A Darker View of Nightshade


The pretty purple flowers and silvery leaves of a common Texas nightshade, Solanum elaeagnifolium, spread along roadsides and ditches across Texas: from coastal prairies to the hill country, to the panhandle, and beyond. 

As its flowers fade, the developing fruits take on the appearance of small green tomatoes; in time, the fruits turn yellow and become even more appealing.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a fruit to use in jam or jellies. Poisonous even in its early stages, the fruit becomes increasingly toxic as it ripens, helping to explain why birds and mammals allow it to linger on the plant well into winter.

On a dank, rainy day at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, this nightshade — already missing its leaves and skeletal in appearance — caught my eye. The dark, water-filled canal behind it seemed the perfect background for a poisonous plant; a shutter speed of 1/1600 magnified the effect.


Comments always are welcome.


64 thoughts on “A Darker View of Nightshade

  1. When I was in 8th grade, a friend and I used to go for walks along a graded off vacant lot that was being prepared to build a little strip mall, the centerpiece of which would be a new K-Mart, with a multiplex cinema at the end. But at that time, it was just a bare graded pad of red dirt. That was when the first pictures of Mariner 4 were in the news, and that patch of bare red dirt became Mars. The lot sat bare long enough for Solanum elaeagnifolium to colonize the edges. As we walked about, my friend and I spun tales of Mars and Martians, and those winter-denuded stems with berries became the perfect Martian plant. I’ve thought of them that way ever since. I was quite a bit older when I finally made the connection between the purple flowering spiny weed you’d better wear gloves if you’re trying to it pull up and my “Martian” plants.

    1. I’d say ‘Martian’ is a perfect descriptor for this little gem. Like trees in autumn, the loss of foliage let the structure take center stage, and its height set it apart from the surrounding plants. It’s a tough one, too. Finding it at the edge of roads is one thing; discovered that it’s growing right up through cracks in the asphalt is something else.

      The difference between a plant in bloom and a plant that’s set seed as part of the end of its life cycle can be substantial. There are more than a few plants I’ve found in autumn and winter fields that I still haven’t identified, and this was one that took some time. Until about three years ago, I hadn’t connected these little round ‘berries’ with those purple flowers, either.

  2. I’ve only ever seen this plant with it’s pretty purple eggplant-y flowers. I shouldn’t be surprised to see it with little ‘tomatoes’, but I am! I love how your photo plays on words; your camera flash temporarily removed the shade of the night on this nightshade.

    1. The great thing is, this was taken in the middle of the afternoon, and I didn’t use flash. It was the faster shutter speed that created the effect, together with an adjustment in the exposure compensation. It took ‘some’ fiddling around to find the right settings, but eventually it worked.

      I fiddled around with the post title for a while, too — and you caught the wordplay!

      1. I don’t remember that series, but I was greatly amused to read the description of its episodes as “satirical cliffhangers.” Not only that, the first episode was “Crusader Rabbit vs. The State of Texas.” That might be worth a look, just to see Dudley Nightshade.

  3. You did a good job of letting the dark background reveal the intricate patterns of the plant’s stems.

    I’m glad you provided the link to the Wildflower Center’s page because the name “tomato weed” doesn’t ring a bell. I’m always glad to add to my list of local native plants that people have called “weeds.”

    Most animals are immune to the effects of poison ivy. I wonder whether any can eat nightshade with impunity.

    “Elaeagnifolium” is one of those horrid technical words with too many vowels in a row. It taunts people to misspell it.

    1. I certainly learned a lot about the ways that shutter speed, ISO, etc. are interrelated in the process of trying to isolate those stems. It’s great to be able to bring the whole clutch of photos home and look at the settings on the ones that didn’t work before discarding them.

      I was surprised by “tomato weed” myself. While it reflects the fruit’s appearance, particularly while it’s still green, it could suggest edibility, which isn’t so good. While the plant’s poisonous to horses and cattle, and to a lesser extent to goats, it seems that “some” birds can eat the fruits with impunity. I’ve never found any more specificity than that online, but there are occasional references to birds spreading the seed, and native peoples used the plant (especially leaves) for a variety of purposes.

      Speaking of vowels, I finally noticed while browsing through Eason’s book that plant family names all end in -ceae. I suppose there could be an exception somewhere, but the ending’s common enough to be assumed. This is good. No matter what I do to the beginning of a word like Solanaceae, I can at least get the ending right.

