When you think of nightshades, you likely think of potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. But tomatillos and ground cherries are part of the same plant group, and they yield delicious, healthy fruit that’s perfect for cooking, baking, and preserving. And did you know that there are many ornamental nightshades? Let’s look at a few interesting nightshades — some edible and some ornamental — that may deserve a place in your garden.
Commonly known as “bush violet” or “amethyst flower,” Browallia speciosa is a shade-loving annual (to Zone 10) with white, blue, or purple star-shaped flowers that last from midsummer through early autumn. B. speciosa (see photo, above) has dark-green foliage and a tidy mounding habit, reaching a height of 1 to 2 feet, with a spread of 6 inches to 1 foot.
B. speciosa is a hummingbird attractant, and although it’s native to South America and the Caribbean, it fares best in partial or full shade. It can be successfully overwintered as a houseplant in a location with indirect light. Keep the soil moist, but be careful not to overwater. Occasionally, pinch back a few stems to help promote a dense, bushy appearance.
B. speciosa is occasionally bothered by aphids. Gently remove any aphids from stems and leaves using a damp, soft cloth or gardening gloves. Alternatively, repeated blasts of water from a garden hose may dislodge the creatures. Remember to rotate all nightshades from year to year to discourage pests and diseases.
Datura used to be combined with Brugmansia, and some species of both genera share the common name “angel’s trumpet.” D. inoxia and D. metel are favorite shrublike annuals in Zone 9 or colder, much prized because of their showy, trumpetlike white, purple, or yellow blooms. Some cultivars have been developed with double blooms as well. D. inoxia can reach a height of approximately 3 feet, with a similar spread. D. metel reaches a height and spread of 4 feet.
Datura is native to Central America, Mexico, and some parts of Asia, and prefers heat and full sun. The sweetly fragrant flowers tend to open at night, and are commonly pollinated by sphinx moths as well as bees. Their serrated leaves release a toxic, stinky sap when bruised. Spiny, round fruits encapsulating the seeds appear after the blooming period, which lasts from midsummer to late autumn.
Datura can adapt to a wide range of soils, but prefers well-drained loam. Direct-sow Datura seeds as soon as the ground can be worked in spring, or start seeds early indoors and maintain even, consistent moisture for optimal blooms.
Bear in mind that Datura is extremely poisonous, and your state may actually prohibit its cultivation. Check state laws before you purchase seeds or starts.
Nicotiana, commonly called “flowering tobacco,” is related to true tobacco, but it’s valued for its attractive flowers. This native of Argentina and Brazil is treated as an annual or tender perennial in most parts of North America. Fast-growing, showy, and often highly scented, this is a winner in-ground or in containers. One of the most common species is N. sylvestris, which grows to a height of 5 feet and may require staking in wind-exposed areas. Its white, trumpet-shaped flowers are borne on clusters of long stems that emerge from a central stalk. Although the flowers are self-pollinating, they’re attractive to sphinx moths and bees. N. alata is another well-known tall species, with white or yellow-green flowers. There are also many different cultivars of Nicotiana, in almost every color, and many are compact enough for container growing, although the smaller cultivars are less fragrant than the species plants.
Grow Nicotiana in a sunny location with well-drained, fertile soil amended with compost. Keep plants consistently watered to encourage blooms all summer. Direct-sow seeds in warm soil, or start the plants indoors prior to planting out in spring. The seeds need light to germinate and can take up to three weeks to sprout. Nicotiana is easy to care for and has minimal pest issues. Deadhead spent blooms to promote a tidy appearance.
Annual to Zone 11, Salpiglossis, commonly called “painted tongue,” is a compact plant (about 3 feet tall, with a spread of 1-1/2 feet) with brilliantly colored, funnel-like blooms that range in shades of red, orange, yellow, bronze, and purple, often with “painted” striping within the petals. Based on its appearance, you may think this Central and South American native is tropical and sun-loving, but it actually performs better in partial shade in hot summers and requires consistently moist soils. The plants tend to bloom longer in cool sites. Salpiglossis is ideal for containers and hanging baskets, and for in-ground annual borders. It’s highly desirable to butterflies and makes good cut flowers.
Salpiglossis is generally easy to care for, provided you site it properly and don’t allow it to dry out too much between waterings. Careful application of water is key, as too much can promote mold and rot. Aphids can occasionally cause problems, but they’re easily dispatched.
Another exquisitely colored annual (to Zone 11), Schizanthus pinnatus, also called “butterfly flower” or “poor man’s orchid,” is a native of Chile and Argentina. White, red, purple, pink, or yellow flowers (often featuring a yellow throat) appear in early spring and usually last into midsummer. S. pinnatus doesn’t perform well in heat, so blooms may fade early when temperatures rise. Beautiful fernlike foliage adds to the appeal of S. pinnatus; it’s also much loved by butterflies.
Site S. pinnatus in a part-shade location for optimum blooms. Consistent, even moisture is important to maintain long-term flowering. This annual may be successfully overwintered as a houseplant if kept out of direct sunlight. Like Salpiglossis, S. pinnatus is an excellent candidate for a cut flower garden, or for being used in hanging baskets and containers.
