Nightshade Herbs

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Tomato, a staple of many culinary traditions, is an herb of the nightshade family.
Tomato, a staple of many culinary traditions, is an herb of the nightshade family. (Image: Siri Stafford/Lifesize/Getty Images)

Some people think herbs are merely plants whose parts -- leaves, stems or roots -- are used to flavor foods. Actually the definition of an herb is much broader and has historically included any plant that is useful for culinary, medical/pharmaceutical or cosmetic use. The nightshade family (Solanaceae) is large and contains many herbs. Gardeners who grow nightshades should use caution. If used incorrectly, some nightshades, which contain potent alkaloids, are toxic.

Nightshade Characteristics

NIghtshade herbs are annual or perennial plants with hairy or prickly stems that often bear rough-looking leaves with a pronounced odor. The flowers are distinctive, often star-shaped, with five petals apiece fused at the bases to form tubes or funnels. The fruits, including those of the best-known, such as tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum), are berries (large or small) with numerous seeds. Pollination is often, but not always, by bees, especially bumblebees.

Culinary Stars

The nightshade family is full of culinary stalwarts. Originally thought to be poisonous, the common tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum), hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 10 through 11, has become a part of many culinary traditions, available in a host of varieties and forms. Another, less well-known nightshade that is also used for culinary purposes is annual garden huckleberry (Solanum melanocerasum). Garden huckleberry flourishes under the same conditions as its relative, the tomato. While widely used in pies and preserves, huckleberries should be fully ripe and cooked before being eaten. Under-ripe berries can be toxic.

Cosmetic Plants

Some members of the nightshade family have been used in cosmetics, both historic and contemporary. Common annual tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) bears sweet-scented white to greenish-pink flowers. Fragrance components, from the flowers, obtained by macerating (soaking) or synthesized in the laboratory, have been incorporated into many different perfumes and other scented products like candles and soaps. Tobacco flowers provide "green" fragrance notes with complex scent overtones including floral and rosy-fruity elements.

Beautiful Herbs

Shoo fly, also known as apple of Peru (Nicandra physalodes) is an annual traditionally thought to repel flies, thus earning a place in the herb garden. However, it is mostly grown for its early fall flowers, which are bell-shaped and light blue-purple with white throats. The leaves are oval and the plants stand about 3 feet tall. Tall flowering tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris), hardy in USDA zones 10 through 11 and grown elsewhere as an annual, is popular in wildlife gardens, as its fragrance attracts the hummingbirds that pollinate it. The plants are tall, growing 3 to 5 feet in height.

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