      1. Not just -ceae but -aceae. Yes, standardization has its uses, though we could wish that botanists had settled on an ending without three vowels in a row. A few older names have been grandfathered in as acceptable alternatives, like Labiatae for Lamiaceae.

    2. One more random thought: it’s just occurred to me that there’s a world of difference between “look what this camera can do” and “look what I can do with this camera.”

    1. Isn’t that true with so much in life? I have been interested to learn that some birds eat the fruits and help to distribute the seeds, but I don’t think I’d encourage it, even for the birds. Besides, the plant seems perfectly able to colonize everything in sight all on its own.

  4. I remember watching a TV documentary, about a police officer who was called to the a house where the couple had eaten a pie made from the berries, one of them died, the other was found on their hands and knees, crawling around on the floor, naked, hallucinating and covered in purple juice and vomit. The police said it looked like something from a horror movie! (the berries had been frozen and served up as a special Valentines meal!)

    1. Well, I guess this means I shouldn’t add nightshade pie to next year’s Thanksgiving menu.

      I can’t even imagine such a thing. I wonder if the pie actually was made from the deadly nightshade — Atropa belladonna. It could have been, since the side effects of consuming that one include delirium, hallucinations, and so on. On the other hand, even deadly nightshade’s been used for other purposes. It seems to have been given the epithet bella donna because of its use by Italian women to enlarge the pupils of their eyes. I also discovered that it’s been used as a part of witches’ flying ointments. To be honest, I never thought a real witch needed any help to fly.

    1. I so enjoy watching the changes plants go through, and I’ve always thought the last stages of their lives were as interesting as the first — if not necessarily as pretty. This one was in an unmowed area, so it was able to attain a little height, and add some extra branches for extra interest.

  5. I smiled when I read your play on words. And, the photo is fantastic. Just the right background for nightshade too. You really do have plentiful hunting grounds to shoot such a vast variety of subjects.

    1. This is the time of year when subjects are a little less obvious, but there’s still plenty to see. If I come home with one or two interesting photos I’m happy, and yesterday I brought home six. A good day, for sure, especially since two of the six are mysteries: I don’t have a clue what one is, and I don’t know what happened with the other. As soon as I figure them out, I’ll share them, of course.

    1. After all your music references, do you know which one was lurking around my mind when I created the title? Procol Harem’s “Whiter Shade of Pale,” of course. I’m glad you like the photo. It’s great fun, capturing a plant in all the seasons of its life, but this was a bit of a revelation to me. I had no idea the plant would seem so tree-like when I made the photo.

  6. Thanks to 100 Healing Plants of Belize, a cousin of your nightshade is my ‘go to’ plant when a little dab works to halt athlete’s foot. For me, it works in one day – which my bro-in-law pharmacists states, ‘is unheard of.’ Scroll up and down to check out the uses of the Latin-American Solanum cousins.

    Am in Guayaquil to take Barb to the airport, so am enjoying a long session of internet!

    1. One of the interesting things I learned about your S. torvum is that it’s often used as rootstock for eggplant. It’s edible, of course, like the tomato and potato, and quite unlike the nastier members of the family. I did find some interesting articles about Native American use of silverleaf nightshade; many of those uses were topical and involved the leaves. Other uses were mentioned that presumably involved ingestion, but no one’s sharing recipes: with good reason!

      One tidbit you may be interested in is that ingesting only .01% of body weight can be fatal to animals like horses and cows, but goats don’t show the same effects. Maybe goats really can eat anything!

      1. Si; I seek out a close cousin to this ‘pharmacy with leaves and roots’ wherever I go, and note that farm workers cut it instantle… (it has thorns and bites!) when I share with them that it’s good for athlete’s fungus, i later see that they allow it to grow.
        yes, the info often states that this berry will kill a cow, and i warn the humans that even if it might be ok, perhaps a cousin to it might not – so don’t risk ingesting it!

    1. I suspect you have a different plant, as this one doesn’t make it into Michigan. I’d be willing to bet on yours being eastern black nightshade ( Solanum ptycanthum). Of course, they’re all considered toxic, and the eastern black nightshade can be just as much a problem for farmers and ranchers. Deadly is deadly, no matter which species gets eaten!

      It’s a beautiful plant, despite everything. I think the flowers are glorious, and I especially like their ability to hang on through frosts and freezes. I don’t think you have many flowers still in bloom, though — I just looked at your weather forecast, and shivered.