Calibrachoa species are popular, show-stopping annuals. Extensive breeding has yielded cultivars with blooms in every color but blue, with yellowish-green throats and margins.
Sturdy and wind-resistant, Calibrachoa sports a tidy, compact growth habit and abundant tubular flowers. For longer-lasting blooms, keep Calibrachoa out of hot sites where sunlight can scorch the flowers or cause them to lose their striking hues. Although Calibrachoa is relatively drought-tolerant, water the plants regularly for best performance. Add a water-soluble fertilizer formulated for flowering plants at two-week intervals through the growing season to boost this heavy feeder.
Long-lasting blooms and versatility are signatures of petunias (Petunia spp.). Many gardeners use them every year in annual borders and mixed beds, and in pots and baskets. Gardeners don’t tend to grow species petunias any longer, as such a huge variety of hybrids with single and double blooms exist on the market. Grandiflora types have blooms up to 4 inches across; multiflora petunias have more and smaller blooms; and spreading petunias make excellent fillers for containers. Petunias bloom in every shade, stripe, and spot of pink, white, cream, purple, red, and even green-yellow and near-black.
Petunias are a bit less drought-tolerant and wind-resistant than Calibrachoa, so site them out of blazing heat and offer regular, consistent moisture and fertilizer to promote a lengthy blooming period. Deadhead to maintain an appealing aesthetic.
Ground cherries (Physalis pruinosa and P. peruviana) are related to tomatillos (P. philadelphica), as well as Chinese lanterns (P. alkekengi) commonly used in autumn décor. They have edible, orange, berrylike fruit encased in papery husks. Sow them in early spring, as soon as the ground can be worked, and water and fertilize regularly for the entire growing season. The fruit may be harvested in late autumn, when the berries drop to the ground still wrapped in their husks, until frost.
In cold climates, plants are best started 6 to 8 weeks before the final frost date and planted out once the soil is warm, at the same time as tomatoes and peppers. Don’t forget to harden them off first!
Ground cherries grow best in full sun — and they love heat. Cool, wet weather and insufficient air circulation promote mold and mildew.
The fruit is sweet, vaguely reminiscent of pineapple, and delicious in both baking and savory dishes. (See recipe, to make a salsa that incorporates ground cherries.)
Tomatillos (Physalis philadelphica) are another nightshade with edible fruit encapsulated in a crêpelike husk. Much like tomatoes and ground cherries, tomatillos can’t tolerate chilly soils or cold temperatures. In climates with short growing seasons, start plants indoors eight weeks before the final frost date. These sun-lovers need consistent water and fertilizer to produce bountiful fruit. Bear in mind that too much nitrogen will cause the plants to put out lush green foliage and little fruit.
Tomatillos are large, bushy plants that usually require staking or caging to keep them sturdy and upright, especially in windy, exposed conditions. Watch for slugs, and handpick and destroy them if spotted.
The green, round fruit of tomatillos will plump up the husk in time for harvesting. The fruits will last longer if kept in the husk until use. (See recipe, below, to use tomatillos in a sauce.)
Ground-cherry, Peach, and Tomato Salsa
For more depth of flavor in this salsa, you can roast the tomatoes. To do this, cut tomatoes in half and remove seeds. Place tomatoes cut side down on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Broil for about 5 minutes. The skins should blacken a bit. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Remove skins, and use flesh in the salsa. You can reserve skins for future use in a stew or chili! Yield: 4 servings.
- 1 cup whole ground cherries, husks removed
- 2 large ripe peaches, peeled and pitted
- 2 medium shallots, peeled and chopped
- 2 large tomatoes, roasted
- Juice of 1 small lime
- 1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
- 1 jalapeño, seeds removed, chopped (optional)
- Pinch of salt
Combine all ingredients in a food processor, and pulse until blended. You can make this as smooth or as chunky as you’d like. Serve salsa with corn chips or crackers.
Scrambled Eggs with Tomatillo Sauce
Breakfast shouldn’t be boring! Try these kicked-up scrambled eggs rolled up in a soft tortilla, or alongside proteins, such as tofu or sliced ham. You can add a finely minced garlic clove to this recipe alongside the tomatillos, shallots, and jalapeño, if desired. Yield: 3 servings.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 cup finely chopped tomatillos, husks removed
- 2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 jalapeño, seeds removed, finely chopped (optional)
- Juice of 1/2 lime
- Pinch of salt
- 6 eggs
- 1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped (for garnish)
Heat olive oil in a large skillet, and then add tomatillos, shallots, jalapeño, lime juice, and salt. Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until flavors combine and tomatillos and shallots soften. Add eggs and cook, stirring frequently, until eggs are just set. Plate and top with fresh cilantro.
Note: If you prefer a smooth sauce, combine the tomatillos, shallots, jalapeño, lime juice, and salt in a food processor and blend before pouring ingredients into heated skillet.
Sheryl Normandeau is a Master Gardener and writer from Calgary, Alberta. She’s the coauthor of the series Guides for the Prairie Gardener. Read more about her pursuits on her blog, Flowery Prose.
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