Notorious Nightshades: A Guest Post by Susan Wittig Albert

I am pleased to host Susan Wittig Albert on her first stop on a blog book tour. See information at the end of this post on how to enter to win a copy of her new book, Nightshade.

A big thanks, Carol, for hosting me here at May Dreams today!

This blog tour celebrates the launch of Nightshade, the sixteenth China Bayles mystery. In case you haven’t met her yet, China is a former criminal defense attorney who has opted for a quieter life as the owner of an herb shop in Pecan Springs, TX. Life in the garden isn’t nearly as peaceful as she expected, however, and China keeps turning up mysteries. In Nightshade, the mystery centers on China’s father, who died in an auto accident 16 years before—and on China’s recently discovered half-brother Miles, who seems to be hiding some shadowy secrets.

Since China is an herbalist, each of her mysteries has a plant theme, and I’ve included a wealth of botanical information into the plot. In China’s new mystery, I chose nightshade as the theme. Today’s post is the first of two posts about the plant family that lends Nightshade its name. You’ll find the second post listed, with the other posts in my blog tour, on this calendar.

The Notorious Nightshades, Part One

Have you ever heard of the nightshades? If you have, you might have a vague idea (or maybe not so vague!) that the plants in this family are notorious for something-or-other. And you’d be right. Over the centuries, the nightshade family (over two thousand species of annuals, perennials, vines, shrubs, and even small trees) has gotten a very bad rap.

But this is a pity, because the nightshades rank high on the list of plants that humans find extremely useful. Did you know that the potato is a nightshade? And what about tomatoes, chile peppers, and eggplants? And maybe you didn’t realize that petunias and nicotiana are both nightshades.

But like any large family, the nightshade clan includes some very bad actors. Tobacco, for instance, the cash crop that has made some people hugely rich and millions of people desperately sick. It’s this side of the Solanum family—the dark side—that has given these herbs such an evil reputation.

Nightshades on Your Table

Let’s start with the good nightshades, the tasty ones. Chances are, you’ll be enjoying at least one of them today: hash-brown potatoes for breakfast, tomatoes in your lunch salad, maybe Eggplant Parmesan or a bowl of chili for dinner.

In its native Peru, the potato (Solanum tuberosum) was a staple food and an important medicine for nearly 8,000 years, used to treat everything from arthritis and frostbite to infertility. But when the Spaniards brought the potato to Europe in the 1570s, nobody wanted to touch it. Why? Because a botanist assigned it to the Nightshade family, which made it seem poisonous. The virtues of the potato did not become obvious for another two centuries, when Europeans could finally accept it as a delicious, nutritious vegetable. It was Thomas Jefferson who introduced the potato to polite American society, when he served a platter of elegant, tasteful French fries at a presidential dinner at the White House.

For some serious potato fun, check out the Potato Museum. And if you don’t have enough potato recipes in your collection, go here.

The tomato, valued as both a food and medicine by American Indians, suffered a similar rejection when it arrived in Europe in the sixteenth century. The tomato was said to be unwholesome at best and poisonous at worst, although a few herbalists thought it might be good for the treatment of eye ailments and scabies. The Italians took to the tomato more readily than other peoples, and their sixteenth-century practice of drying the fruit in the sun has come back into favor today. Scientists now tell us that the tomato is not only nutritious, but helps to prevent certain cancers and strengthens the cardiovascular system.

You’ll find a brief history of the tomato here. And for the healing benefits of this popular nightshade, go here

The eggplant (Solanum melongena) is an Asian nightshade that was taken by the Moors to Spain and then to America. In Asia, it is both food and medicine, enjoyed as a vegetable and used as an expectorant, a diuretic, and as a treatment for throat and stomach ailments. In Europe, it was called the “mad apple” (and thought to make you insane) but began appearing as a vegetable in cookbooks in the nineteenth century. Americans called it eggplant because some 18th-century European cultivars bore yellow or white fruits the size of goose or hen's eggs. The Gourmet Sleuth tells you everything you need to know about this love-it-or-hate-it nightshade, and offers a cornucopia of recipes, to boot.

