As far as names go, “Nightshades” pretty much nails it: This mysterious fruit family is often associated with dark and shady practices – like occult-ish stews that include plenty of other odd ingredients like Eye of Newt and Scale of Toad – thanks to its sharp, purportedly inflammatory and potentially poisonous bite.
But there’s so much more to nightshades than a feared reputation.
In fact, many of our favorite and most delicious fruits and vegetables fall into this fated family.
Nightshade represents a full suite of fruits that belong to the Solanaceae family, which includes over 2,700 species that grow from the surface of every continent on earth, outside of Antarctica.
They sprout from plants in all shapes, sizes and forms, including herbs, trees, bushes and vines; they can have annual, biennial or perennial growth cycles; they can even be grown underground, in the form of subterranean tubers.
And their uses are equally all over the map, with nightshade family members finding themselves equally comfortable in the agricultural or medicinal worlds, as well as appearing more typically in the form of spices, weeds or ornamental fruits.
What ties them together are a set of largely scientific facts about their genetics and reproductive preferences. But among their common traits also lies the source of their fascination for so many humans: A varying set of alkaloids that can combine to form something irresistibly delicious – or deadly poisonous.
Indeed, this is where nightshades get so much of their bad reputation.
In their most potent form, these alkaloids can form something called tropane – a compound that belongs to a genus of chemicals named after the Greek Fate Atropos, who was charged with cutting the thread of life.
And, indeed, these compounds mimic their Greek inspiration, forming a potentially fatal combination. It’s this notorious chemical that’s the source of so much grief for anyone who bites into deadly nightshade – the family’s most nefarious member.
These alkaloid combinations can also form the—comparatively—milder irritant solanine, which itself can add up to an upset stomach, headaches and even hallucinations.
But, gratefully, other times, the alkaloid architecture builds much more pleasure than pain, creating distinctive flavor profiles in many of the fruits. Capsaicin, the chemical compound that famously lends peppers so much spice, is one example. And nightshade alkaloids are even capable of producing microscopic doses of nicotine!
It may sound like a lot of bad news, but you may be surprised to learn how many of your favorite fruits fall into this edgy family, and benefit from these strange quirks of the natural world.
Just a few of the most recognizable types of nightshade fruits and vegetables include:
The family does, indeed, run the gamut, but in its healthy-to-eat form, it at least shares the trait of deliciousness.
A question this broad is difficult to answer when addressed at a group of fruit this large. Like so much else in life, it all depends.
Obviously, deadly nightshade is not safe to eat. Jimson weed (AKA devil’s snare), mandrake, black henbane and stinking nightshade are other forms of the plant that should never be ingested – at risk of death or some serious health complications.
On a less-deadly scale, many people with arthritis report difficulty or flare-ups following consumption of some nightshade-family foods, including tomatoes, potatoes and eggplant. This is because those same pesky alkaloids can also act as inflammatory agents, which could aggravate some people’s arthritis or other inflammatory diseases, and could also serve to upset the digestive system.
Still, by and large, most of the edible forms of nightshade should be just fine to eat – although, like with all else, moderation is key.
In other words: Proceed with caution, but enjoy with abandon.