Solanum in your Window Box and on your Plate

A winter window box plant selection with Winter Cherry, Solanum, in London SW1
© Karen Netto (Andrews)

On my route from the tube station to the RHS Lindley Library, I often stop to admire the eye-catching, window box displays on some railings. I always like to check out the plant combinations. Last year’s display included the Winter Cherry. The Winter Cherry and its main edible plant family members will be our focus.

Winter Cherry, Solanum, in local garden centre. © Karen Netto (Andrews)

Ongoing Name Confusion

The Winter Cherry’s pot labels refer simply to Solanum without the epithet in my local garden centre. The House Plants Expert website suggests that Solanum capsicastrum and Solanum pseudocapsicum are as interchangeable as the common names Winter Cherry and Jerusalem Cherry. This breaks Linnaeus’ fundamental plant naming rule. Alastair Culham documented the naming difficulties in his Advent Botany blog back in 2017. It seems that the uncertainty is still ongoing in horticulture, despite Kew’s published list of accepted names and synonyms. The online record has been available unchanged since 2013.

Nightshade Family

Solanum is one of the largest genera of vascular plants with around 1,300 species according to Kew’s Plants of the World. To put this in perspective, there are a total of around 100 genera and a total of 2,600 species in the whole Solanaceae or Nightshade family. Solanaceae has economically important and familiar food crops.

Poisonous and Edible Mix

It may seem like splitting hairs to harp on about correct plant names. When you are dealing with Solanaceae, accuracy is crucial. Confusion could be fatal. Some plants have been cultivated as food crops and others remain poisonous. Solanum pseudocapsicum is regarded as mildly poisonous. The trouble is that the fruit may look temptingly like Cherry Tomatoes to young children. I turn to my copy of Elizabeth Dauncey’s Poisonous Plants designed for parents and childcare providers:

Ingestion may result in mild gastrointestinal upset, possibly abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhoea. More serious effects are extremely unusual.

HTA (Horticultural Trades Association) Category C, Harmful if eaten.

Forewarned is Forearmed

The guide notes the synonyms Solanum capsicastrum and Solanum diflorum. It also gives 3 common names Christmas Cherry, Jerusalem Cherry and Winter Cherry. There are no fewer than 12 Solanaceae species listed as poisonous, including the Potato itself, if eaten while green and inappropriately stored. When my children were young, I successfully grew Potatoes and Tomatoes with them on our London patio in pots and sacks. Forewarned is forearmed when gardening with children.

The fun of growing Tomato plants with children on garden centre poster
© Karen Netto (Andrews)

Medicinal Plant Use

The trouble with common names is that they can apply to different plants. Winter Cherry is a name that is sometimes applied to another Solanaceae plant used in Indian Ayurvedic medicine. Its Latin name is Withania somnifera. Other common names are Ashwagandha, Indian Ginseng, Poison Gooseberry. Pharmaceutical and herbal usages add a further layer of complication to plant names. Measured doses of poisonous plants are commonly used in medicine. There is no medical proof that this particular plant is of any medical benefit.

Medicinal Plant Names

There are 220 largely Indian, non-scientific names applied to this same plant along with 27 scientific synonyms in Kew’s Medicinal Plant Names Services. Transparency and tracking of correct ingredients adds another layer of concern in the medical and pharmaceutical fields. Isn’t it time for the botanical, horticultural, medical and pharmaceutical worlds to work more closely together on consistent plant names and tracking?

It’s now time for some recognisably edible Solanum in my salad in preparation for Christmas overindulgence.

Edible Solanum lycopersicum in Tomato salad. © Karen Netto (Andrews)

References and Further Reading

Christenhusz, Maarten J. M., Fay, Michael F. & Chase, Mark W. (2017): Plants of the World. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Vascular Plants. pp.15 & 536-541.

Culham, Alastair (2017): #AdventBotany Day 1 Christmas Cherry or the not so false Jerusalem Cherry. Last accessed 5 December 2019.

Dauncey, Elizabeth A. (2010): Poisonous Plants. A guide for parents & childcare providers. Kew Publishing, Surrey, UK.

House Plants Expert (2013-19): Solanum capsicastrum. Winter Cherry. Last accessed 5 December 2019.

Kew Medicinal Plant Names Services (?): Withania somnifera. Last accessed 5 December 2019.

Knapp, Sandra (2002): Solanum Section Geminata (Solanaceae). Flora Neotropica Volume 84, 30 July 2002, pp. 1-404.

Knapp, Sandra (?): Solanum pseudocapsicum L. Solanaceae Source. Last accessed 5 December 2019.

RHS (2019): Solanum capsicastrum. False Jerusalem Cherry. Last accessed 5 January 2019.

RHS (2019): Solanum pseudocapsicum. Jerusalem Cherry. Last accessed 5 January 2019.

The Plant List 1.1 (2013): Solanum pseudocapsicum L. Kew. Last accessed 5 December 2019.

NB. I would have added links to the Natural History Museum’s records on these same species but kept getting the following message:

The requested service is temporarily unavailable. It is either overloaded or under maintenance. Please try later.

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