“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