In his 1993 collection Sweetapple Earth (Carcanet), the late John Heath-Stubbs includes a sequence of eleven poems he collectively titles “Botanical Happy Families.” Among them is “Solanaceae,” sometimes under-described as the “potato family” or “nightshade family,” representing some three-thousand toothsome and toxic species. Like the human family, it contains members who sustain us and others less wholesome:
“Falstaff thought potatoes aphrodisiac;
Tomatoes were called love-apples once.
Familiar and chaste enough,
They’re now in every sandwich, every salad.
We also welcome to our tables—
Although a bit exotic still—the aubergine,
The pimento, the chili pepper (Becky Sharp
Found its name misleading, you’ll recall).
“But in the shadows stand
Sinister enchantresses, as belladonna,
Dulcimara, with the screaming mandrake,
Datura, bringing death or visions.
"And there’s a false friend too,
And that’s tobacco.”
Solanaceae merits forty-five pages in George E. Burrows and Ronald J. Tyrl’s 1,342-page Toxic Plants of North America (Iowa State University Press, 2001). They write:
“The medicinal, hallucinogenic, and poisonous properties of Solanaceae have long been known and used by humans. Indeed, almost mystical qualities have been attributed to the family.”
Heath-Stubbs leaves out petunias and henbane but manages to pack ten species into fourteen lines. Shakespeare cites potatoes twice, though Heath-Stubbs mentions only his first usage. In The Merry Wives of Windsor (Act IV, Scene 5), Falstaff, in a passage that contains another botanical allusion (Apiaceae family), says:
“My doe with the black scut! Let the sky rain
potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of Green
Sleeves, hail kissing-comfits and snow eringoes; let
there come a tempest of provocation, I will shelter me here.”
The mention, of course, is anachronistic. Potatoes are a New World plant, unknown to Europeans in the time of Henry IV. The same is true in Shakespeare’s other reference to the tuber, in Troilus and Cressida (Act V, Scene 2), in which Thersites says--
“How the devil Luxury, with his fat rump and
potato-finger, tickles these together! Fry, lechery, fry!”
--suggesting Shakespeare discovered French fries. “Love-apples” comes straight from the French pomme d'amour, also prized for its reputed libido-boosting qualities. “Aubergine” is the fruit of the egg-plant, as well as the deep purple of its skin. In Chapter IV, “The Greek Silk Purse,” of Vanity Fair, Thackeray has Becky Sharp exclaim: “Yes; how could you be so cruel as to make me eat that horrid pepper-dish at dinner, the first day I ever saw you? You are not so good to me as dear Amelia.”
The rest are poison, though not without allure. I remember a poem I’ve seen only in The Poet’s Tongue, a marvelous anthology compiled by W.H. Auden and John Garrett, and published in 1935. The author is identified as Michael East and the poem is said to date from around 1600:
“O metaphysical Tobacco,
Fetched as far as from Morocco,
Thy searching fume,
Exhales the rheum,
O metaphysical Tobacco.”