Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Nightshade Family (and a Little Surprise)

We had begun this plant family study when Barbara introduced the September Challenge on Weeds, Seeds and Other Delights. What timing!

We are having such a successful time studying birds family by family, that we decided to do the same with plants. And we have so many "cousins" in this family, right in our vegetable garden: tomato, potato, pepper, eggplant, the rogue tomatillo from years gone by. Also our little petunia basket.


The Nightshade family (Solanaceae)

Our garden has quite a few members of the nightshade family. It is a nice family to study for nature study, as it originated here in the Western Hemisphere (although its ancestors didn't resemble most of our common garden varieties now).


I have this thing about books about gardening. I usually go through periods of bringing home armloads from the library, followed by more restrained times where I bring home some chapter books. All through the summer, we read a great number of books about vegetable and flower gardening. Here are some favorites (from this summer and previous years):

In Enzo's Splendid Garden, by Patricia Polacco (anything by Patricia Polacco is terrific)
The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett (good connection to history)
Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney (so many Maine connections for us)
The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein (this book always made my boys cry...)

There are so many... You can get so much mileage out of the ones above, because the characters are so delightful. Lots of life lessons.

We also took the time this summer to study Genesis 1 and 2, to learn about the Garden of Eden, when we began our series of read-alouds about gardens.



We started our notebooking with a colored sketch of our common nightshade, which tumbles along our back fence behind the wildflower garden. We had fun sketching together. I found that my son did a nicer job with his detail when I sketched along with him. And I enjoyed myself too -- how often do we stop to spend that time with one another, just BEING?

 We noticed as we sketched that we had a hitchhiker, who we will talk about later...

We found a diagram of a potato plant  that we studied and colored. We wanted one that was more like a diagram, and not cartoony.

We used a number of blank notebooking pages from the Notebooking Treasury, because we did a lot of sketching of the nightshade plants and other "cousins".

Here are some other places for notebooking pages on these plants:

The Outdoor Hour Challenge Crop Plant Challenges Notebook Pages include pages for a number of common vegetable garden plants, including tomato. Here is a link to a sample.

Homeschool Notebooking has free pages for download, on many topics.

Enchanted Learning has so many pages, diagrams, mini-books and activities, that you are bound to find something to include in your notebook. My little guy doesn't always like to sketch, but he enjoys diagrams, so this is a good place to go for things to add to your drawings.



Background Information:

The Handbook of Nature Study has several pages (pp. 582-584) about the petunia, the flowery cousin to the common nightshade and its vegetable friends. Petunias are nice to use to study the flower structure of the nightshade family, as the flower parts are big.

Here is a case where there isn't a lot that can substitute for just going out and working in the garden. Even in the years when the garden doesn't do well, we always learn something new and get a refreshed spirit from working with seeds and soil.

If you didn't have a vegetable garden this year, think of putting even a container garden in next year.

Lesson Ideas and Links:

1. Grow a Vegetable Garden

We spent a lot of time gardening while we studied this plant family. We learned about how common nightshade is poisonous, while the other cousins in our garden are not. As we gardened, we compared the flowers, and talked about how botanists use the flowers to identify a plant.

We have about a zillion cherry tomatoes, and they are so much better than the store ones! Two of our four kids don't like tomatoes, but the other two love them. We also have plum tomatoes, some big, meaty, pink-fleshed ones, and, of course, Brandywines. We picked a bunch before Hurricane Irene, just in case, but the plants did well, even thought the heirlooms have climbed far out of their cages. 

We had started digging potatoes just before the hurricane, and I'm sure that we have a ton of them -- if it can just stop raining! Our soil was already quite wet before Irene, and I think we've only had 2 or 3 days without rain since she passed through our way. I just walked the dog, and the ground sounds like a sponge. At any rate, the first potatoes were delicious for breakfast,  so we're looking forward to the rest.

Malik planted some potatoes in his little garden, too. He found digging potatoes to be fun but tiring.

I planted the cutest little eggplants this year. I am the only one who likes eggplant in the house, but I think the flowers are beautiful. Don't you? Like our nightshade flowers, on vitamins.

The ones I planted have little fruit (about 3" long), which are purple and white striped. We had to fight the squirrels for the fruit this year. Last year, they would wait until the fruit were just beginning to look like eggplants, then they would strip the branches off! GRRRR!

This year, they started, but our cats spent their first summer outside since they were born, and I think that discouraged the squirrels enough to let the eggplants have a fighting chance. I think we are doing well!

