A bit about us...

We are a modern family of three, living on less than two acres with a 3,000 square foot garden that meets our produce needs and allows us to share with friends and neighbors. Our laying flock of chickens seems to expand each year as we raise chicks each Spring to replace older hens. This blog is more of a journal, if you will, for us to chronicle and share our experiences in the yard, garden and kitchen. It is our hope that along the way a few folks might learn something, be entertained, or simply enjoy sharing in our stories and the lessons we learn on a daily basis. I named the blog after the times when I am the happiest, when I am elbow deep in earth.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Which Nightshade should I eat?

As is evidenced by my ramblings in Family Resemblance, I am a bit of nerd when it comes the garden, plants and preserving things.  When I see something I don't know about, I photograph it and/or research it until my heart is content with gobs of information swimming in my brain.

Poison Berry Blossoms
Plants of the "nightshade" family range from edible to extremely poisonous. They include plants such as potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, eggplant, tobacco, petunias, datura and many more.  The botanical family name is Solanaceae, with the most common garden varieties falling into two genus's: Solanum and Physalis.  I was inspired to learn more about these plants as I noticed the similarities in blossoms during yet another walk through my garden and surrounding property.  I have a plant growing in the compost (needing to be pulled) and near the creek that my grandmother always referred to as "Deadly Nightshade."  In looking into the science side of this interesting family of plants, I discovered that this is not the accepted (although commonly used) name of the particular plant that grows in  my yard.  In fact, it is actually called poisonberry, bittersweet (much to my surprise), felonwood, and a host of other common names.  Its scientific name is Solanum dulcamara.

Tomato Blossom
(Solanum Lycopersicum)
As I walked around the garden I was taken by the beautiful, small and unique flowers of this plant family. They have a unique and delicate structure.  They are exotic and wild looking to me, and thus captivating.  Reading about this particular family of plants has been interesting and even explained something I had read about feeding chickens.  What do those have to do with one another?

Potato Blossom
photo courtesy of

Well, since many members the Solinaceae family tend to be toxic in some form or another, it makes perfect sense. I had read many times not to give chickens the peelings from potatoes (Solanum Tuberosum). Many sources explain that the skins are poisonous, but the cooked potatoes themselves are not. I never really looked into that particular fact until recently, when I became a knowledge seeking machine over Solanums. In doing so, I learned that indeed, potatoes contain toxic compounds called glycoalkaloids. 

According to Wikipedia, "Exposure to light, physical damage, and age increase glycoalkaloid content within the tuber; the highest concentrations occur just underneath the skin. Cooking at high temperatures (over 170 °C or 340 °F) partly destroys these."

This explains why I have seen so many cautions against the green peelings in particular!

Another member of this family is one I am growing for the first time this year, the tomatillo (Physalis Philidelphica).  They are a particularly cool looking fruit with a papery husk surrounding it.  (I suppose a full post on them will be warranted later, with details of what in the world I have done with all the tomatillos I am ending up with!)  Their blossoms are equally enchanting, with bright, sunny yellow petals and green centers.  Apparently, as I am finding out, they are prolific producers as well!

This unique and interesting family of plants is extremely diverse. It is one that should be respected and folks should definitely do their homework when working with them to avoid any trouble with their toxic tendencies.  Is it worth the trouble? My Stars, YES!  I could not do with out tasty salsas, freshly dug potatoes and tasty eggplant parmesan.  I mean, really, could you?  For the most part, they aren't really deadly, you just need to know your nightshades... and now you do!

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