Brett Westwood explores a group of plants that have entered human culture through food, medicine, drugs and love.
It is hard to think of a more diverse and wonderful group of plants. They enchant us, poison us, make us feel sexy, give us hallucinations, heal us and feed us.
The screaming mandrakes in Harry Potter and the shamanistic dreams of tribal elders eating giant trumpet flowers testify to the magical powers of this group.
Its culinary properties enhance the ever intricate flavours of modern cuisine while its fatal attractions have been used by murderers, most famously Dr Crippen.
This is the group that contains mandrake, potatoes, chillies, aubergines, deadly nightshade and tomatoes. These are the plants that have entered our culture through food and medicine, drugs and love.
It is strange that the European plants in the group are mainly poisonous yet those that grow in the New World are often spicy and enriching.
Fearing anything that looked like nightshade the first plants that were brought here from the New World were regarded with suspicion, yet quickly we adopted them, so much so that it is impossible to conceive of Italian food without tomatoes or Friday night fish and chips, yet they are aliens in a strange land. We have a lot to thank this group for.
It soothed us before anaesthetics, sent our imaginations flying and tempted us with alluring flavours - and they are still pushing the frontiers of both medicine and food today.
Dr Sandy Knapp
She began working at the Natural History Museum in 1992 and has described more than 75 new species of plants. She is the author of several popular books on the history of science and botanical exploration, including the award-winning Potted Histories.
In 2009 she was honoured by the Peter Raven Outreach Award by the American Society of Plant Taxonomists and the UK National Biodiversity Network’s John Burnett Medal.
Back in the UK, she worked as a bookseller specialising in cookery books, and when the bookshop chain folded she spent her redundancy money training to be a chef. She worked as a chef and caterer in the West Country before starting the Readers’ Recipe column for The Telegraph. Since then she has worked on both food and cookery features for Weekend Telegraph.
She is also author of Wicked Enchantments: A History of the Pendle Witches and Their Magic.
Professor Michael Heinrich
Professor Heinrich has many years of research experience in a multitude of transdisciplinary aspects of medicinal and food plant research, as well as at the interface of cultural and natural sciences. He is Editor in Chief of Frontiers in Ethnopharmacology as well as Reviews Editor of the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.