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

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


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