3. The History of Nightshades as Poisons


Only a few hundred years ago basic botanical knowledge was widespread. Before modern agriculture you had to know your plants if you were going to keep yourself fed. In the Old World nightshades were clearly understood as poisons. Belladonna, or deadly nightshade, grew from Great Britain to western Ukraine, Iran, and northern Africa. It’s use as both a medicine and a poison may predate recorded history.1 (It’s Latin name, belladonna, derives from a 16th century practice of Italian “pretty women” who darkened their skin with its juice, and used eyedrops derived from the berry to pharmacologically enlarge their pupils as a fashion statement.)2

TL:DR Humans have known that nightshades have unusual chemistry for thousands of years.

When potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers were imported to Europe from the New World, some European farmers saw the family resemblance and were somewhat wary of these new crops. Potatoes were suspect as nightshades, and also because they grew underground. They caught on because of their excellent nutrition, efficient cultivation, and durability in storage. Tomatoes were quickly adopted in Europe and Asia, but weren’t much eaten in the U.S. until the 19th century, enjoying instead a reputation as ornamentals.3 Peppers had the easiest time cracking our larder, perhaps because they were marketed more as spices than as staples.

NEXT: The Glycoalkaloids

  1. page 150, Introduction to Food Toxicology []
  2. page 109, Encyclopedia of Cultivated Plants From A to Zinnia []
  3. Explored in detail in The Tomato in America []



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