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.


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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



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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.


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