Solanum nigrum

The Garden Nightshade.

Fig. 19.

Fig. 20.

If you have seen—and who has not?—the flowers of the potato-plant, you will immediately recognise the flowers of the Garden or Black Nightshade. (Fig. 19.) This noxious herb—noxious in some, but useful in other respects, and, therefore, not to be visited with too hasty a condemnation—flowers and fructifies throughout the year. Its fertility is extreme; only the severest winter-frosts can crush out its prolific life. The fruits which succeed to the flowers are smaller berries or "apples" than those of the potato. (See Fig. 20.)

In the history of botany, and even in that of philosophy, the Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum ) has a certain interest. Thus, says M. Hoefer, both Cordus and Jean Bauhin, botanists of the sixteenth century, have described the flower of this plant as if its corolla were composed of five distinct petals.

Where were the eyes of those great botanists? The corolla of the nightshade, like that of all the Solanaceæ, is plainly and obviously monopetalous,—that is, composed of a single piece; to assure yourself of this, you have but to open it out. (See Fig. 21, b.) It was the sharp-pointed, ovate divisions of the limb which imposed on the old observers; a fresh proof that seeing  and observing  are two very distinct things. Our vision enters into full exercise from earliest infancy; observation is not acquired until after much labour and many years.

Fig. 21.

Do not forget to add, that the five stamens are brought very closely together by their elongated anthers, as is also seen in the flower of the potato-plant. (Fig. 21, a.)

The same botanists who took our solanum for a plant with a polypetalous corolla, considered the Bitter-sweet (Solanum dulcamara ) to be a metamorphosis of the Garden Nightshade! The former they christened the red-berried solanum (Solanum baccis rubris ), and the latter, the black-berried solanum (Solanum baccis nigris ).

But if we once launch into the hypothetical, we shall be unable to stop half-way. If the species of one and the same genus are the result of a transformation, why may we not assert as much of the genera of a family, or the families of an order?

Thus we should arrive, step by step, at an unique type, not only for the vegetable kingdom, but for vegetables and animals, including man himself, and realise, to some extent, the ideal of the Greeks,—unity in variety .

Be it acknowledged, however, that we  have no desire to rise to so lofty an elevation. The potato-plant—unknown to the ancients, inasmuch as it is a native of the New World—has not been found to lose its character since its introduction into the ancient continent; its congener, the nightshade—an old native, like every bad herb—accompanies it everywhere; but its fibrous roots are absolutely virgin of every farinaceous tubercule.

Though the nightshade is common everywhere, Tournefort was the first to describe it with complete accuracy. That great observer even specifies various peculiarities which most of our botanists omit from their descriptions. Thus, he rightly remarks, that the peduncles branch out so as to form a kind of umbel, and do not emerge, as is usually the case, from the axils of the leaves, but a little below, from the very branches of the stem. He was also the first to note—and it was a veritable discovery—that the white flowers of the nightshade, grouped in threes to eights, are each formed of a single cup-shaped leaf,—in other words, that the corolla is monophyllous, and slightly bell-like or campanulated. Nor does he forget to describe the disposition of the five stamens, set close around the pistil, which, as it develops, forms a globular bacciform fruit, embraced by a five-lobed calyx. This fruit, which changes in colour from green to black, is filled with a great number of grains in a thick liquid, exhaling a nauseous odour. As for the leaves, they resemble those of spinach, for which, in some countries, they serve as a substitute.

Like all plants found by the wayside, and among heaps of refuse, the nightshade loves to vary its form, and of its various forms some nomenclators have made as many different species. The typical variety, the Solanum nigrum, has glabrous stems and leaves, that is, they are covered with short, but hardly visible hairs; its berries are black.

The smooth variety, or Solanum villosum, is rather rare, and has swollen or bulging leaves and stems; its berries are red or of a reddish yellow. The two varieties seem able, by sowing, to be transformed into one another. A sub-variety of the Solanum villosum  has been described as a peculiar species, under the name of Solanum miniatum, so named on account of its vermilion-coloured berries. The Solanum ochroleucum  and Solanum luteovirens, the first with yellowish, and the second with greenish berries, are simply varieties, and the same may be said of the dwarf form, known by the name of Solanum humile.

But the physician is more interested in the solanum than either the gardener or botanist. For him it is no useless or noxious weed, but, on the contrary, is an eminently precious herb. And, in fact, if it possessed only one-half the virtues formerly attributed to it, we ought to bow to the ground every time we encounter it.

Listen to our authorities even if you do not respect them.

Cæsalpin asserts that the decoction or juice of the nightshade is a sovereign remedy for complaints of the stomach and the bladder, and regards nightshade-water, mixed with an equal quantity of absinthe-water, as one of the best sudorifics.

Tragus, a physician and botanist like Cæsalpin, recommends the juice of the nightshade as anti-choleraic, as well as efficacious in inflammation of the liver and stomach. And yet, at the same time, he grows emphatic in reference to its poisonous properties. "Do not," he says, "employ this herb immoderately, lest it should happen to you as, in 1541, I saw it happen to an inhabitant of Erbach, near Hohenburg. After having eaten a few nightshade-berries, he was seized, on the following day, by a furious monomania, which led his neighbours to believe him possessed of a devil. After having uselessly employed every kind of exorcism, they sent for me. I made my patient swallow some very strong wine; he fell into a profound slumber; and, when he awoke, was cured."[27]

Withering affirms that a couple of grains of the dried leaves will act as a powerful sudorific, and that they have also been found useful in some cutaneous disorders.

Here is another authority, before whom naturalists are accustomed to give way. We make use of the Solanum nigrum, says Tournefort,[28] when it is necessary to subdue inflammation, or soften and relax the fibres. The pounded herb is applied to hæmorrhoids. The juice, with a sixth-part of rectified spirit-of-wine, is advantageous in cases of erysipelas, ringworm, wildfire, and all diseases of the skin. Nightshade is also employed in anodyne cataplasms.

Tournefort did not confine himself to simple botanical descriptions; he did, what our modern botanists neglect doing,—he made experiments, both physiological and chemical, on the plants employed in medicine. Thus, he began by tasting the different parts of the plant.

"The root," he says, "is almost insipid; the leaves taste like a saltish herb; there is something sharp and vinegary in the fruit; the whole plant has a narcotic odour. The leaves  do not redden turnsole,[29] but the ripe fruit reddens it greatly; whence we may conjecture that the sal-ammoniac  contained in this plant is moderated in the leaves by a very considerable portion of fœtid oil and earth, but that the acid portion of the salt is strongly developed in the ripe fruit; so that we must choose our part of the plant according to the purposes we wish to employ it for. The fruits, for instance, are more refreshing, but more repellant, than the leaves, which soften while resolving, cleansing, and absorbing."

We admit that these data leave much to be desired from a chemical point of view. We may well ask, for example, how the illustrious philosopher ascertained the presence of sal-ammoniac in nightshade? But it is not fair to criticise the science of the past, by judging it through the deceitful prism of the science of to-day. We must adopt the methods of our predecessors, when discussing natural productions from all the view-points of their applications.


[27]Tragus, "Historia Stirpium" (ed. 1552).

[28]Tournefort, "Histoire des Plantes" (ed. 1727), i. 74, 75.

[29]Turnsole , a colouring substance made of coarse linen rags, which, after being cleaned and bleached, are dipped into a mixture of ammoniacal matter, and the juice of the Crozophora tinctoria.