Gulf Coast Autumn: Gold

Silverleaf nightshade fruit

A member of the large family known as Solanaceae, the silver-leaf nightshade (Solanum elaeagnifolium) clearly is a relative of the lovely wolfberry.  Despite differences between the plants (yellow or gold fruits on the silverleaf nightshade rather than red, five petals rather than four, and fuzzy — even prickly — leaves and stems), the similarities are striking.

Solanum species generally possess one unusual characteristic: their banana-shaped stamens.

In the plant world at large, mature anthers often split down their sides in order to release pollen. Instead, silverleaf nightshade and other members of the genus expel their pollen through tiny holes at the anthers’ tips.

Another characteristic which makes silverleaf nightshade especially easy to find in the fall and winter is the unpalatable nature of their fruits. While plants like yaupon, palmetto, beauty berry, and peppervine often are stripped of their berries by November, the golden fruits of the nightshade linger on.

It’s not surprising to find nightshades still laden with fruit in January or February and, despite color loss and shriveling, some will hold them even longer. Poet Robert Frost’s poignant conclusion that “nothing gold can stay,” may be true, but at least one autumn plant seems willing to give it a try.


Comments always are welcome.


47 thoughts on “Gulf Coast Autumn: Gold

  1. I’ve been seeing these fruits in Austin, where silverleaf nightshade is common. I suspect many people consider it a weed, yet it’s one of the most widespread wildflowers we have and can be found here for much of the year.

    1. When I was traveling last fall, I found it in Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas (although not far western) and Oklahoma. With its toxicity and prickly nature, I suppose some do consider it a problem, but the flower’s lovely, and I’m really fond of the fruits. I found some green ones this year, and was surprised by how attractive they are.

        1. I came across that little detail and was puzzled, too. I found a slightly expanded reference here:

          “The plant contains enough enzymes to be used as a rennet, or digestive agent in milk (Boyd et al. 1984). The Navajo, the Pima, Cochiti, all used the fruit of the plant for this purpose. The Zuni mixed the fruit with goat’s milk in order to curdle it. They considered this to be a delicious beverage. The Pima would powder the dried fruit (it dries on the plant) and place it in milk along with a piece of a rabbit or cow stomach in order to make cheese.”

          Reading that, I realized I didn’t have a clue what rennet is. This article explains its purpose (including the Pimas’ inclusion of rabbit or cow stomachs with the nightshade), details some other plants that have been used, and also clarifies the difference between vegetarian and non-vegetarian cheeses.

          As for how all this was discovered, I love this explanation. It’s a perfect example of “making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

            1. I’ve never had the custard, although I’ve seen it on the grocery store shelves. What I do remember is another of the company’s products, called Danish Dessert. It certainly didn’t substitute for my Swedish grandmother’s fruktsoppa, or fruit soup, but it resembled it, and was so easy to prepare that even a kid could do it: as I did. It had no nutritional value, but it tasted good.

    2. I’m sure you’re aware of sonication, but I found an article last night with some details about how the process works with the banana-shaped anthers of the nightshades. An interesting side note is that damage to the anthers — brown spots, particularly — isn’t necessarily a sign of an aging plant. Sometimes the damage is a sign of “bee kisses’ left by sonicating bees. The second page in this article has an inset which explains it.

      1. While I don’t believe I’ve run across the technical term sonication, I have read about that phenomenon under the name buzz pollination, which also appears in the linked article. I like the article’s statement that “tomato plants in greenhouses, including those in Arizona and Sonora, were once hand-pollinated by workers with electric toothbrushes, a labor-intensive task.” I think the maker of Sonicare is missing an opportunity for a great ad about sonication.

  2. It’s a beautiful blossom, like a spear-shape merged with a rounder, ruffled shape. We have bittersweet nightshade, but with red berries, not gold, and much smaller, simpler blossoms. Thanks for posting this Lucretia, er, I mean, Linda. :)

    1. Shoot, Rob ~ I couldn’t even write a poison-pen letter, let alone wander along in that lady’s footsteps. But there were rumors about her having a ring that contained her poisons — maybe it was fashioned to resemble one of these fruits.

      I looked at your bittersweet nightshade, and was interested to see how the petals bend backwards, giving it the appearance of the flower known as shooting star. We have another nightshade that’s white, but the flower is quite small and has those same bent-back petals. It’s amazing how many variations there are on the nightshade theme.

