by Lorraine Cherry, Friends of West 11th Street Park
This attractive flowering plant, about 1 foot high, belongs to a family of plants that helped to keep tomatoes off the table for almost 200 years!
It is Carolina nightshade (Solanum carolinense), and is very common this time of year in West 11th Street Park. Members of the nightshade family were known for centuries in Europe as the source of several drugs and poisons, including belladonna. They frequently played a role in “accidental” deaths that popped up in vintage British murder mysteries in the first half of the 20th century.
Because of the reputation of these poisonous nightshades, the edible members of the family, including tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, were initially regarded with suspicion. For example, when tomato plants were first found by explorers in the New World and taken back to Europe, people noticed their resemblance to their poisonous cousins, and assumed that the tomato fruits would also be toxic. People were warned against eating tomatoes, and avoided doing so for many years.
In 1830, according to a story in an old farm journal, Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson stood on the steps of the courthouse in Salem, Massachusetts with a basket of tomatoes, and told several hundred cheering spectators that he planned to eat them all, and to survive. He did indeed survive, opening the door for the future development of Campbell’s tomato soup, V-8 juice, and pizza!
Carolina nightshade is also known as the horse-nettle or ball-nettle because of the abundant thorns on the stems. The showy flowers are white or pale purple, and gardeners will notice that they look very much like the blooms on their eggplants or tomatoes. A little later in the year, it will have clusters of orange-red fruits that resemble small tomatoes. However, these fruits contain a toxic alkaloid and should never be eaten.