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Nightshades

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.

Available now

28 minutes

Last on

Mon 20 Jul 2015 21:00

Dr Sandy Knapp

Dr Sandy Knapp
Dr Sandra Knapp is Head of Plants Division at the Natural History Museum in London and a specialist on the taxonomy of the nightshade family, Solanaceae. The family includes the megadiverse genus Solanum which contains potatoes, tomatoes and eggplants and is one of the few flowering plant genera that contains more than 1,000 species.

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.

Xanthe Clay

Xanthe Clay
Xanthe Clay misspent her youth backpacking around Arabia, China and South America, eating and drinking her way through the good: mezze, ceviche and dim sum. The bad: camel tripe. And the downright dangerous: bootleg pisco sours.

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.

Twitter: @xantheclay

Joyce Frome

Joyce Frome
Joyce Froome is Assistant Curator at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall, which is home to a collection of over 2,500 objects representing all aspects of European magic.

She is also author of Wicked Enchantments: A History of the Pendle Witches and Their Magic.

Professor Michael Heinrich

Professor Michael Heinrich
Michael Heinrich is a Professor of Pharmacognosy and the head of the research cluster ‘Biodiversity and Medicines’ at the UCL School of Pharmacy.

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.

Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith
Andrew F. Smith teaches food studies at the New School in New York. He is also an author and editor and recently published Sugar: A Global History.

He serves as the editor for the “Edible Series” and the “Food Controversies Series” at Reaktion Books.

Twitter: @tomato1946

Alain Touwaide

Alain Touwaide
Alain Touwaide searches for ancient manuscripts and texts about medicinal plants in libraries all over the world. A Classicist he has spent his career in medical schools, colleges of pharmacy and faculties of science worldwide, and is currently the Scientific Director of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions.

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