Vegetables of the week: the Solanaceae Family
These guys and gals are the world over, and yet their botanic relationships and weird uncles and aunts are usually unknown.
The Solanaceae family of plants (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solanaceae) includes pretty much all the best stuff borrowed from the New World during the Columbian Exchange: potatoes, tobacco, chili and bell peppers (capsicum), tomatoes, eggplant, cape gooseberries (what we used to know as ‘wild passionfruit’ in Australia when I was little), and neo-wonderstuff goji berries. They also include such awesome things as the belladonna/deadly nightshade, well known to be really really poisonous. And it turns out that mandrakes are also part of the gang. Harry Potter should have clued me in on this, but it turns out that mandrakes have serious witchcraft uses: http://witchofforestgrove.com/2010/05/10/solanum/
It seems that like everything we eat from the New World except corn, the solanaceae come from South America. Except that the Romans apparently used it to poison one another, and at lower doses anesthetize one another for surgery, showing the fine line between life and death in Imperial societies. So maybe Solanaceae is not exclusively from where it is from?
But the food stuff and the tobacco all seem to be from the Americas. Imagine Ireland without potatoes, Italy without tomatoes, Thailand without chilis; that is the reality pre-1492. What a weird world!
According to the book 1491 (focussed on what was going down the year before Columbus arrived), potatoes, a food we now view as the everyman’s food, was once the food of the aristocracy. Poor people in mesoamerica ate corn, the upperclass were all about potatoes. So the arc of the moral universe, though long, does indeed bend towards justice!
Apperently the Great Potato Famine (and it seems like there were three concomitant famines in Ireland, Scotland and Europe at the time) happened because the genetic diversity of the potato crop, newly imported in the form of a few plants, was very low. In the Americas, the diverse crops of potatoes they grow increase the chances that some of the crop will resist and survive the mold onslaught. Interestingly, during the Irish Potato Famine, there is said to have been food rotting in the fields that starving people could not eat as it belonged to their colonial masters. In response to the humanitarian disaster, international aid was offered (is this the earliest instance of such a thing? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Famine_(Ireland)#Ottoman_aid). The Sultan of the Ottoman Empire offered a ton of money. The Queen in charge of oppressing Ireland at that stage asked him to send a pittance as she had sent only that much herself. He then ran food ships through a blockade she had set up to meet his charitable offering. Kind of like the Gaza Blockade 2010, just a lot slower. The Choctaw Republic, fresh off the Trail of Tears (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trail_of_tears), raised money to send to Ireland too, as they had only narrowly avoided dying from foreign oppression too.
Which goes to show how exciting a mix Imperial prerogatives and starvation can be, and how humans really do care about each other’s plight. Imagine an impoverished nation, broken and starved trying to help ease some other people’s suffering on the other side of the world in the 1850s! It is like Sudan saving up to give food to cold Martians in modern terms!
Solanaceae plants, while sometimes nutritious, and always delicious (!), are unfortunately laced with toxins. These alkaloids can be just a bit irritating to deadly in small quantities. They act by inhibiting the transmission of nervous messages, which does not always end well, but can be useful in medicine and for relaxation etc. Nicotine alkaloids tend to have the opposite effect, helping nervous transmission, which makes me feel better about speaking of the cigarette ‘buzz’ whenever I partake. The alkaloids can also make you hallucinate, which I guess is awesome if they don’t also kill you! And then there is my personal favourite chemical that comes from these plants, capsaicin. Capsaicin RULES! It helps digestion and cures stomach ulcers, it alleviates arthritis, and in a topical cream it helps with swollen and painful joints. Alas, nothing is without blemish; capsaicin is also the chemical in pepper spray, continuing the Solanaceae’s long dance with oppression.