Nightshade Vegetables’ Poisonous Relatives

Nightshade Vegetables’ Poisonous Relatives

The Solanaceae family, also known as the nightshade family, includes some of most important food plants: tomato, potato, eggplant (of genus Solanum), and sweet and hot peppers (genus Capsicum). Yet other plants in this family are famous for hallucinogenic or toxic effects due to the alkaloids they contain. Trusted edible vegetables with deadly relatives exist in other families as well (e.g., carrots and celery with hemlock in the Apiaceae family). Delicious rhubarb’s leaves are poisonous; azaleas, clematis, foxglove, hydrangeas, and oleanders are just a few flowers not to taste.

Some nightshades are deadly in small doses; others are harmless to consume. Potato and tomato leaves contain the alkaloid solanine, which can be toxic in large doses. While tomatoes and potatoes are safe, potato sprouts or green potatoes contain solanine and should be avoided. If your’ve tasted a greenish potato, you are familiar with the bitter flavor and slight stomach upset that follows. These could worsen to nausea, vomiting, irregular heartbeat, and headaches and dizziness progressing to paralysis and death if enough green potatoes were consumed.

Followers of a macrobiotic diet are advised to minimize their intake of vegetables from the nightshade family, but Dr. Andrew Weil says that most of us have nothing to worry about eating potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, or peppers. A small percentage of arthritis sufferers may be sensitive to nightshades and thus might benefit from eliminating them from their diet. For the rest of us, eating them should pose no problems.

The Jerusalem Cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum), garden huckleberry (Solanum meloanocerasum), horsenettle (Solanum corolinense) are all small shrubs with fruits the size of a small cherry tomato. Jerusalem cherry is mildly upsetting to the stomach for humans but deadly to cats, dogs, and some birds. Garden huckleberry becomes less toxic as it ripens and is edible, although it tastes best if cooked. Horsenettle also becomes less toxic as it ripens, but would still cause gastrointestinal distress if eaten.

Petunias are non-toxic family members. Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), and the ornamental flower nicotiana, are both nightshades. We are familiar with the alkaloid nicotine contained in tobacco leaves, which in the past was used as an insecticide. Small amounts of nicotine are present in other nightshade vegetables as well. Eggplant has more nicotine than any vegetable – but you would need to eat 22 pounds of eggplant to get the same amount of nicotine as is contained in one cigarette.

Jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) is a common wild plant, recognizable by its spiky seedpods. Colonists found it growing on the Island of Jamestown, and tried to add it to their diet. They experienced madness, seizures, and death as a result. Years later they used this knowledge to their advantage and fed the weed to British soldiers. The soldiers were incoherent for days, giving the settlers the upper hand.

Native Americans used the plant to induce visions in rites of passage. News reports surface regularly of illness and death caused by recreational jimsonweed use. A Maryland family was intoxicated for days, making a full recovery after being hospitalized and treated. New Mexico teenagers drank a tea made from jimsonweed seeds, and had frightening hallucinations. One of the teenagers drowned.

Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is one of the most poisonous plants known. This distinctive shrub has purple-green flowers and dark shiny fruits the size of cherries that ripen in autumn. All parts of the plant are poisonous. Children have died after eating only a few berries, but the nightshade ended up being more than just a poison.

While the atropine in the deadly nightshade can cause rapid heartbeat, hallucinations, and seizures if ingested, herbalists discovered that placing a few leaves on one’s forehead could reduce headache. Once atropine was isolated it became a well-known (if risky) painkiller included in many medicines in the 1800′s.

Women in the 1500′s used belladonna in an infusion to dilate their pupils and look more attractive – hence the name, “beautiful woman”. In fact, opticians and eye surgeons were using belladonna for eye exams until relatively recently.

Mandrake (Mandragora officiarum) has a wild looking root. The Romans called it Satan’s apple and believed it could cure demon possession, while the Greeks used it as a love potion and associated it with fertility. Hannibal used the mandrake to drug an enemy army (he put it in wine during a truce); Shakespeare’s Juliet drank a mandrake sleeping potion.

Witches mixed Henbane (Hyocamus niger), along with mandrake and belladonna in bear’s grease and rubbed it on their skin before taking flight on their broomsticks. Dried pieces of henbane root were used on amulets and necklaces and given to teething children. Early physicians made use of henbane’s painkilling properties in salves applied topically as local anesthetics. Medieval excavations show that henbane was used to lessen the pain of amputations.

In the 1500′s the Spanish conquistadors brought the tomato (from Mexico) and the potato (from Peru) to Europe for cultivation. Interestingly, neither plant became widely accepted as food until the 1800′s.

Europeans recognized these plants as relatives of the notorious nightshades, associated with poisons and witchcraft. They were hesitant to accept them as foods. People began to feed potatoes to their animals, but it took famine and the failure of wheat crops for people to begin eating the tuber. In the late 1700′s, one French scientist undertook a massive campaign to convince people to eat potatoes, which included putting potato flowers in Marie Antoinette’s hair and having the king and queen eat potatoes in public. But his most successful stunt was posting armed guards around a field of potatoes. When the soldiers left, the people ran in and looted the field. Potatoes were finally embraced and became a way to support a larger population from the same amount of land.


Allen, Arthur. “Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato”. Berkley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010.

Allen, Missy and Peissel, Michel. “Dangerous Plants and Mushrooms”. New York: Chelsea House, 1993.

Edlow, Jonathan. “Deadly Dinner Party and Other Medical Detective Stories”.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press 2009.

Standage, Tom. “An Edible History of Humanity”. New York: Walker and Company, 2009.

Stewart, Amy. “Wicked Plants”. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2009.

Stuart, David. “Dangerous Garden”. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004

Weil, Andrew, MD. “Natural Health, Natural Medicine”. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.


Tip: The North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, North Carolina State University, maintains a database on poisonous plants in the landscape. This list may be found at

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The Seven Myths of Industrial Agriculture

Here is a short video presenting seven myths of industrial agriculture:

I encourage you to grow your own food organically. It’s a positive means of greening your own life. It restores the the resources of your land and passes your legacy to your heirs. Also, support your local farm market.

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WELCOME to 2012!

CERES VICTORY GARDENS wishes you and your family a happy, healthy and abundant harvest for this coming year. As we begin the new year the crop planning has already begun. The first batch of seeds has been ordered and will soon be planted under warm grow lights. We would love to hear from you as we set our sights on the first plantings in this area in mid to late March. For your perusal the early spring crop selection, in alphabetical order, includes:

Beans – Bush, Pole and Lima












Onions (bulb)






Swiss Chard


Ceres Victory Gardens pledges to adhere to all certified organic agricultural practices. Our mission is to build healthier soils using genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems to ultimately help people and communities to become healthier.

In subsequent blogs I will be posting on a variety of subjects.  Topics may range from simple to complex, like favorite recipes to global or local agricultural issues. I always welcome comments and concerns and will address them as quickly as possible.

Once again, have a very happy, healthy New Year!

Yours truly,

Dennis McNamara

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  • Plants give us oxygen for the lungs and for the soul. — Linda Solegato