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Desert Diary


The Solanaceae, or nightshade family, of plants is well represented in the Chihuahuan Desert Region. Among other desert natives, it includes tobacco, Jimson weed, wolfberry, and nightshades. Relatives include a number of important domestic crops. Examples are potato, tomato, and various peppers and chiles. Many of the family's members are poisonous, including our own Jimson weed, or sacred datura.

Of the harmful types, though, fame has to go to a European species of the family: Atropa belladonna, better known in everyday life simply as belladonna. There are several versions as to the source of its name. Some think Roman priests drank it in honor of Bellona, goddess of war. However, since belladonna in Italian means beautiful lady, the most widely accepted is based on its past use by Italian women to enlarge the pupils of the eyes for a unique soulful look sure to melt the heart of potential suitors. Perhaps they were playing with fire in more than one way, though. Belladonna contains the powerful alkaloid atropine, poisonous in more than the most carefully regulated dose.
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Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, Centennial Museum, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

thumbnail of Desert Tobacco

Blossoms and seed capsules of Desert Tobacco, a Chihuahuan Desert member of the nightshade family. Photograph by A.H. Harris of specimen in the Chihuahuan Desert Gardens, Centennial Museum.



Web Resources

Botanical.com: Belladonna