Virginia Nature Journal for August

Cottage gardens were at one time part of the domestic economy, but now they’re mostly recreational. Like horse-riding, boating, fishing, target-shooting, and racing of various kinds, gardening has evolved from an occupation to a passion.

Last stanza of The Garden by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)

Besides the advantages of growing-your-own food, gardeners generally enjoy the reputation of being gentlefolk who are famously generous with advice, produce, and quite a few myths—like the Facebook fallacy that bell peppers with three bumps are female and those with four are male.bell pepper

Thomas Jefferson made gardening in Virginia sound like a noble pursuit: “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.” But gardening in Virginia is a struggle with soil (too much clay or sand) and climate (too hot or too wet or too cold by turns). A watering system saved our cornucopia of green, red, and purple vegetables in the raised beds during the baking heat and semi-drought of August, but, as Hurricane Joaquin draws up the Atlantic freeway, the remainder of the crop will likely be drowned or ripped out of the ground by its roots. Gardeners have to be many things, including philosophical!

Veggies-fruit from garden-smallA crowning crop for August includes tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant (“aubergines” if you prefer), and potatoes (if you bother). Staggered planting extends the harvest, with the surplus stored in the freezer or laid out on neighbors’ doorsteps as decorative surprises. Harvesting these vegetables (botanically speaking they are fruits) is not the only reward, because gardeners love watching the annual miracle of seeds and seedlings growing to maturity.

It hardly ever pays for the trouble of growing-you-own, except perhaps for flavor and the knowledge of what the crop has not been exposed to. And perhaps the crop of nightshades is healthier than from the grocery store.

Nightshades! Yikes! Yes, the main crop of vegetables (fruits) belongs to the Solanaceae or nightshade family. Apart from grain crops, it’s the family that provides staples for our diet, and is ubiquitous in meals at home and in restaurants.

“But nightshades are poisonous.” That’s how they were regarded when they were first brought back to Europe from Peru. Native European nightshades were used in witchcraft to create hallucinations, and even mandrakes with an ancient reputation as aphrodisiacs didn’t salve their reputation. Tomatoes were particularly feared as “poison apples.”

Shakespeare was no botanist, but knowing about nightshades he bumped off Hamlet’s father with hebenon, which might have been henbane, a nightshade.


The ghost of Hamlet's father
The ghost of Hamlet’s father

Nightshades contain solanine and other toxic alkaloids, such as nicotine in tobacco. These compounds deter pests from eating the plant and its fruit. Potatoes exposed to light turn green for danger, not that chlorophyll is harmful of course, but the color is a sign that more solanine is present. It’s good advice to avoid green spuds, although legal history has yet to record them in murder or suicide, and the Attack of the Green Tomatoes is just another Terminator movie.

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By Roger Gosden

A British and American scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology whose career spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. He married Lucinda Veeck, the embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. They retired to Virginia, where he became a master naturalist and writer affiliated with William & Mary.

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