Wild On The Prairie: Plants

The Solanaceae are well adapted to west Texas

Published Jul 14th 2002 in Plant Life

Dag-nab it, it has turned out to be another dry dry dry dry dry dry DRY spring. The pastures are full of dead bladderpod carcasses beginning to shatter in the incessant hot hot hot hot HOT wind. What is a wildflower nut to do? Geez!

Well, we end up in the bar-ditches, drainage ditches, and floodwater retention depressions. We walk along singing “we are the ditchmen” instead of the Beatles’ “I am The Walrus” lyrics.

On a recent traipse near our home south of town, we became fascinated by one particular family of plants (the second most common in the plant kingdom) of which we found eight members in bloom. I am referring, of course, to Solanaceae, which includes scary and infamous poison plants, some wonderful medicinal plants which are still used in surgical applications today, and some of our most favorite food crops.

Some members of the family contain powerful alkaloids. These chemicals assist the plants that contain them in their never-ending battle to protect themselves from herbivores. The more potent the brew of alkaloids present in the plant’s constituents, the fewer the species of pests that can safely ingest it. The most infamous member of the family is tobacco, but it also includes tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes.

If you have ever gardened in West Texas, you are familiar with “trompillo,” or Purple Nightshade. The blooms are oh-so-pretty blue stars with yellow stamens, and it produces a pretty green fruit that turns yellow and then dries black. Sounds nice? Not with long spiky, gnarly, poky, nasty, horrible spines up and down its stem, and a root that just keeps going down-down-down. It is nearly impossible to pull up, and when broken off, it sends two or three new shoots to the surface. Wait -- it gets worse! This demon is a shape-shifter that can make itself look just like any number of plants it grows next to. It is hated, vilified, yanked, sprayed, mowed, burned, stomped and cursed every day of every growing season, somewhere on the Llano Estacado.

Another Solanaceae we found is Datura. Atropine and scopolamine are two of its chemical constituents which have been used to produce surgical drugs. Although the concentration of these chemicals varies from plant to plant in response to such stresses as heat, wind, hummingbird moth caterpillar damage, and soil types, it should always be considered poisonous. Even so, it has been found to pull heavy metals from the soil and the government has done some experimental plantings of Datura in an effort to decontaminate soils that have been polluted with uranium and plutonium.

We also found a round-leafed groundcover that is often the only plant growing on bare soil slopes: the wild version of tomatillo. Everybody knows tomatillo – s_? Salsa verde con tomatillos may not be as popular here as in the Rio Grande Valley, pero la planta es muy importante to our multicultural heritage! It has yellow, bell-like flowers hanging beneath its leaves, which later develop into many-pointed, green, papery bladders that each contain a tiny replica of a green tomato. Doves, quail, meadowlarks, and bossy curve-billed thrashers harvest the majority of the fruit.

We found three members of a genus similar to Physalis, to which tomatillo belongs. Dr. Barton Warnock, who produced three wonderful plant identification books for west Texas in the early 1970s called theChamaesaracha “False Ground Cherry,” since tomatillo is also known as ground cherry. Deborah and I call it Saracha because we like to shorten long Latin names into sweeter sounding slang names. The three species are hard to tell apart. All of them have hairy leaves and hug the ground, so they are usually half-covered with small particles of sand clinging to their leaves. Instead of hanging down like the tomatillo, the pale yellow blossoms point straight up at the sky, bright, cheerful anomalies that seem to pop from a plant that otherwise looks dead from all the sand on it.

Along the ditch in tight, gravely soil, we found purple ground cherry, too. Quincula has potential for use as a landscape ground cover. Several Llaneros have attempted to decipher its horticultural needs.

The last member of the family we encountered was buffalo bur. The yellow, star-shaped flowers are pretty, but the plant is covered with spines. The leaves, stems, and fruit are all covered with spines, too – and who knows? Maybe the root is, too, but the heat of this ditch-trudge caused Deborah to declare that it was not worth testing that bit of hyperbole.

We did not find the brown-centered ground cherry, nor any Nicotiana. Wild tobacco grew in Midland County in the drought of the 1950s, during which my mom photographed it while documenting the flora and fauna of the county. We looked for it in every drought since then, but never found it again. Any time I find myself in an area with sandy, disturbed soil, I still look for it.

Next time you drive by a ditch, look for one these bizarre and wonderful members of the Solanaceae family. It is a lot more fun than dismissing what is seen with one glance and grimacing, “What a bunch of ugly weeds. Yuck.”