A Plant Made for Mardi Gras

The traditional colors of Mardi Gras — purple, green, and gold — usually are associated with King Cakes, beads, costumes, and masks.

But over the course of a season, the silverleaf nightshade (Solanum elaeagnifolium) displays those same colors: first in flower, then in unripened and maturing fruits.

Who knows? Perhaps in the middle of their life cycle, the plants throw a party and call out to one another, “Laissez les bonnes fleurs rouler!”

Silverleaf nightshade flower ~ Bandera County, Texas


Silverleaf nightshade fruit forming ~ Brazoria County, Texas


Silverleaf nightshade ripened fruits ~ Tallgrass Prairie Bottoms, Kansas



Comments always are welcome.



33 thoughts on “A Plant Made for Mardi Gras

    1. Some people call them weeds, but not me. They’re as tough as they are beautiful, and as happy to grow through asphalt as to pop up in the middle of a field. I always look for them at the base of stop signs in small towns that don’t have enough maintenance workers to keep everything trimmed up.

    1. The short answer is, “Yes.” There’s a reason the fruits will remain on the plant for weeks, or even months. One resource puts it this way:

      “Silver nightshade is listed in the Plants of Texas Rangelands as a toxic agent that:

      “…has reportedly poisoned horses, sheep, goats, cattle and humans. However, sheep and goats are more resistant than cattle, and in controlled experiments, goats were not poisoned at all. Its toxic agent is solanine. The leaves and fruit are toxic at all stages of maturity; the highest concentration is in ripe fruits. In some instances, an animal can be poisoned by eating 0.1 to 0.3 percent of its weight in silverleaf nightshade.”

      Many nightshades have some degree of toxicity. If you’re inclined, you can read more about it here.

      As an aside, a new species related to this one has been discovered in your Northern Territory. One of these days I’ll post about it, once I get a little more information.

        1. That’s right, although caution should be taken if the potato has started to sprout, or turn green. The rule seems to be, eat the underground tuber (the potato) but nothing else. On the other hand, sweet potatoes are in a different family,and their greens can be eaten.

          I never understood why it was important to store potatoes in the dark, but that’s it: if they’re kept in the light, the levels of solanum will keep increasing. Live and learn!

  1. Cool shots, that is a pretty purple. But that flower should maybe dig up a steam iron before it goes out to party! And cool idea to have flower > fruit forming > “cherry-ripe”
    In the 2nd shot, that mama plant looks like it’s clutching the fruit for all it’s worth.
    It reminds me, too, of the kitchen table one of my grandmothers had – – the bottoms of the legs looked like eagle claws holding croquet balls.

    1. That’s it! I kept looking at that second photo, trying to figure out what it reminded me of. I thought first of a garden gazing ball, but sure enough, it’s the kind of claw-foot found on old pianos, chairs, tables, and bathtubs.

      As for the flower, I’m sure it was nice and spiffy when it headed out. This one looks more like it has a long night of partying behind it.

    1. Some of their relatives, like tomatoes and eggplants, are just fine on the dinnertable, but many of the other Solanum species can poison animals and people. Gerard asked the same question, just above; here’s a link to a page with more information.

      It’s interesting that many fruits from last year still are hanging on the plants — while birds will eat the berries of some nightshade species, these clearly aren’t as favored as other plants. We’d do better to stick with blueberries and strawberries ourselves!

  2. If those “cherry tomatoes” weren’t poisonous, I’d gladly nibble some on nature walks, as I do with southern dewberries over the month or so they’re available. Silverleaf nightshade fruits have the advantage of being available much longer, but as food for photos rather than mouths.

    1. It is interesting to watch the rate at which various fruits disappear. Snailseed, palmetto, and peppervine berries disappear quickly, while last year’s silverleaf nightshade fruits still are hanging around: some so dried out they’ve turned white. I’ve been keeping track of one large clump at the wildlife refuge. Birds and animals have been saying, “No, thanks” for about eight months.

    1. This one doesn’t make it to Michigan, but there are other Solanum species that do. The page I linked to has a neat feature; you can click on a species and it pops up a list of the counties where it can be found.

      I think they’re all pretty, but the same rule applies to all except tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and such: look, but don’t add to your salad.

  3. Didn’t know any nightshades were non lethal. Cool design to make sure the plant is able to reproduce without anything stealing/eating its’ chances
    Purple blooms are always welcomed
    (garden gazing balls or claw foot – if nature was the source of inspiration, maybe this plant was the original – great images!)

    1. From what I’ve read, birds and small mammals are responsible for seed-spreading. But, as one article noted, finding seeds in the stomach of birds only tells you they ingested them — not whether they died from doing so.

      Of course, the tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes we love all are in the same family, but another thing I learned last night is that even potatoes can cause problems. If they’ve been near the surface of the ground while growing and are exposed to sunlight, they turn a tell-tale green. The green is chlorophyll, which itself doesn’t cause problems, but it’s a marker for the glycoalkaloids that do. Here’s a bit of information.

      Every stage has its virtues, but I do enjoy that developing fruit. The patterns differ from plant to plant, but they’re all attractive.

