to southern UK and Europe and usually the one most people think of when Solanum is mentioned and of course exceedingly poisonous.
I also grow several other species not mentioned here that are interesting if you like members Solanaceae such as Brugmansia, Datura, Petunia and Solandra, though I’m sure I will remember some more when I have finished writing this!
I think I will now have another stroll around the garden with cats in tow and see what other ones I have missed.