This prolific family is the Solanaceae one that numbers more than 2500 species from warm and temperate areas, America being the richest place. The family is spliced into 147 genera, the Solanum genera itself having no less than 1000 species. It is mostly annual or perennial herbs, shrubs or small trees or even vines. Leaves are usually alternate, flowers vary in size from 5mm to more than 20cm and offer all the possible colours.
Since we are at Dave's Garden let's start with the ornamental species, those lovingly nurtured by many a gardener for the delight of our eyes and often noses as many are perfumed like the night jasmine which produces a very strong and sweet perfume when night falls, and dot let you fooled by the common name, this Cestrum nocturnum is not a jasmine which belongs to the Oleaceae family. If we stay in the perfume realm but adding a colourful effect, Brunfelsia uniflora is a must and is actually planted in the front garden of many a Creole house on Reunion. Not only does it fill the air with a subtle though persistent odour but also the flowers first blow a deep purple and slowly loose colourings until they end white just before falling thus producing a multi-coloured bush. Another nicely perfumed one with stunning flowers is Brugmansia, either B. suaveolens, B. aurea or one of the very numerous hybrids created so far. The large pendulous flowers can be 20 inches long and release a nice perfume with lemon scents at the end of the day. They are often mistaken as Datura and although rather close botanically the later have erect flowers and are short-lived while Brugmansia are perennial and bear pendulous flowers. Still another sweet-scented bloom with a very showy flower, the ‘cup of gold', Solandra maxima is a vine with powerful stems up to 50m (150 feet) long and flowers up to 20cm, golden yellow with five dark lines inside the corolla. We will now walk around this colourful bed of Petunia, one of the most widely grown plants of the family all over the world in gardens, balconies and so on. What is mostly grown is Petunia x hybrida with large multi coloured and often stripped petals.
So now we will step in the kitchen as many a member of the family is to be found there and Creole food would simply not be the same without a few of those. Lycopersicon esculentum, the tomato, which species name describes well enough how tasty it should be is used as salad, sauces, stuffed, roasted, soups, jellies. Hard to imagine spaghetti without basil-tomato sauce on or pizza with just olives and cheese...And of course as we all like a little spice in our lives the Capsicum genera has a whole range of peppers, from mild almost sweet ones to burning Jalapenos and all the in-betweens. Peppers have been grown for thousands of years so we have now enough choice to grow a pepper garden as there are dwarf ones, larges ones, fruits colours ranging from white, yellow, orange, red, green, purple, black, all size and shapes, all levels of fire in the mouth! Let us not forget the Queen even if her dress is not very luxurious, Solanum tuberosum is so much eaten as chips, French fries, mashed, boiled, fried, turned into gnocchi and so on that I will not even bother in giving her common name. Solanum melongena has been appreciated by cooks and gourmets and even Michael Franks has written a song on eggplant. Let us add that this one comes from India while all the other members of the family met in the kitchen beforehand were American. But a kitchen is a melting pot...For dessert we may choose between tree-tomato, (Cyphomandra betacea), Cape goose berry (Physalis peruviana) or its close cousin Physalis angulata. And for those who are still hooked on it a few puffs of dried leaves of Nicotiana tabacum in a pipe will bring us back in the garden for fresh air.
As we went from kitchen to drugs with the aid of tobacco let us stick to the subject. The Solanaceae family is famous for many highly toxic plants, which have been used by sorcerers, witches and doctors because of the high level of alkaloids they contain. European witches would never go out on Sabbath without a purse full of ointment partly made with the deadly devil's trumpet, Datura metel. All Datura species contain many active compounds, atropine is reputed to produce hallucinations that give people the feeling they are flying in the air hence the common association between witches and flying brooms.
What a family really, it definitely offers the best and the worse, not too different from human families after all...not surprisingly the Solanaceae is a botanical family known a ethno botanical because many members are used throughout the world by human beings for a wide range of uses as depicted above.