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Family Resemblance

The Many Faces of Solanums


datura.jpgIn some families, members all look alike. There’s no mistaking who’s related to whom. Yet, in other families, each individual may have some of the subtle cues to a common ancestor, but still be quite different from its kin. This is true in plant families just as it is in humans. Once you have the basic architecture of a rose flower in your mind, you will recognize the flowers of pyracanthas, pears, and plums as just miniature versions of a species rose. The tomato family (solanaceae), though, is one that sports a wide variety of floral forms. Many of them are very ornamental and bear little resemblance to the plant that supplies us with juicy fruit for our salads.

The edible relatives such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and potatoes all have small starry white flowers with yellow stamens, but some of the others have large, showy flowers that only a botanist would recognize as belonging in the solanaceae. It’s also somewhat interesting to note that many of these are also quite toxic, if not deadly. Hallucinogenic compounds have led to many poisonings by uninformed partakers of Datura, and the narcotic alkaloids in tobacco (Nicotiana) are addictive in small doses, lethal in large ones. In spite of these potentially harmful compounds, both these genera have been cultivated for their beautiful, and often fragrant, flowers.

Most shrubby species once known as Datura are now included in the genus Brugmansia. A few cultivars of D. metel are grown as annuals for their large, tubular flowers. The true species and cultivars of Brugmansia, also known as angel’s trumpet, grow to be stunning large shrubs or small trees. Most bloom through the warm months with large, trumpet-shaped flowers that are hauntingly fragrant at night. B. candida has single or double white flowers, B. versicolor are white or peach-colored, but the many hybrids and selections come in shades from yellow through bubblegum pink. The less well-known B. sanguinea has smaller trumpets that are orangey red with yellow streaks.

Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) is grown for its leaves, of course, but N. alata, also night blooming and fragrant like the brugmansias, has been developed from its natural form with white flowers to many other cultivars and hybrids in a rainbow of colors. Most of them sport narrow tubular flowers that flare at the end to five pointed lobes. Most are fragrant to one degree or another and provide interest both day and night. For the biggest and most fragrant, plant the cultivar ‘Grandiflora.’

One common garden plant that has been hybridized extensively is Petunia X hybrida. All have wide-flaring, funnel-shaped flowers, although many of them have been developed to have multiple layers of petals. There are Grandifloras with very large flowers (4-5 inches across) and Multifloras with more petite blossoms (up to 2 inches in diameter). To confuse matters, these two types also come in F1 and F2 strains. The former are produced by hand pollinating selected types and produce more uniform plants and flowers than their open-pollinated F2 offspring. Petunias have become something of a cliché, but the wide variety available means there is something for everyone in this group. From gaudy pinks, reds, and purples to pale and seductive lavender and pristine white, there are also lots with contrasting or complimentary stripes.

Almost everyone also knows Lycianthes rantonnei. Garden guides call it Paraguay nightshade, but I’ve not heard this used locally. You may know it by an older name, Solanum rantonettii, though. This shrub sports a profusion of purple flowers that look like miniature petunias. It can be allowed to sprawl to about 8 feet or trained as a standard. There is a smaller selection called ‘Royal Robe’ that has deeper purple flowers.

Two other commonly encountered ornamental members of this family belong to the genera Brunfelsia and Cestrum. B. pauciflora is known as yesterday-today-and-tomorrow because its purple flowers change throughout their short life to lavender and then white. Since they occur profusely all over the shrub in all stages and thus colors, they have been beloved additions to gardens for generations. Several species of Cestrum also make great shrubby additions to the garden. One, night jessamine (C. nocturnum) is prized for its sweetly fragrant, night-blooming flowers. They are quite tiny and inconspicuous, but planted at the back of the border the evergreen shrub can form a backdrop to the garden and lend its fragrance to those balmy summer evenings. Also sweetly scented, but not as tidy as the willow-leafed jessamine, is C. parqui. The other two species that are widely available are orange cestrum (C. aurantiacum) and red cestrum (C. elegans). Both have bunches of narrow tubular flowers that are attractive to hummingbirds. The purplish-red flowers of red cestrum give way to red berries that are also handsome. A cultivar, C. elegans ‘Smithii’ has pink flowers. All grow to about 10 feet in height. There are a few more garden-worthy tomato relatives. Marmalade bush (Streptosolen jamesonii) is still relatively unknown, but deserving of mention. It can reach 6 feet in height, but needs some pruning to keep it in shape. There are selections with flowers from yellow to brilliant orange that bloom profusely in bright spots. The cup of gold vine (Solandra maxima) is a vigorous woody vine that has huge cup-shaped flowers with re-curved edges. They are a golden yellow with brownish purple stripes radiating from the center. It will clamber to 40 feet with sturdy support. Its large, glossy leaves are evergreen so it is handsome even when not in bloom. Potato vine (Solanum jasminoides) is a much more delicate vine. It twines quickly to about 30 feet. It blooms nearly year ’round with small white flowers. Hard shearing will encourage new growth and flowering if it becomes too tangled.

Fragrant shrubs, colorful annuals, and interesting and useful vines — all these varied members of the tomato family add interest to your garden. And then there are the tasty ones, but that is a subject for another day.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to vahayes@lotusland.org.

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