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 - http://www.abouthyme.com/drawing_0325.php
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.