Silverleaf nightshade — February 2011

Nightshade plant

Nightshade flowers

Nightshade fruit

The distinctive blossoms with pale violet, swept-back petals and stamens sticking out like five golden tongues make the silverleaf nightshade easy to recognize. Even when it is not in bloom, the plant can be readily identified based on its long, narrow, silvery leaves with wavy edges. Solanum elaeagnifolium is a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae), notorious for producing alkaloids, some of which are narcotic. Yet this family also includes some of our most well liked and widely used crops including tomatoes, potatoes (in the genus Solanum), tobacco, and our New Mexico favorite, chilies. The genus name Solanum comes from two Latin words, solor meaning to comfort or relieve and anum meaning pertaining to. So the name means comforting, referring to the medicinal and/or narcotic properties of some species, particularly the analgesic effects of certain alkaloids. Members of this genus are commonly referred to as nightshades or horsenettles and there are seven Solanum species native to New Mexico.

Elaeagnifolium also comes from two Latin words; folium meaning leaf and eleagnus meaning like the genus Elaeagnus and indeed the leaves of Solanum elaeagnifolium are reminiscent of Russian olive (Elaeagnus) in some ways. Silverleaf nightshade is also known as purple nightshade, white horsenettle, blueweed, silver horsenettle, bullnettle, and trompillo.

Silverleaf nightshade is typically found in dry, open areas such as pastures and rangeland and readily colonizes disturbed ground. It is an erect perennial that may grow to a height of three feet. Capable of spreading by sprouting from its deep root system, it may form fairly extensive colonies. The tough stems and leaves are covered with star-shaped silver/gray hairs giving the herbage a silvery tint. Short yellow or brown spines grow sparsely on the stems and the main leaf veins. The leaves grow up to six inches long and one inch wide with usually wavy edges and stout petioles.

The lavender flowers appear in loose clusters near the branch ends from June to October. Each flower is borne on a stalk and measures up to one inch in diameter. The five petals are fused for most of their length forming a broad funnel. The free ends of each petal have their edges bent backward creating a star-shaped appearance. Five conspicuous stamens surround the central pistil, each with a bold yellow anther. Collectively, the stamens appear to form a cone around the pistil. The fruits are round, shiny berries about 1⁄2 inch in diameter. They turn from green to yellow or orangey as they ripen and may become black with age. Each fruit contains 60-120 seeds.

The silverleaf nightshade is considered to be a weed in most places because of its ability to colonize disturbed ground by seeds and then quickly spread as new plants emerge from the established root system. Both the leaves and the berries are poisonous to livestock, but plants are rarely consumed, perhaps because of the tough, spiny stems. In addition to collecting fruits for use in decorative necklaces, Native Americans had a variety of medicinal uses for silverleaf nightshade from the treatment of toothaches, sore throats, and snakebites to use as a laxative and an antiseptic. The Pimas of Arizona took advantage of a chemical in the fruits that curdles milk and used crushed berries in making cheese. Despite its reputation as a weed, silverleaf nightshade undeniably produces colorful and interesting flowers and fruits in what is often an otherwise relatively drab habitat, and that, in my view, is sufficient to earn some level of respect and gratitude.


© 2011 Jerry Melaragno

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