On Potatos and Poisons

What do foods such as potatoes and tomatoes have in common with cigarettes, pretty (Italian) women and various toxic drugs? They are all members of or derived from the same family of plants called Solanaceae. [sole-ah -nay-see-ee]

These plants are found around the world. The new world contributed edible potatoes, tomatoes, and chili peppers whereas eggplants are from the old world, specifically India. It is hard to imagine what Italians put on their pasta or what fed the Irish before the Colombian Exchange, a term used to denote the world wide trade in goods which developed after the globe was united in trade following Columbus’ discovery of the new world.

Solanaceae contributes in addition to valuable foodstuffs, numerous toxic plants including what is arguably the most toxic plant on earth- tobacco. The active ingredient is nicotine which is both additive and toxic. Fifteen percent of the world’s population and close to a third of all adults use tobacco. The World Health Organization calls tobacco addiction the leading preventable cause of death worldwide, killing over five million people a year.

One of the more interesting members of Solanaceae is Atropa Belladonna, also called Deadly Nightshade. The genus name Atropa comes from the name of one of the three fates of Greek mythology. Atropos would end the existence of mortals by “cutting the thread of life”, an obvious reference to the lethality of the plant. These and other members of Solanaceae contain Tropane alkaloids which interfere with nervous transmission. This property has been taken advantage of as both an agent of murder and as useful medicinal agents.

An integral part of an Ophthalmic exam (eye exam) involves putting drops of an Atropine solution in the eye. Today derivatives of Atropine with a much shorter duration of action are used, but I digress. Here’s where the Belladonna part comes in. Bella donna means beautiful woman in Italian. As early as the middle ages, women would use a tincture (dilute alcohol solution) of the plant to dilate their pupils, thus producing a more beautiful appearance.

Studies have shown that photographs of women retouched to enlarge the pupils are viewed as more attractive than photographs of women with smaller pupils. Not surprisingly, The rather racy slang “bedroom eyes” has the same origin. The opposite seems true. “Beady eyes” or small pupils is a pejorative term.

And while I’m on pupil size, I should mention that human infants have very large pupils. It is said that this is due to the underdeveloped musculature necessary to constrict the pupils. But is it underdeveloped eye muscles or an evolutionary adaption of the infant to be viewed as more attractive?

An eye can threaten like a loaded and levelled gun, or it can insult like hissing or kicking; or, in its altered mood, by beams of kindness, it can make the heart dance for joy.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

From bedroom eyes to boiled potatoes and eye exams to eggplant parmigiana , its about Solanaceae.

Originally published in the Russellville Courier, January 1, 2012

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