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Herbaceous horrors

October arrived...and with it new herbaceous horrors. This one was to become the subject of my next investigation.

So who was this dangerous-looking hirsute beauty dangling its tasty toxic baubles on such gag-and-goosebump-inducing arachnoid peduncles just inches from the curious fingers of the neighborhood children?

I thought I knew the answer, alas…

Pop quiz:

Deadly? Can be.

Nightshade? Definitely.

Deadly nightshade? Not on your lovely life.

So much for popular nomenclature.

What we’re looking at is, in all likelihood, Solanum nigrum, commonly known as black nightshade, though there are a ton of nightshades of the genus Solanum that look basically identical, not to mention the fact that each of those species is highly variable, both pheno- and genotypically. Also, the academic nomenclature is apparently super redundant so you’ll get a lot of different names for the same plant. Also also, the study I read that in was so. catty. about lazy taxonomy. Very unexpected, very amusing.

But all in all, I’m satisfied with Solanum nigrum.

That puts us square in the Solanaceae family and means that our new acquaintance shares a genus with lovely, friendly tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) and potatoes (Solanum tuberosum), so I feel like...first name basis?

At any rate, this is not deadly nightshade, which, though it belongs to the same family, is actually the more distantly-related Atropa belladonna, which has its own very colorful history I’ll be sparing you in this edition of Lexical Logorrhea for the Undeterred Amateur.

Let’s examine some taxa facts then, shall we?

The leaves, as you can see, are all over the shop:

Sinuate specimens vary wildly in form and wave depth depending on each individual leaf’s placement on the plant and each individual plant’s environmental conditions in its patch of earth.

(Also, they seem to embrace asymmetry, which I find personally endearing, seeing as how I am still nursing my own (perilously outré) Skrillex “haircut” fresh from the annals of 2012.)

The looping secondary veins branching off the central axis give the leaves an almost muscular aspect, a characteristic that, when looked at in conjunction with other features, *might* make me want to call the second order venation structure “semicraspedodromous.” Though – god help me – I’m not one hundred percent certain I want to call anything that.

The first order venation, that is, what the main vein is doing, is “pinnate,” as noted in the photo.

The reason I point these things out – even to myself – is not so as to peacock about using words I don’t fully understand, but to note the sheer number of characteristics there are to note, to draw my own beginner’s eye to the details (and the categories of details (and the categories of categories of details)) that make these bioforms spectacular and unique. I guess I hope that if I point them out often enough, maybe one day I’ll finally stop forgetting to be amazed by them.


White stellate flowers that are keeping it very tight. Very tight indeed. Bae primarily self-pollinates. A solid choice.

“Stellate” is a descriptor I like very much because, you see, it both sounds and is right. Fully intuitive, highly satisfying.

The rest is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser, an interpretive taxonomic dance, if you will.

Our fiendish friend’s little canary-colored beak, for instance, is made up of five stamens – they’re unfused but unabashedly intimate. Protruding cheekily from the end of this anther tube is a fused double-pistil, which would be impossible to actually see, so...thanks, books. (I will, by the by, be featuring my sources individually in a series of upcoming posts.)

May it be also noted that I was forced to physically destroy the organism’s reproductive structure in order to interpret its constituent parts as sexually binary. (Golf claps, please.) Thank you, thank you, all for your much-deserved praise: Herewith have I slayed the baleful shibboleth of binary gender for once and ever. (Period, full-stop, deep and languorous bow.)

You’re welcome for everything in the world.


As you might have been able to ascertain, this inflorescence structure induces intense, irrational disgust on my part, particularly when it’s a) no longer bedecked in adorable white twinkle stars, and b) located (wrongly) along the internode of the stem (where no extra diddly stuff is allowed) instead of at one of the axils above the leaves, where it belongs.

Initially, I gleefully believed the inflorescence to be an example of a “scorpioid” cyme. (Gleefully, mind, because I felt reassured in my inchoate horror at its obvious Wrongness. Someone else obviously also thought it terrifying; hence the name.) However that didn’t quite seem to do due diligence:

A scorpioid cyme zigzags back and forth as terminal buds are formed and lateral shoots sprout out from the respective side opposite the bud (see sketch A). But this architecture seemed to lack the necessary zig, not to mention the respective zag. I was eventually able to suss out that, in this modified version of the scorpioid pattern, the vertices of the cyme align to produce what *looks* like a single axis. So what we’ve actually got here is an itchy case of sketch B, a slightly less narratively gratifying – but more botanically accurate – “sympodial” cyme.

Whilst browsing the park for attractive stands of my new noxious friend, I happened upon a confamilial, the jimsonweed, Datura stramonium. (Even more toxic! This time sporting spacey, spiky seed balls full of hallucinogenic death, right at child-grabbing height!)

Look, Mr. Autry, I don’t intend to prescribe behavior for the longhorn cattle community here, okay, but this lowly weed is best left not fed upon – by bovines or primates – unless, of course, your ultimate aim is to be knocked abruptly back out of the saddle again, probably by an untimely coma.

Your old 44 won’t save you, either.

Of course, this adorable rant is not intended to detract from the plant’s long history of ethnobotanical usage in both medicinal and spiritual applications, but for my own part, I do not intend to deal with any part of this crispy realness for the time being. Methinks it is just a nibble too crisp.

I went back to the park to greet the stand of Solanum I’d now been studying for weeks only to find that it had gone. Ripped straight up and out by city gardeners, and probably not because it’s poisonous, either. (Though I’d like to add that the ripe berries, leaves, and shoots of this and other closely related nightshades are eaten or used for medicinal purposes all over the world, but then ethnobotany is not so much my area...yet.) In the main, I suspect the problem was more its being a weed propagating vigorously in front of where the crocuses (also poisonous) bloom in spring. Blocking the crocuses is not a profitable venture.

So I’m quite sad about that. And I’m just going to sit with that now for a bit.

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