      1. I just realized a single nightshade plant that popped up in one of my cactus pots was the eastern black nightshade. I’d not identified it yet, but that’s exactly what it was. I have photos of its growth — it really is a neat plant. I suppose a bird brought me the seed.

      2. Ours grows skinny, almost like a vine with pretty purple flowers on it. And no, the only in-bloom flowers here are inside the house! We had about six inches of snow this morning. (I had a typo and wrote six inches of snot. Which I suppose, is equally accurate!).

        1. My goodness — that’s an awfully negative view of snow! Still, if I were in your position, and knew that there were months of the stuff ahead of me, it might be harder to be positive about it!

    1. Let’s see: eye of newt, tongue of toad, berry of nightshade? That black background certainly could recall the sisters’ big, black pot. Do you suppose their pot’s going to call their kettle black?

    1. I really like the structure of the branches: something that’s not at all obvious when the plant’s thick with leaves. The yellow fruit’s a little unusual, too. Most of our berries and fruits are red or black, so these really shine.

    1. That’s a good comparison, Curt. There are so many members of the this plant family it’s hard to keep them sorted. The potatoes, eggplant, and tomatoes are yummy — the nightshades, not so much. On the other hand, I found this interesting tidbit in an article about the history of the tomato:

      “A member of the deadly nightshade family, tomatoes were erroneously thought to be poisonous…by Europeans who were suspicious of their bright, shiny fruit. Native versions were small, like cherry tomatoes, and most likely yellow rather than red.”

      Yellow tomatoes, yellow nightshade fruits. I’d be cautious, too!

    1. I like the background, too. It makes a very pedestrian plant seem very elegant. I thought of it as a version of the Coco Chanel effect: instead of a little black dress, it has a little black background.

        1. No flash. I used shutter priority, with a shutter speed of 1/1600, ISO200, and EV of -0.4. I tried a lot of combinations before I got this one, and I wasn’t even sure it would work until I got it home and on the computer.

          1. The great thing about this technique is that you get rid of distracting backgrounds, and in nature it’s sometimes difficult to do so because of foliage and other elements that get in the way. I was so tempted to buy the new full frame mirrorless camera from Canon, but it was never a good deal from my point of view. If it would have been cheaper then maybe, but they made it into a very pricey system with new lenses, mounts and all. It’s awful how commercialized Canon has become. No wonder Sony is the clear winner in the mirrorless full frame DSLR system.

            1. Since there’s no new camera or new lens in my future, I don’t even pay attention to what’s on offer. By the time I might be ready to look for a wide-angle lens, both the offerings and the prices will be different. The first thing I need to do is learn how to use what I have; some aspects of the photographic art are still as opaque to me as the background of this photo! I did just get a new circular polarizing filter, though. I certainly don’t ‘need’ it, but from what I’ve read here and there, it ought to be useful around the water and on particularly bright days. It will be fun to experiment with.

            2. I remember I enjoyed using my polarizer the most when I took images of the ocean with the blue sky. I had it on a kit lens I had (the 18-50mm zoom I think). It really helped with increasing the contrast of the sky with the clouds and saturating the colors. There were also times when I didn’t want to see glare nor reflections on the ocean, so the polarizer helped with those too.

    1. When I saw how curliqued the branches were, I thought it would be fun to isolate and highlight them. To my surprise, it worked out well — after an extended period of experimentation. And I think you’re right — it is interesting, rather than beautiful. But that pleases me just as much.

  7. I like this and the way it glows, LInda. I’ve come across a related plant several time around here and a few years ago discovered it growing next to our compost bin. Deadly Nightshade is sort of a collective name for the several species. It is also the moniker for one of the first, if not the first, all female band.

    1. There are so many species in the genus. In fact, they’ve discovered a new species in Australia. One of these days I’m going to find the article about that and feature it, too. It always tickles me when someone finds something new — there still are discoveries to be made.

      Silverleaf nightshade is everywhere here, and I like everything about it: the flowers, the fruit, and the long decline. I was delighted to find this tall specimen already bare. It tends to be so clumpy that it’s hard to get a good look at the underlying structure.

      I liked the band’s music: good harmony, and electric without being ear-splitting or obnoxious. I noticed that they lost one of their members. That must be hard, after so many years of playing together.

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