  4. Evolution can take some strange paths, Linda, considering the role that fruit plays in the distribution of seeds. Must be some tradeoff there between protection of the plant from insects versus ready distribution via good tasting and nutritious fruit. Jimson Weed and tobacco are also noted members of the Nightshade family. As is another, which I was actually discussing with my optometrist the other day when she was dilating my pupils, Belladonna. Italian women once used this nightshade to dilate their pupils to make themselves into beautiful women: bella donna.
    Dutchman’s pipe is not a nightshade and slightly off-subject but still a poisonous plant with an interesting evolutionary history. While poisonous to most insects, the caterpillar phase of the black pipevine swallowtail thrives on it. The butterflies absorb the poison and are therefore off-menu for birds. A neat trick. Even more interesting is that certain other butterflies have adopted the look of the black pipevine swallowtail, and are also off the menu! “Laissez les bonnes fleurs router!” –Curt

    1. One of our best Texas plant sites warns: one belladonna berry, and you could be in big, big trouble. I heard about the use of belladonna when I had my cataract/lens replacement surgery. I wondered how much more beautiful I was with those big, dark eyes, but unfortunately, they were so dilated I couldn’t see a thing. In fact, I had to wear sunglasses when using the computer for a few days — the screen was too bright. It’s the old good news/bad news dynamic.

      One interesting note: belladona (Atropa belladonna) is not in the Solanum genus but is a member of the Solanaceae family.

      That relationship you describe with the pipevine is the same as with the monarch — even down to the queen butterflies imitating the monarchs. I didn’t realize until this past year that milkweed bugs (orange and black) and lady beetles (orange or red and black) also use those colors to try and trick predators. Insects are far more clever than most of us realize!

      1. As in, “She had eyes that would absorb you.”

        Nature is incredibly inventive (devious) when it comes to evolution and the protection of various species. Not tasting good is one of many, or looking like something that doesn’t taste good is one of many! –Curt

  5. If the silverleaf nightshade is growing where you don’t want it to grow, put gloves on before you try to pull it up. Those suckers have really fine thorns all over the stems. If you get them in your skin, they are not only fine but light in color making them very hard to see to remove.

    The nightshade family, Solanaceae, also includes tomatoes, peppers (both bell and chili), eggplant, potatoes (except not sweet potatoes which aren’t potatoes), tobacco, and the “deadly nightshade” (Atropa, belladonna) from which the family gets its common name. When the tomato was first introduced to Europe, people would grow them but wouldn’t eat them because they thought that because it is a member of the nightshade family the fruit was poisonous. While the leaves and stems of the tomato are poisonous, the fruit is obviously not.

    A blog friend drew a correlation between worsening osteoarthritic joint pain and eating tomatoes and potatoes. I’ve noticed my knee pain flares when I eat potatoes. I don’t eat supermarket tomatoes much any more, because once Big Farma got hold of them and began breeding them to get uniform size so they could pack them in those plastic containers, I’ve noticed they have a very blah taste and do a number on the corners of my mouth, making them red and raw — which heirloom tomato breeds don’t.

    1. You speak wisdom. I learned my lesson with those stems and leaves not long after I met the plant. I have found that a good technique for removing fiberglass works for some cacti, and might work for the nightshade: nylon stockings. There are a passle of boat workers who keep an extra pair of nylons around for dealing with fiberglass; it’s very effective.

      One tidbit I picked up just this week is that green potatoes are to be regarded with caution. The more light a potato gets, the more toxic it becomes. The green color actually is chlorophyll, but it’s a marker for potatoes that have been exposed to light, and, hence, have a higher level of solanine.

      I haven’t put a supermarket tomato in a salad for some time. I’ll use them occasionally in the dead of winter, if they’re going into a dish, but even then I try to avoid them. I’m more than a little anxious for my picking farm to be back in business, but that won’t happen for… maybe four months.

    1. Thanks, Yvonne. I think it’s great fun to get photos of plants in every stage of growth, and it just tickled me that this one goes through the cycle of Mardi Gras colors. I’ll say this: I’d rather be looking at this plant than be in the middle of New Oleans tonight — or even Galveston, for that matter.

    1. Aren’t they cool? I enjoyed Rob’s vision of the claw-foot table. I hadn’t seen that, but once he mentioned it, I remembered all the claw-foot pianos, chairs, bathtubs, and tables that I’ve seen. This developing fruit really does resemble them.

  6. I didn’t know about the Mardi Gras colors. This one certainly has the same colors as the eggplant flower has, purple and gold. It’s beautiful, as are the images of the fruit.
    From the Nightshade family, I have more samples than what I thought:
    The Petunia is also in this family, as well as Brugmansia (Angel’s Trumpet), and Datura (Devil’s Trumpet). I just found out there is a Datura (Devil’s Trumpet) from Mexico, it is also called Jimsonweed:
    They are known to be highly toxic and known for their ‘thorn apples’.

    1. This is such a large family, and getting larger by the day: a new species has been discovered in Australia. When I re-find the article about it I’ve “lost” in my files, I’m going to write about that one.

      I was astonished to find everything from belladonna (the so-called deadly nightshade) to petunias included in the family. The angel trumpet surprised me, too. A friend grows the datura/jimsonweed in her garden. I’ve sometimes wondered if the spiraled ends of the buds didn’t inspire some of the spiral-like pictographs and petroglyphs in the American southwest. See?

      1. Believe it or not I just went back to check on Georgia O’Keeffe’s work and realized she painted several Daturas. I know, I should have known, but now looking at their shape again I realize it.
        Yes, I see about the spiral-like shape reminding you of petroglyphs. I think that spiral-shaped symbols from nature definitely influenced pre-Columbian imagery.
        By the way, did you see Emily Dickinson’s movie ‘A Quiet Passion’? I saw it last night and really liked it, although it never mentioned the pressed flower collection she left behind nor anything about her gardening abilities. The rest was okay though.

        1. No, I haven’t seen that movie, although I did just see Loving Vincent, about Van Gogh. I think I remember that there’s a move afoot to restore Dickinson’s gardens at her home. It would be wonderful to visit once that’s done, although I doubt I ever will.

    1. It’s wonderful when inspiration strikes! It takes some time to get to know plants well enough to know what they look like in every season, but once we do, some interesting associations can occur — like this one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.