The chile pepper is Texas’ favorite nightshade. Most Texans couldn’t survive a single day without chowing down on at least one chile. But who can stop at just one? For the last word on chiles as both food and medicine, read this highly informative ChileZone page. Be sure and check out the heat ratings (expressed in Scoville Heat Units) of the various kinds of peppers. There’s some good information about the health benefits of chiles on this Whole Foods site. And if it’s recipes you’re after, try the Pepper Fool.

The tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa), is a lesser-known nightshade that we love, down here in Texas. Sometimes called a “husk tomato,” it is beginning to show up in supermarket produce bins. But it’s as easy to grow as tomatoes. And once you try it, you’ll find all kinds of uses for it.

Gourmet Sleuth gives you some history, lore, and facts about this nightshade, along with grow-your-own instructions and some tasty recipes.

And there’s more!

The nightshades are such fascinating plants that I couldn’t begin to tell you all about them in one post. So please join me on April 9, when I’ll blog about some of the ornamental nightshades, as well as the notorious “black sheep” of the nightshade family. I’ll be stopping in today, tomorrow, and Wednesday (March 24, 25, and 26) to answer your questions and reply to your comments. Oh, and thanks again to May Dreams for being such a wonderful host!

About the book drawing and Susan’s blog tour

If you’d like to enter the drawing for a copy of Nightshade go here to register. But you’d better hurry. The drawing for May Dreams closes at noon on March 27, 2008.

Want to read the other posts in Susan’s blog tour? You’ll find a calendar and links here.

If you have any questions for Susan on nightshades, or anything related to China Bayles, please leave a comment. Susan will be checking back over the next few days to review comments and answer questions.

Thanks, Susan, for visiting May Dreams Gardens today!

Update March 27th. Congrats to Dana F. from San Francisco on winning a copy of Nightshade!


  1. Once the Europeans had decided they were poisonous, I wonder what gave them the courage to try potatoes and tomatoes again? I can't think of any modern day parallel, where something once regarded as poisonous is accepted as edible.

  2. Good question, Kathy! There's a fascinating history of the potato in Larry Zuckerman's book The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World. Not everyone, everywhere, considered it poisonous. The potato began to be eaten by poor people, because it was easy to grow and nutritious. The tomato was first accepted in--guess where!--Italy (think spaghetti sauce). It's a complex story, and fun to research. And there are modern parallels: here in the West, we might consider fried grasshoppers "bad" for us. In Africa, they're a delicacy.

  3. This is a great post, Susan, especially since so many people don't realize the connections between humble wildflowers and their edible and ornamental cousins. I especially enjoy the translations of some plant names in other languages, be it their botanical names or common names. In Dutch, potato is aardappel, or earth apple; but I like Lycopersicum the best: Wolf-peach! Small wonder some considered the tomato toxic, isn't it?
    Looking forward to the next stop on your tour!

  4. This is a fascinating lesson, Susan. I was wondering the same question as Kathy, so I'm glad to see your answer. I can't imagine life without potatoes or tomatoes! We have the pretty purple nightshade growing wild in our barnyard.
    Your new books sounds like a fun read. I'm off to put my name in the drawing....

  5. Hey Susan, great post! Maybe back then they had someone like our FDA telling everyone that certain things were bad for you, even though there was no proof of it. (example: stevia) ;)
    Anyway, I must get going, I have read all of this series except the last two, which I have but have not read yet, and now there is another one.
    You probably don't remember but you visited a little town in Indiana a few years ago, (I think it was Camden), and I was the one there with the stack of books for you to sign. I was also at the Marge Clark event at her home many years ago and met you there. Oh well, off to sign up for the free book!

  6. Kerri, I have that purple nightshade, too. The nightshade family is really quite large.

  7. In the Netherlands potatoes are eaten a lot (most people eat them every day) so it is hard to think of a time when there were no potatoes.

    Can't imagine culinary and gardening life without tomatoes either!

    Fun guest post and your book sounds intriguing!

