Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Notorious Nightshades - Part 2, with Susan Wittig Albert

We are pleased to welcome Susan Wittig Albert as a guest on The Essential Herbal blog today! Many of you are familiar with Susan's mysteries, and know they are laced with herb lore and intrique. If you are not, it's about time you found out what you've been missing. Be warned, you will want to read them all (and you'll love each one!). Without further ado, we give you Susan...

A huge thanks to Tina, for being my host at Essential Herbal today, and welcome to blog readers! Thanks for joining us.

If you’re just joining us, this blog tour celebrates the launch of Nightshade, the sixteenth China Bayles mystery. China is a former criminal defense attorney who traded life in the fast lane for a quieter life as the owner of an herb shop in Pecan Springs TX. The garden isn’t always peaceful, however, and China keeps turning up mysteries. In Nightshade, the mystery centers on China’s father, who died in an auto accident 16 years before—and on China’s recently discovered half-brother Miles, who seems to have some shadowy secrets up his sleeve.

Each of China’s mysteries has a plant theme. Today’s post is the second of two posts about the plant family that lends Nightshade its name. If you missed Part One, you can read it here.

The Notorious Nightshades, Part Two

Over the centuries, the nightshade family (over two thousand species of annuals, perennials, vines, shrubs, and even small trees) has gotten a very bad rap.
But this is a pity, because the nightshades rank high on the list of plants that humans find extremely useful. Did you know that the potato is a nightshade? And tomatoes, chile peppers, eggplants, and tomatillos? People have been eating and loving (or in some cases, hating) nightshades for a very, very long time!

But nightshades aren’t just good-tasting, they’re good-looking, as well. And chances are that you’ve been growing several ornamental species in your garden, whether you know it or not.

The Delightful Nightshades

If you’ve got petunias, you’ve got nightshades! Brought to Europe from South America in the early part of the nineteenth century, the petunia immediately captured the attention of hybridists. Now, through the magic of plant breeding, we can obtain fringed, doubled, and ruffled petunias in an amazing range of colors and markings, for garden beds or hanging baskets.

You may be growing another ornamental nightshade for its sweet evening fragrance. Nicotiana, also known as flowering tobacco, is the perfect plant to grow beside a porch or patio where you're likely to linger in the evenings. This annual also attracts hummingbirds. Desert Tropicals has some good information about nicotiana, lovely old cottage-garden flower.

Other beautiful nightshades, Datura and Brugmansia (Angel’s Trumpet), have a more troubling reputation. While they delight us with their stunning flower trumpets, these plants contain significant levels of the tropane alkaloids atropine and scopalomine and have a long history of use in various cultures as medicines, ritual hallucinogens, and deadly poisons. I have too often seen these plants offered for sale in nurseries, with no “be careful!” notice. And too many nursery employees don’t have a clue about the toxic properties of the plants they’re selling. If you grow these beautiful but dangerous nightshades, do so responsibly, please, and guard against their misuse.

The Deadly Nightshades

Like any large family, the nightshade clan includes some very bad actors. It’s this side of the Solanum family—the dark side—that has given these herbs such an evil reputation.

Of all the plants in human use, few are regarded with as much fear as the Solanacae trio: deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), and henbane (Hyoscyamus niger). In antiquity, surgeons used these plants as narcotics, but their high levels of tropane alkaloids also made them the weapons of choice when it came to murder. In the Middle Ages, these nightshades were used to induce the hallucinations associated with the practice of witchcraft and sorcery. Numerous superstitions surround all three plants, and their poisonous properties are legendary.

However, deadly nightshade remains the chief source of scopolamine (in some countries, mixed with morphine for use as an anesthetic in childbirth) and atropine, used by ophthalmologists to dilate the pupil of the eye and in the treatment of heart attacks. Atropine is stockpiled by the U.S. military and some hospitals as an antidote for biological and chemical poisons. While we must be careful of these deadly plants, we must also respect them for their powerful medicinal qualities.

The Deadliest Nightshade

From a broad cultural point of view, the deadliest nightshade of all is tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum), which contains the tropane alkaloid nicotine.