  3. Nice twist on nothing gold can stay….but then is gold only about the color or about desirability? I love the dried look of the fruit image and it seems very autumnal. I think it would add nicely to a still life. The stamens do look banana ish.

    1. The nature of gold? Open to interpretation, I’d say — as is so much poetry, and so much of life in general. What’s clear is that this could serve very well in one of your still lifes. I do enjoy the structure of plants like this in the fall. The flowers are great, but they’re not the end of the story, and whether it’s in a vase or in a carefully composed image, stems like this really shine.

      The stamens remind me of the banana candy we loved as kids. I suspect they were actually pretty bad, but the memory is sweet.

  4. When I was 8th and 9th grade, they razed a whole square block, leveled out the front 2/3rds of it with truckloads of dark red dirt preparatory for building a K-Mart and an adjacent shopping complex. For whatever reason, the field of bare red dirt remained bare red dirt for almost two years before building actually commenced. This was the era of the first successful Mariner missions to Mars, and for my BFF and me, that bare red dirt became our Martian plains. Nothing grew there during that time except the occasional silverleaf nightshade plants. In the winter and early spring, when there was nothing left of them but stalks, stems and mustard yellow berries, they looked like alien plants against that bare red Martian dirt. The contrast between the living plant and its dead, seed-bearing remnant is so very stark it’s almost not like it’s the same plant, but that it somehow transmogrifies from an ordinary terrestrial flowering plant to some unearthly alien invader.

    Looking at the fruit of both the wolfberry and the silverleaf nightshade, it’s not hard to see that they belong to the same family as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and peppers.

    1. I think the resemblance is especially strong with the eggplant. It’s not hard to see it as just a big, purple berry that profits by the addition of spices and other ingredients. I’d never been an eggplant eater until I lived in Liberia, but they were common in the market, and the Lebanese shop keepers could tell you a dozen or more ways to fix it.

      In a bit of a coincidence, your surface of Mars (not to mention the planet itself) has some similarity to Liberia, too. The Liberian soil is primarily laterite: iron-rich and red. One of the better-known books for young readers about Liberian life is titled Red Dust On The Green Leaves — a perfect description of life during the dry season.

    1. It seems like the answer to the question of toxicity for all these plants is, “Sometimes yes, sometimes no.” This one’s off the menu for people, mostly, and it’s not good for cattle, either. The very fact that I’ve seen the berries linger for months and months, despite being obvious, is enough evidence for me that I should leave it alone.

      On the other hand, I did find this nice summary of ways various tribes made medicinal use of the plant. I wonder from time to time how many people ended up succumbing during the process of experimentation, but I suppose that was part of our learning process as a species.

  5. I thought nightshade was poisonous — maybe just certain varieties of it are? I can see where these golden berries stand out in an otherwise brown and green background. Thank you, Linda, for sharing such intricate photos — gee, just look at those tiny bananas!!

    1. The nightshade (or potato) family is so large, with so many species, there’s quite a variation in toxicity levels. Belladonna is probably the most poisonous. When I looked up belladonna poisoning, I got this:

      “The symptoms of belladonna poisoning include dilated pupils, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, tachycardia, loss of balance, staggering, headache, rash, flushing, severely dry mouth and throat, slurred speech, urinary retention, constipation, confusion, hallucinations, delirium, and convulsions.”

      But then, I found this FDA consumer alert about an infant teething product that was discovered to have traces of belladonna. If it had been from 1850, that would be one thing, but it’s current. The product’s been recalled, but — read those labels!

      Of course, the family also includes potatoes, eggplant, and tomatoes. In fact, one reason people were so slow to adopt the tomato as a food is that they thought it was as poisonous as some other nightshades. I’m glad they figured out that it isn’t.

  6. I wonder if the anthers shoot the pollen out on an insect that lands to suck on the flower, and if there is some type of trigger mechanism. The uneaten fruit resembles uneaten mushrooms, a sure sign that you shouldn’t eat any! –Curt

    1. Believe it or not, I found the answer, and it’s related to something I learned about this past summer: sonication, or “buzz pollination.” Here are some relevant paragraphs from p.125 in this excellent article titled “Pollination in the Sonoran Desert Region:

      “About 8 percent of the world’s 330,000 flowering plant species have anthers that release their pollen only through small pores at the anther tips, which makes them look and function a bit like saltshakers. Bumble bees, digger bees…certain sweat bees… and the large carpenter bees turn themselves into living tuning forks and sonicate the pollen from these flowers.”

