News and Events

Botanical Buzz - The remarkable Solanaceae family

Monday, January 12, 2015

Attractive ornamentals, important food crops, medicinal plants and deadly killers; the large Solanaceae family has it all.

Solanaceae is a cosmopolitan and ancient plant family containing 90 genera and over 2700 species. Plants belonging to the family grow on every continent except Antarctica and range from the down-to-earth potato to the ubiquitous petunia and the stunningly beautiful Angel’s Trumpet.

One of the defining characteristics of the Solanaceae family is five-petalled flowers, with the petals fused at the base.

In addition to potatoes, other important food plants belonging to the Solanaceae family include tomatoes, capsicums and chillies. All of these plants came from South America to Europe in the 16th Century and gradually became an integral part of the European diet.

The nutritious and low maintenance potato was particularly successful in Europe. By the 1800’s, a single variety, the high yielding Irish Lumper was the principal food crop of the poorest regions of Ireland.

Lack of genetic diversity made the Irish potato crops susceptible to disease. In the 1840s repeated crop failure due to potato blight (Phytophthora infestans) precipitated the Great Famine during which approximately 1 million Irish people died and a further 1 million emigrated, reducing the population of Ireland by 20 – 25 percent.

Many of the plants belonging to the Solanaceae family are poisonous. The most notorious of these is Nicotiana tabacum  (tobacco), arguably the most deadly plant in the modern world.

Australia has roughly 20 different genera. One of the more common native species is Solanum aviculare (Kangaroo Apple). Solanum aviculare is an important traditional Aboriginal food source and is also commercially cultivated to produce modern medicinal products.

Belonging to a famous family can cast a long shadow but the pretty Lycianthes rantonnetii with its abundant small purple flowers has found its place in the sun at Shoyoen, Dubbo Regional Botanic Garden.

                                                                                                                                    By Ian McAlister & Karen Hagan