Mystery Plant | This garden favorite presents sticky situation to insects

“I’m a lonely little petunia in an onion patch…”

— Lyrics by John Kamano, Billy Faber, Maurice Merl

Well, this one’s pretty easy, I hope. And I figured that during these really hot days, now at the height of summer, you might want something like a pretty petunia — and that’s what this Mystery Plant is, of course.

For one thing, these plants belong to the tomato family, and it doesn’t matter which way you pronounce that word. The tomato family is also quite properly referred to as the potato family, as well, and again, don’t worry about pronunciation.

The take-home here is that the family’s botanical name is Solanaceae — and it is a big family at that, including nearly 4,000 species around the world. The Solanaceae contains some extremely important food plants, the most well-known surely being Irish potato — not to be confused with the “sweet” potato, which is quite different. Tomatoes, too, along with their cousins, the various peppers, are also important economic crops.

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Be aware, though, that a number of members of this family are quite poisonous. Jimson weed and cultivated daturas are very dangerous if consumed. (So is tobacco, another member of the family.) A wide variety of chemical constituents, many of which are technically alkaloids, result in this toxicity. Besides their general toxicity, some of these compounds have important physiological effects on humans.

For example, the European herb known as belladonna produces berries containing a juice, which, when dripped into the eyes, causes marked dilation of the pupils. Wide-open pupils are useful for ophthalmologists, and attractive, as well, so ladies of the Italian Renaissance would use this as a beauty technique. That’s where the name “belladonna” (meaning “beautiful lady”) comes from. Anyway, many ornamental species

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Mystery Plant | This sedge family member looks great in water gardens

And now, ladies and gentlemen, for your late-summer enjoyment, I am proud to present a plant that is common as dirt — and a member of the sedge family.

You may remember from your first botany class that “sedges have edges” — specifically, that sedges are grass-like plants that have stems that are generally triangular in cross section, so that when you hold one, you can feel the edges.

Mystery Plant 1

Every single flower of this week’s Mystery Plant is subtended by a cluster of wildly crinkly, brownish bristles, which together form a cottony brown fuzz amongst the developing flowers. Because of this, some people find this a very beautiful plant, and it has been used with some success in water gardens.

Grasses, of course, belong to a much different family — the Poaceae — and their stems are usually round (or circular) in cross-section, along with the rushes, representing yet a third family (Juncaceae). It turns out that for beginners, sedges, grasses and rushes can be notoriously confusing in the field, at least before they start blooming. In bloom, however, the members of these three important plant families are very easily distinguished, as their flowers and fruits are quite different among the three groups.

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The sedge family really is a large one, with many thousands of species, distributed all over the world — especially in the tropics and warm temperate regions, although there are plenty that prefer to grow in cooler climates. Sedges aren’t nearly as important as the grasses, in terms of human economy, and there aren’t many that are used as food sources, other than water chestnuts, which are the crispy corms of a certain sedge (Eleocharis dulcis, from Asia and the western Pacific).

Mystery Plant 2

This week’s Mystery Plant is a sedge, and

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