      “Using their powerful flight muscles, the buzz-pollinating bees vibrate the stamens to collect pollen from the flowers. Female bees bite into an anther with their mandibles and hold on tightly while
      sonicating at frequencies between 200 and 400 hertz (which includes the musical notes A and C).”

      “When the anther is vibrated, the pollen sprays out in a few tenths of a second, hitting the bees on their undersides and between their legs. The pollen is accelerated with a force of up to 30 times the force of gravity! The bees groom themselves, packing the pollen into special parts of their bodies, and then carry the protein-rich pollen back to their nests as larval food.”

      I didn’t think I’d run into anything as fascinating as those peacock spiders for a while, but some sonicating bees just said, “Hold my beer.”

      And yes, indeed. Silverleaf nightshade is a plant that requires buzz pollination. The article adds, “Look at the bright yellow anthers on the flowers; the dark brown marks you see are “bee kisses,” where female bees bit into them while buzzing out the pollen.”

      I had no idea I’d captured bee kisses in my photos.

      1. Isn’t it a marvelous world, Linda, where we can learn such interesting facts? Sonicating bees, it is certainly a piece of information that was new to me. I am familiar with plants that shoot out seeds for dispersion, which was made me wonder whether a similar method was used in pollination and you found this. Thanks. –Curt

        1. I had no idea there were plants that sent their seeds flying until I brought some home, and discovered the seeds all over the floor the next morning — and some of them quite a distance away. I don’t even remember what the plant was now, but yes: there are marvels galore.

          Here’s an unrelated question for you. I have a vague memory of there being a company or a supermarket in 1970s Liberia with a name that ended in “CO” — like Costco, or Aramco. I just can’t surface it. Do you happen to remember what it was? I recall it as being well-established, so it should have been around when you were there.

            1. Bingo! that’s it. How I couldn’t remember that, I don’t know — I made some trips up there. I guess it’s because I always think of it as Bong Mine. Still, when I did a search for Liberian companies, you’d think it would show up. No matter. Who needs Google when you have real, live experts to consult?

    1. It really is amazing how similar the flowers are. When I saw a photo of them, I double-checked the family, just to see — but they’re entirely different. Well, except for their appearance. Those blue berries are really striking. I see it can be grown in a pot. Given your love of blue, have you tried that?

  7. The berries do look very attractive, as do the flowers. My potatoes often have flowers and berries ( the true fruit of the potato). They are also very attractive but I wouldn’t want to eat them. I must look out for bee kisses on the stamens. Both bees and potato flowers are out in the garden. I haven’t seen the potato berries turn gold but that may be because I pull them up before they have a chance to turn.

    1. I just happen to have a photo of the silverleaf nightshade berry before it starts to turn gold. When I took the photos, I thought it looked remarkably like an unripe cherry tomato, and the photos I found of the potato berry certainly resemble it.

      Here’s a more detailed article about the potato berries. They’re not for eating, that’s for sure. I’m so glad you mentioned them. I had no idea they existed, and although I might eventually have thought about it, I might not have.

      The article says that some potato berries turn purple. You should leave a few and see what they do.

      1. That is a great article. I think this line applies to my garden ” People tend to notice berries when they begin to grow multiple varieties, which can cross pollinate” . Also the potato yield is lower. I will try to remember to take some potato berry photos this year. The berries last year were rather large. The berries usually end up in the compost, so I may be growing all sorts of potatoes! Who knows? Not I.

  8. The potato family sure is large and varied! Lovely photos! I have belladonna in my garden, it grows wild and I live in fear of the dogs eating it as they constantly graze on berries. xxx

    1. You’re a braver woman than I would be, having the plant around. I did wonder if its toxicity was overblown, and found this: “Just two berries can kill a child who eats them, and it takes only 10 or 20 to kill an adult. Likewise, consuming even a single leaf can prove fatal to humans. Cattle, horses, rabbits, goats, and sheep can eat deadly nightshade without ill effect, though many pets are vulnerable to its lethal effects.”