I am amazed at how resilient eggplants are. We have had one of the wackiest summers that I can remember -- about two weeks of near 100 degree, humid weather, followed by a cold spell, followed by tropical, followed by hurricane... And they keep coming!

We have not seen any potato beetles on any of our nightshade family plants this year. Last year there were a few on the eggplants, but I picked them off by hand once, and that did the trick. A few holes on the potatoes, but that's it.


Our hot peppers were not nearly as resilient as the eggplants, potatoes and tomatoes. It's always tricky, timing the planting. Peppers don't like being cold. And it seems like they never really recover from being set out when the soil is too cold. My plants are small. The peppers are tasty, but there could be more of them. Next year, we'll wait, then we'll plant more.

If you want a great hot pepper for your garden, grow Hot Lemon Peppers. They are pretty, bright lemon yellow, and produce a ton of peppers that are about 3 inches long. I'm not sure why, but no vendors had them available this year. It must have been a bad seed year last year. At any rate, if you are seed catalog shopping this winter, and see them for sale, buy them (we usually buy plants). You'll be pleased.


If you want to do a nice botany study, the nightshade family makes a nice choice, since there are so many members that you can find at your local garden center. Plus, you get to eat the results of your study!  In these two photos, you can see how the shape of the potato leaves is very similar to the shape of the common nightshade leaves, below. But the habit of the nightshade (almost vine-like) is more like the old-fashioned tomatoes that we have in the garden.

For older children, slicing the fruits lengthwise (stem end to flower end) and sketching the arrangement of the seeds would be a very beneficial botanical study. You will need a hand lens to compare the fruit of the common nightshade. Did you know that all the fruits are berries?

I wanted to find the strange nightshade weed cousin, Jimson-weed, to add to our studies, but have not found any in the vacant lots on our walks. I will have to check by the railroad tracks. When I've found Jimson-weed before, it was in a grassy, overgrown second growth meadow.  The fruits of Jimson-weed are prickly. Jimson-weed, like nightshade, is poisonous.

When I was a little girl, we called the bright red fruits of nightshade "poison berries." I read in one source that 200 of these would be enough to kill a grown man.

2. Make a Plant Press

Before the hurricane, we built a simple plant press, following the directions in Barbara McCoy's blog post, "How to Make a Plant Press."  We will continue with our plant press project after things dry out a little bit!


3. Learn Some Scientific Names

My son enjoys the scientific names for the plants and animals we study. For more information on Latin binomials and binomial nomenclature, see my article, "Animal, Vegetable or Mineral? Scientific Names and the Natural World."


4. Practice Penmanship

When we first started homeschooling last fall, we struggled with our little guy's handwriting. He had learned so many bad handwriting habits, and it took a lot of practice (and holding the bar high) to get things back in shape. Charlotte Mason would say of copywork and penmanship, "Accept only excellence."

We use our vocabulary sometimes as a source for copywork. This is what we did with our nightshade family plant names.

Because Malik is in third grade, we practice manuscript several times a week, but we also work on cursive.

As a teacher, I always introduced the letters in the order of ease of creating them: the "loop" letters first -- e, l; then the closed loop letters -- i, t, u, w (a little trickier).  We only write words that we have studied the letters of, or we practice joinings, only.  The photo below shows some cursive practice of joinings.

Periodically, I have my son "grade" himself on slant, size and shape of his letters. We also put a smiley or star next to our favorite word or joining on the page.


5. Bug Study

We discovered an interesting, as yet unidentified, insect who hitched a ride on the nightshade we sketched. Malik named him, "Buggy." It looks like a shield bug, but it eats holes in the leaves, and most true bugs are sap drinkers.

Buggy is very happy in a plastic container with a fresh supply of nightshade leaves regularly provided.  We will keep trying to identify him (unless one of you can!). It doesn't seem to like the other nightshade family plants nearly as much as he likes common nightshade.

Fall is a great time to do a bug study. Friday, we will be posting about the incredible crop of anthills that have sprung up in our driveway this summer.


For classroom teachers looking for integrated studies centering on nature study, download my September newsletter, "The Little Green Corner," posted today.


  1. This is a wonderful study of the nightshade family. I love the eggplant blossoms the very pretty. Your insect/bug is very interesting too. I enjoyed seeing your entire entry and the journal sketches...great job. Thank you for sharing this rich post with the OHC.

  2. You guys have been busy little bees! Thanks for sharing :)

  3. Great post! Read more about Nightshade Family. This post is linked there.