What do ketchup, cigarettes and Harry Potter have in common?

They all contain members of the Solanaceae! Ok, ok, boring plant word but bear with me.

Tomatoes, Tobacco and Mandrake (the screaming humanoid plant roots? You know? The horrifying ones with the cries that can kill you? Based on a real plant. But more of him later) are all from the Solanaceae. It’s a family which contains nice, seemingly friendly plants like the comforting, starchy Potato and its delicious partner in crime the Tomato, but also things like Deadly Nightshade which ladies used to use to make their pupils dilated and 10-20 berries of which can kill a fully grown human. Not so comforting or delicious.

(A brief aside: when I use the term ‘family’, that basically means that the species in that ‘family’ group are more closely related to other species in the family than they are everything else. Ultimately, of course, they’re related to all other plants ever but it’s convenient for us to put things in boxes and Botanists love boxes almost as much as we love obscure Latin terminology.)

But anyway, back to the Solanaceae.

Deadly nightshade is not just, as its name suggests, deadly, but also pretty freaky. It has been used as an hallucinogen for centuries. It can make you believe you’re flying or that you’re an animal. It is also thought by some to have aphrodisiac properties but take the wrong dosage in the wrong way and you could find yourself with insomnia, ‘dry mucosa’ or possibly dead from respiratory arrest. Sexy.

And now the Mandrake. You’ve read Harry Potter and know all about it killing you with its screams if you haven’t got your ear muffs on, but as you also know if you’ve read any Medieval manuscripts (don’t deny it), this is based upon a very real, very mythical plant, Mandragora officinarum. People used to believe it had magical properties so powerful that it had to be harvested by letting dogs pull it up, or during certain phases of the lunar cycle or, just to be on the safe side, both. It was not a plant to be messed with.

Sadly, it doesn’t scream when you pull it up but the reality is possibly even more unpleasant. It used to poison people on a fairly regular basis back when salads were foraged from hedgerows and not everyone could tell their Brassica (cabbage) from their Mandragora. It likely also killed plenty of people who attempted to use it as a recreational or medicinal drug. Symptoms culminate in death by paralysis, which is nasty enough, but on the way you pass through nausea, vomiting, mydriasis and inability to speak. Somewhere in there are hallucinations and euphoria, but would you really want to risk it?

File:Mandragora dibujo.jpg

These guys wouldn’t, and they’ve got it growing out of their heads. (The roots of Mandrakes tend to have lots of limbs, which some people over the centuries decided meant they looked like humans, hence this old illustration). Image from Wikimedia commons as I sadly don’t have any of my own pictures of Mandrake.   http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mandragora_dibujo.jpg?uselang=en-gb

Finally, the humble potato. You know, the nice guy of the family. Eat its leaves, and you could find yourself in a coma. So don’t.

The cause of all this botanical brutality? These plants contain chemicals called alkaloids such as Scopolamine (the one responsible for the flying hallucinations), Hyoscyamine (hallucinations which last for days and central respiratory arrest) and Atropine (‘internal secretory disturbances’, which sound highly unpleasant, and reduction of cognitive capacity). These chemicals can also have some useful applications, for instance, as sedatives (in the right doses!) but are generally pretty damned dangerous.

So next time you order chips, have a Bloody Mary, eat Peppers or encounter those slightly odd orange things fancy restaurants like to put on your melon fan, remember that they are from the Mafia of the plant world. The badass, poisonous, mythical Solanaceae.

References and a warning: Most of the information in this post comes from the excellent book ‘Mind-Altering and Poisonous Plants of the World’ by Wink and Van Wyk. I’d recommend it. HOWEVER, I would NOT recommend that anyone in any way attempts to experiment with any of these plants. The bad consequences far outweigh any fun ones and you’d likely end up feeling very silly in A&E being pumped full of god knows what and attempting to explain to some exasperated doctors why you are essentially a medieval witch. Or just very, very dead.

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About adelecmj

I'm a PhD student at the Open University, where I study pollen-vegetation relationships in Ghana. I like plants, rocks, and science in general.
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