'Deadly nightshade' gained favor with Victorians

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Elizabeth Campbell

The nightshades are, in fact, primroses with a curse upon them. . .
John Ruskin, The Queen of the Air

Given the global appetite for French fries and pizza, many would consider the world a less tasty place if potatoes and tomatoes—members of the dread nightshade family—really were “flowers of evil.”

“The family comprises such Old World species as mandrake, belladonna, and henbane, notorious for their use as poisons, medicines, and hallucinogens and their long historical association with witchcraft,” said Elizabeth Campbell, Research Fellow and OSU associate professor of English. Her book, The Language of Nightshades: The Solanaceae in Victoria’s Garden, will trace nightshade’s history in literature and culture from the early modern period to the twentieth century, focusing on the ethnobotanical developments that culminated in the nineteenth century to transform European cultural opinion about this extraordinary family of plants.

“Belladonna’s common name, ‘deadly nightshade,’ and medieval name, Dwale, meaning something like ‘spell’ or ‘sleeping potion,’ accurately capture the family’s European reputation and the representation of it in certain early modern works,” Campbell said. These include the “so-called ‘Books of Secrets,’ such as Della Porta’s Magio naturalis, which gave recipes for witches’ flying ointments, as well as popular herbals like Gerard’s Herbal and General History of Plants, and Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician.”

The latter, first published in 1649, was reprinted as late as 1826 as a contemporary materia medica. Over the same period, said Campbell, the introduction, cultivation, and use of economically important New World Solanaceae were working to revolutionize the family’s reputation. The New World nightshades include such familiar edibles as potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes, as well as important ornamentals like petunias and datura.

Tobacco, in particular, has had a “vexed” and complex history.

“This most sacred plant of the Native Americans took Europe by fire, and is undoubtedly still the most popular, widely available, legal narcotic. From the Early Modern period on, no other plant family has had such a dramatic impact on European economy and culture.”

The various ways in which the Solanaceae enter into Victorian cultural discourse is an important chapter in the field of ethnobotany, said Campbell.

“I am particularly interested in the way this change in the cultural view of the Solanaceae becomes legible in what Beverly Seaton in her history of the subject, The Language of Flowers, refers to as ‘sentimental botany’—all those works that focused on the symbolic, mythic, and or/romantic, rather than the strictly scientific, representations of plants and flowers.”

The omnipresence of decorative plants, cut flowers, flower albums, floral ornamentation, plus flowers as a subject in poetry, fiction and painting reached a zenith during the Victorian era.

“This widespread sentimentalizing of flowers was, of course, not new, but it had been given a huge boost by mid-eighteenth century science with Linnaeus’s sexual system of botanical classification, which tended to reinforce a much older symbolic association of flowers with women. . . Given the penchant of Victorian culture to sentimentalize and to anthropomorphize plants despite, or perhaps because of, the period’s increasingly scientific world view, it is not surprising to discover that the Solanaceae occupy an unstable place in nineteenth-century discourse.

“My research has been to locate the places that the Solanaceae occupy in the various discourses up to and through ‘Darwin’s Century,’ to discover what patterns of reference occur, and finally, to determine what the idea of a ‘Nightshade Family’ meant to the Victorians.”