According to the National Center for Chronic Disease, cigarette smoke is responsible for some 438,000 premature deaths each year in the United States alone, while smoking-related healthcare and lost productivity are estimated to cost our nation over 167 billion dollars a year. Globally, it is predicted that by 2020, the use of tobacco will account for some 10 million cancer deaths each year. Tobacco, regarded by its original American Indian users as a sacred plant with magical powers and by sixteenth century Europeans as a medicinal panacea, is now understood to be a dangerously addictive carcinogenic herb—the deadliest nightshade of all.

I hope you’ll find the nightshades such a fascinating family of plants that you’ll want to learn as much as you can about them. And I hope you’ll enjoy the China Bayles mystery, Nightshade, as well. If you’d like to sample the novel, you can read the first chapter here.

Thanks for joining me on this blog tour, and a big thank-you to Tina for hosting me today! I’ll be around to answer your questions and comments, so let’s continue our conversation!
UPDATE - March 25, 2009. Susan Wittig Albert has recreated the blog tour, but this time, the book is Wormwood, steeped in the herbal traditions of the Shaker community, another (the 17th!) delicious tale of the adventures of China Bayles. To enter the drawing, please visit this link -
Thanks - and good luck!

About the book drawing and Susan’s blog tour

If you’d like to enter the drawing for a copy of Nightshade go here to register. But do it now, before you forget. The drawing for The Essential Herbal closes at noon on April 12, 2008.
Want to read the other posts in Susan’s blog tour? You’ll find a calendar and links here.


Mary said...

When China adds tidbit about the historical use of a herb, I always wonder where you find those special pieces of information.
This blog with the information and sources of information on the medieval uses, for both medicine and murder made me want to read more about nightshades. Blog one on nightshades did the samething.
Mary in Central New York

susanalbert said...

Hi, Mary--Over the years, I've assembled quite a library of herbal texts which serve as the source for those "tidbits." One of the great pleasures of writing the books is to find appropriate quotations. Glad you're enjoying the harvest!

Dani said...

I just joined the Essential Herbal Yahoo! Group which I noticed after hopping over to the website. It's always nice being in a group of like-minded folks. :) And dreaming about growing them since it's still too cold in my neck of the woods to do any gardening. My daffodils are barely poking their heads out of the ground!


susanalbert said...

It's a good group, Dani--you'll enjoy it and learn lots. I always do!

Tina Sams said...

Welcome to the gang, Dani. It's a bit less chatty right now, with everyone either planting or holding their breath in anticipation. Once things start growing, we talk about it :-).

Anonymous said...

Hello everyone,
I have seen these books before and as Mary said earlier, I had wondered how Susan knows all of the herbal lore and "tidbits" that she uses.
I would LOVE to see your herb garden Susan ! I bet it holds many unusual treasures.
I am always adding to my garden and wish I had a few helpers to make it bigger evey year - LOL.
Tina, I see your posts on the Oils&Herbs yahoo group and I enjoy your comments.
I will have to see about joining your group too. I love learning about herbs !
Well, I'm off to try to win a copy of the new book before I forget.
Thank you,
Diana in Hubbard, Ohio

susanalbert said...

I've grown quite a few herbs over the years, Diana--not so many now, since I'm cutting back on my gardens. But you should see China's garden! I just don't know where she finds the time, with all those mysteries to solve. :)

Kerri said...

I was surprised to learn that Petunias are in the Nightshade family!
Reading all your interesting information about herbs during the past 2 weeks has sparked my interest in them. I signed up for your weekly herbal newsletter and will check out a few of the books you've mentioned.
I've grown a few, but will now try more.

susanalbert said...

We have lots of local wild nightshades growing in our pastures--one thing I learned about them: the Indians (Tonkawa) used the berries like rennet to make cheese! I love learning stuff like this. Gives me a great deal of respect for all these useful plants.

Ien in the Kootenays said...

What an honor to have the creator of China Bayles on your blog!
Oh, to be in the Texas Hill country, now April is there...we still have patches of snow, and the odd flurry.
I knew some of the nightshade lore, but not the bit about the petunia, who would have thought!
Thanks Tina, Thanks Susan.

Tina Sams said...

You're right, Ien, it is a huge honor and we love the company :-).
This year it seems like winter is going on forever up north. I hope your garden gets to see spring soon.