      The whole article is here. It’s filled with interesting details. For example, belladonna was thought to be the substance that allowed witches’ brooms to levitate. I wonder how people came to believe that?

  9. I don’t know why, but I love the idea of “antlers” on plants. My grandmother used to call it “deadly nightshade!” Do you remember in Little Women — didn’t they give Beth belladonna when she was sick? Maybe it was something else…

    1. Your memory is good. They did use homeopathic belladonna.

      The plant known as “deadly nightshade” is different than this one. The effects of ingesting belladonna include “dilated pupils, sensitivity to light, blurred vision, tachycardia, loss of balance, staggering, headache, rash, flushing, severely dry mouth and throat, slurred speech, urinary retention, constipation, confusion, hallucinations, delirium, and convulsions.” Oh — and did I mention death?

      Eating the weeds is a great idea, but some of them clearly aren’t worth the trouble!

  10. My gut just tells me that’s a nightshade – the berries, the flower, the whole gestalt of the plant. I didn’t really know the details, especially that they expel pollen from those little openings on the anthers – cool! Your photographs make it all very clear.

    1. Not only do they expel pollen from the tips of those anthers, they do it after being aided by bees that cling to the anthers and buzz until their vibrations shake the pollen loose and out. An article I found says, “Look at the bright yellow anthers on the flowers; the dark brown marks you see are “bee kisses,” where female bees bit into them while buzzing out the pollen.” Now all I need to do is find a bee busy buzzing!

  11. Great images Linda. I’ve been enjoying this blog immensely. I really like the Solanaceae, or nightshades, and this is also the eggplant family too.

    1. I’m so glad you’re finding something here to enjoy, Maria. Yesterday I found a photo of a white flower in my files that seems to be a nightshade, too. I’m going to have to get out my books and see if I can figure out what it is. It is becoming easier to spot family members. Now that I know the eggplant belongs, for example, the similarities seem obvious. It looks like an overgrown wolfberry — so smooth and elegant.

  12. from a child i’ve loved the writings of Robert Frost, but that one was unfamiliar to me. thank you for sharing that link as well as your thoughts

    1. That’s one of my favorites among his poems. I’m glad to have introduced you to it. So many anthologies or poetry websites make their selections based on the personal preferences of the compiler, so it’s not surprising that all of us miss occasional poems even by our favorite poets.

  13. Lovely pics of the nightshade. It grows in my yard and I leave the plants where ever they come up. It is true that the fruit appears to be impervious of consumption by any bird or animal. I don’t know how it gets around my yard but apparently something must eat the berries when desperate.

    1. Who knows? Maybe there are birds or critters who give the berries a try and then think, “Oh, yuck!” and spit them out. That could help spread them around, too!

      I think they’re such pretty flowers. I made me happy when I was reading about them to learn they’re such a great source of nectar and pollen. I finally figured out that horse nettle is part of the family, too. It’s pretty, too, but it’s possibly the worst plant I’ve run into in terms of its effects. Its sting can give a fire ant a run for its money. Poison ivy can be bad, but the sting isn’t so awful.

      1. Oh I agree that nettle is so bad and there are no words how much pain it can inflict. I have some of the “lesser” nettle that grows outside my small fenced vegetable garden. It grows along side the Bermuda grass that my helper can’t seen to get rid of. A couple of times this year I have accidently touched it and I had to make a bee line for the house to wash with alcohol and then Dawn detergent to try to dim the pain. I detest the stuff and the small nettle does not have a pretty bloom. In fact I have never seen it bloom.

  14. I love how you began with a photo of the berries – some would consider on seeing them, that the plant was past its best, but you are able to appreciate the beauty of all aspects of it.
    You’ll probably not be surprised to learn that I see a relative of it when I’m hiking in the Flinders Ranges – one with quite ferocious prickles, just to make it quite clear that its not to be messed with!

    1. Originally, I was just going to show the berries of both this plant and the wolfberry, and then I decided the flowers needed to come along for the ride. I like plants that have gone to seed, or become dried. I think their structure is so interesting, and often quite different from what I’d expect.

      The nightshade family is so large. It amazed me to find it spread worldwide. We have one with tiny blossoms, smooth leaves, and no prickles, and then we have another that seems ready to attack at the slightest provocation. In that sense, plant families and human families aren’t so different — they both contain a wide variety of characters.

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