The Powerful Solanaceae

Image banner: ginseng roots, echinacea flowers, juniper berries, raspberry, shining willow, and Gamble oak acorn.

The Solanaceae, also known as the potato or deadly nightshade family is one of humankind’s most utilized and important plant families. It contains some of the world’s most important food plants, such as the potato, tomato, all peppers, ground cherries (tomatillo), and eggplant. It also includes a suite of deadly toxic plants represented by belladonna, mandrake, Jimson weed, henbane, and tobacco. The deadly nightshades are also members of this incredible family.

Rich in potent psychoactive alkaloids, it is a family of plants with a veritable chemical soup of desirable and toxic compounds referred to as the tropane alkaloids. They include nicotine, solanine, capsaicin, atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine, chemicals that have been used as healing drugs in small doses, misunderstood or abused as addictive drugs, and employed as pesticides and warfare agents (e.g., sarin) when utilized in toxic doses.

Field of California poppies.
The original range of Atropa belladonna was from southern Europe to Asia but today is naturalized in many parts of the world. Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution.

Datura wrightii.
Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii) is also called moonflower, a reference to the fact that the flowers open late in the day. Hawkmoths are a primary pollinator. Photo: Teresa Prendusi.

Close-up of black henbane flowers.
Black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger) has a long history as a notorious toxic as well as a beneficial medicinal plant. Close-up of black henbane flowers. Photo: Teresa Prendusi.

Mandrake flowers.
Star-like, violet-blue flowers arise from the center of the stemless mandrake plant growing in southern Spain. Photo: Teresa Prendusi.

Woodcut showing flying witches.
This woodcut from a 1720 collection shows both male and female witches flying on broomsticks. Photo: Wellcome Library, London.