  8. This great opening post and links set my mind whirling, Susan and Carol, wondering why potatoes became a staple in Ireland when the French wouldn't touch them for a long time.
    How about this? Dug up potatoes exposed to the sun develope green spots that contain solanine and it can make you sick. Maybe potatoes in a basket in misty aulde Ireland had less chance of turning green, while potatoes kept above ground in sunny France were soon laden with solanine which poisoned the diners. Refusing to eat potatoes might have been less about ignorance and superstition and more about observation.

    See you at the next stop on the tour!

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  9. How timely is your post, Susan! Last night there was a piece on a news program (80 Minutes?) about a huge vault that's been constructed to house seed samples from every plant on the Earth.

    I'm a big fan of your China Bayles series.

  10. Er, make that 60 Minutes. Guess my clock runs slow.

  11. Wow, such great comments! Let's see if I can corral a few so far.

    Jodi--yes, wolf-peach is a great name. And how about "mad apple" for eggplant?

    Kerri & Yolande-the Peruvians knew about potatoes centuries before the West "discovered" them, so people have been enjoying them for a really long time. Ditto tomatoes, which were developed by the Aztec. Their word was tomatl, meaning "plump fruit." There's info here:

    Vonlafin--Actually, vegetables in the nightshade family may not be good for some people with thyroid problems, while it's been reported that people with osteoarthritis may need to avoid them. It's always wise to listen to our bodies!

    Annie--that's a great observation about observation! But the real problem with the potato, as the Church pointed out, was that it incited lust. According to the thinking of the day, tuborous vegetables and anything else with a phallic shape, such as chiles, made people lustful. So there was an official negative message, interpreted positively by those who enjoyed a little lust now and then. Also, the nightshades had a horrible reputation, because many of them were used in magic. So people had a genuine fear of them.

    Keep the comments coming!

  12. As I'm reading your post I'm eating potato and leek soup that I made on the weekend. I'll be checking out the link for potato recipes next. I've been looking forward to the start of the tour and have enjoyed this post very much. Looking forward to the next stop on the tour.

  13. We love potato leek soup--China posted a recipe here (happens to be MY recipe):

    Wonderful on a cold day, good for supper any time. Thanks for the reminder, Crafty.

    Oh, and Helen--there's a good wiki entry on the Global Seed Vault: (Bill Gates gave them $750k. The least he could do, right?)Closer to home and more accessible, there's Seed Savers:

  14. Great article but, especially after reading about tomatoes and eggplant, I'm starving!

    Good luck with the blog tour, Susan and great job with the blog, Carol!

  15. You all are making me very hungry with the recipes! Won't be long and we will be putting our favorite nightshades into the garden.
    Looking forward to all the stops on the tour....

  16. I'm glad I'm making a nice roast and some MASHED POTATOES for dinner tonight. This post has made me hungry and given me a craving for potatoes.

  17. Have you seen my famous benches?

  18. Great post!

    Somewhat off-topic, but I can tell I am in the presence of an expert - Susan, I am looking for a good book that lays out herbs and spices, their properties in cooking, what cuisines and dishes they are used in, combining, etc. I saw a couple of good looking books on Amazon but wondered if you had any recommends.

  19. Susan-

    Have you tried growing tomatillos in your own garden? Any hints, comments?

    Off subject- I took some old sprouting potatoes out of the pantry and planted them in a problem spot in one of my gardens (in January), they make beautiful groundcover plants now to hold back the erosion and keep the dogs from walking over that spot!

  20. Other Lisa: You might look at the Spice and Herb Bible, by the Hemphills--it's especially good on cuisines. Tony Hill's Contemporary Encyclopedia of Herbs and Spices is also excellent (subtitled Seasonings for the Global Kitchen). It's alphabetical, and a bit easier to use than Jill Norman's Herb's and Spices: The Cook's Reference. You'll probably want to stay away from books that include growing instructions. Lots of herb books try to do too much, IMO. Have fun!

  21. Very informative post, Susan. Thank you! And thanks for all the great links as well. I’ve saved them in my favorites. I agree with the others who’ve said how difficult it would be to attempt to cook without these staples. When I think of how my ancestors cooked with such limited foods and spices the mind boggles.

