Be careful of what grows there (in the night shade)

This week, as you prepare to take to the streets with children and grandchildren, friends and neighbors, here’s a little background on some of the spooky, but sometimes medicinal, nightshade plants that grow in the shadows and feed our imaginations.

The mandrake plant–steeped in European folklore, legend, and myth–comes first to mind. It has roots that branch out like limbs that can resemble little people. Folklore held that, when pulled from the ground, the root emitted a shrill cry that drove people mad and could kill them.

The 13th century Moorish (Spanish Muslim) herbalist Ibn al-Baiter advised harvesting mandrake by plugging your ears, tying the plant to a dog, and placing some meat out of reach. When the dog ran to the meat, it would pull the root screaming out of the soil.

During the early 17th century, Shakespeare wrote of the mandrake in Romeo and Juliet: “what with loathsome smells, and shrieks like mandrakes torn out of the earth, that living mortals, hearing them, run mad.” Harry Potter, perhaps the most famous fictional wizard of present times, studied the mandrake at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry. So clearly author J.K. Rowling knows her plant history.

Witches, another subject for Shakespeare, were said to include mandrake in potions that could send them flying around the sky through the night on broomsticks. Scholars have found consuming animal and plant hallucinogenic compounds in “witches’ brews” could give the illusion of flying through the air. Rather than drinking some of these poisonous potions, the witches could instead have smeared the potion on a broomstick and absorbed it through the vaginal mucosa when a “witch” placed the stick between her legs, thus creating the illusion of “riding” a broomstick and “flying” through the air.

Other compounds such as ergot alkaloids from molds found on spoiled grains, such as barley and rye, may have also been unintentionally consumed in baked foods. Some speculate the witch hysteria in Salem, MA during the 1690s resulted from young women consuming such spoiled grains and thus hallucinating and “seeing visions.”

Mandrake roots have also been used as a poison in real life homicides. For example, some historians believe Dr. Harvey Hawley Crippen of Harvard University used mandrake to murder his wife in 1910. It was also believed that mandrake would grow beneath the gallows from where the blood of hanged murderers dripped.

The mandrake plant is a relative of henbane, which grows in dry regions of the Mediterranean and Middle East where it has been used as an aphrodisiac, fertility drug, hallucinogen, and painkiller. But the doses must be correct. Overdoses can cause vision disturbances, mental confusion, and–as noted above–even death.

Of course, the mandrake belongs to the prodigious Solanaceae family. This family of nightshade plants also includes approximately 2,500 other plants, such as aubergines (eggplant), chili, deadly nightshade, henbane, peppers, potatoes, tobacco, and tomatoes. Solanaceae plants all contain powerful plant chemicals called alkaloids, which account for their diverse effects on the human body. Many of these important foods came originally from the Americas or the New World.

But, in the Old World, nightshade plants had reputations as poisons. The deadly nightshade, also called “belladonna,” contains atropine, which poisons the nervous system and allows the nerves to be powered only by adrenalin.

Fashionable women would place drops of belladonna in their eyes to dilate their pupils and give them an appealing look, thus “bella” (pretty) “donna” (woman) in Italian. Perhaps the accompanying visual disturbances and intoxication also made it easier to overlook the imperfections of their would-be suitors.

Spanish explorers observed many of these important foods–such as peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes–during the 16th century in North and South America. But it took a long time for Europeans to accept them due to their recognized botanical associations with the deadly “nightshades.” Of course, it did not take tobacco long to gain mass popularity back in Europe. But perhaps because you did not eat it. You smoked it.

But, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes did not make it onto European menus until well into the 18th century, after they had been known for two centuries. Until then, Europeans grew these plants as ornamentals for their pretty blooms. (Petunias are also part of this family.) The delicate royal blue flower of the potato plant became a craze in the court of Louis XVI at the time Monsieur Parmentier brought the potato to prominence in France.

My, how times have changed.

Today, nearly 200 million metric tons of tomatoes and 400 metric tons of potatoes are grown worldwide for consumption each year. As you know, potatoes are incorrectly assumed not to have much nutritive value. But as I will explain in my November 2015 Insiders’ Cures newsletter, people can actually survive eating a “beet and potatoes” diet. (If you’re not yet a newsletter subscriber, now is the perfect time to get started.)

Tomatoes are also an important source of nutrients. With a team of researchers from USDA during the mid-1980s, I discovered the role of lycopene from tomatoes in human metabolism and nutrition. Then, during the 1990s, experiments at Harvard showed men who eat two or more servings per day of tomatoes reduce their risk of prostate cancer. Today, we know lycopene has anti-cancer and other benefits for blood pressure, blood lipids, and prevention of cardiovascular disease.

Red peppers also belong to the Solanaceae family. Today, researchers are studying them for their role in reducing the risk and symptoms of Type II diabetes and Parkinson ’s disease. Of course, smoking the related plant, tobacco, is well known to significantly reduce the risk of developing Parkinson’s, as well as reduce symptoms of Parkinson’s in those who have this neurological disease.

But don’t expect to hear the scientific truth about tobacco from the politically correct crowd, the same group that now thinks it’s just wonderful to smoke another plant, marijuana, whose mental and physical health risks are far greater.

Stick with the nightshade plants (except mandrake, of course). They’re far less deadly. And much more enjoyable, especially roasted, at this time of year.