July 17th, 2012

Solanaceae, where animal and vegetable histories intertwine

The fascinating history of the Solanaceae family of plants. Rishidev Chaudhuri:

Like some eccentric prominent family, whose genius shades easily into the occult, the evil and the mad, Solanaceae, the family of the nightshade (so often prefixed by “deadly”), both contains several of our most ubiquitous food plants (typically of New World origin) and many of the multifarious toxins and deliriants beloved of witches, shamans and poisoners throughout history. The plants of Solanaceae are a dramatic-looking group, full of trumpet-like flowers that open at dusk and branches and stems that curl together like gnarled witches claws. They are also the source of eerie legends and origin myths, as exemplified by mandrake, said to grow from the ejaculate of a hanged man, and whose scream (when pulled out of the ground) will kill everyone in earshot.

To anyone who has ever shuddered at or been baffled by the thought that for most of history the Italians have had no tomatoes, the South Asians have had no chillies and no one in the Old World (including the Irish, the Germans and the Russians) has had potatoes, the gifts of Solanaceae are apparent. These are the bounty of the New World, plants that were brought over from the Americas by European explorers, introduced into their home countries and then spread to the rest of the world (many of the sins of the Portuguese colonists should be offset by their introduction of the chilli to India). Traces of this recency exist on the linguistic map, and several cultures label tomatoes and potatoes as some sort of eggplant or apple1.

While the major Solanaceae food crops that we eat are from the New World, most of the family members used in the Old World were used as hallucinogens, medicines (in small doses) or as poisons (with the notable exception of eggplant). Both tomatoes and potatoes suffered from these associations, and it took a while before people became convinced that they were safe to eat. One is generally not responsible for one’s relatives (except children), but there is some truth to this fear. The leaves and stems of tomato plants are mildly toxic, and potato sprouts can be quite dangerous (in recent years, much of this has been bred out of the plant varieties that we eat, though the same is probably not true for non-mass-market varieties). Once they broke through to acceptance, though, they spread widely and now both are cultivated widely all over the world. Potatoes in particular were an essential new source of cheap calories for the Industrial Revolution and were declared by Engels to be the equivalent of iron for their historically revolutionary role. They are thought to be responsible for a significant fraction of Old World population growth in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the downside that potato crop failures lead to severe famines.

The classical Old World members of Solanaceae are plants like deadly nightshade (belladonna), datura, mandrake, angel’s trumpet and henbane; these are famously the plants of Hecate and the occult. They are striking examples of the weird intersection of the toxic, the medicinal and the religious that characterize our relationship with a number of plants, and of the thin line between the altered states of revelation and transcendent experience and those of poisoning and death.

More at 3QD.


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