    It would be interesting to know if those more inclined to try new foods tend to survive the longest or get poisoned the fastest. (Or am I being too morbid?)

    Dawn from Suburban Wildlife Garden

  22. Fascinating post - Susan and Carol. How nice to be a part of your blog tour. I can't wait to start reading the China series - this is my first introduction and they sound right up my alley. Thanks so much for the great post.

  23. Dang. It was between Hemphill and Jill Norman and I picked Norman. But maybe I'll go back and get the Hemphill. Thanks!!!!!

    And now I need to hunt and gather one of your books!

  24. Love the blog book tour! Contratulations on the book, Susan, and thanks for hosting it Carol. I'll be watching for the series. Thanks - Paula

  25. What a surprise - I had no idea that so many edible plants were part of the nightshade family. In britain deadly nightshade has much of the reputation of poison ivy in the US - it's the one plant in the woods that you absolutely mustn't touch. or at least, that's what my mother always told me ...

  26. Hey, Other Lisa--wait until you get the Norman before you get Hemphill. Norman's photography is better, and you can use the index.

    Ronnie, tomatillos are easier than tomatoes IMO. Same culture. Preparation/cooking takes a bit of getting used to. Lots of them in supermarkets here in TX.

    Dawn, staples. I oftenthink about where the foods I depend on came from--potatoes, rice, wheat. And sometimes I get scared, thinking how many petro-miles it takes to produce/deliver these staples. [shudder] Good book: The Omnivore's Dilemma.

    Sue and Dawn. Lots of prohibitions get attached to plants, some for good reason, some not. For instance, there has never been a documented death, to my knowledge, from mistletoe. (But don't go eat it on my say-so!) And some highly toxic plants have made it into our gardens. Datura, for instance, a nightshade which is sold (and rarely labeled as poisonous) in the nurseries.

    Oh, and Vonlafin, how well I remember that day (October, 1994) at Marge Clark's house in Indiana! That was such a wonderful event for me, and Marge was also such a generous person. I think of her and miss her.


  27. Thanks for the interesting information, Susan. I had read somewhere that tomatoes were a member of the nightshade family, but not sure I knew about the others. I haven't read any of your books, but I am a big fan of mysteries, so I will definitely check out the China Bayles series.

  28. It was great fun to have Susan as a guest blogger. Thanks all for the comments and questions, and again thanks to Susan for such great information.

    I'm thinking now I should try to grow some tomatillos!

    Carol, May Dreams Gardens

  29. Growing tomatillos is easy and they will grow quickly in climates with shorter growing seasons. My mom and I pickle tomatillos. I have had them is pico de gallo in West Texas at a place in Abilene called Herrars. It was wonderful.
    Only a few more days until the new book! I wonder which of the nightshades will be the theme herb for this book? I read the first chapter on the website. So I know eggplant cassrole is in the first chapter but I wonder if eggplant will be the herb throughout the book?

  30. Mary was wondering about which of the nightshades would be the "theme herb" for the book. Nightshade is one of the titles (like Love Lies Bleeding and Bleeding Hearts) that I chose because of the associations of the word itself--dark, sinister, shadowy, menacing--rather than the herb. I do use various nightshades in the book (one of the characters raises tomatillos, another grows petunias, there's a datura on a front porch, and so forth), but I wanted to work with the overall feeling of "nightshade," its metaphoric resonance, rather than limit the story to one or another plant. I enjoy doing this occasionally. It stretches me, gives me a greater challenge, and gives the reader more room for imaginative play. I hope you enjoy it!

  31. Thanks to everyone for your questions and comments. I've enjoyed this conversation very much. Hope you visit the rest of the blogs in the tour--each is unique and uniquely interesting! A special thanks to Carol for hosting me. It's been fun!

  32. I am joining in on the fun just now, but it's a blast reading thru the tour!

    I just did get my very first book in the series, "Thyme of Death".

    Thanks for doing the tour, it's fun!

  33. Hi, everybody--I'll be revisiting May Dreams next week. Check back here for directions on how to enter our prize drawing!


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