Journal Mobile

MR Lee
Journal Issue: 
Volume 36: Issue 2: 2006




The  plant  family  Solanaceae  contains  important  foodstuffs  such  as  the potato, tomato and aubergine, together with powerful poisons including mandrake, henbane and deadly nightshade. In the first article in this short series on the family, the history and importance of the potato are described.  It was first cultivated by the  Inca  people  in  the  altiplano  of  the  Andes  in  prehistoric  times.  Then  it  was translocated to Europe by the Spanish invaders. Originally reviled as ‘peasant food’, it was regarded with great suspicion as an evil plant and a potential cause of leprosy. Over several centuries it gradually became established throughout Britain, France and  the  continent, and  in  particular  in  Ireland, where  its  growth  allowed  the population  to  expand  very  rapidly  between  1750  and  1850.   In  the  late  1840s, nemesis arrived in the form of the potato blight and the Irish famine. The ‘tatties’ went black, a great hunger ensued and thousands died.  Later, the causative fungus was isolated and steps were taken to avoid further similar disasters. It is not generally appreciated that potatoes can be poisonous if they are turning green or sprouting (chitting). The tuber is then producing toxic quantities of the alkaloid α-solanine. The clinical syndrome of potato poisoning is described briefly