One plant has haunted me all summer. I had never seen it before, or at least never noticed it, but now it was springing up everywhere.
I first saw it on the gravel bed in the “civilised” part of my wooded garden and I thought it was a self-seeded tomato or potato, or some wild relative in the Solanum or (poisonous) nightshade family. But as usual I decided to wait and see what developed.
In July it bloomed, with tiny white flowers that seemed to have four rounded petals.
Clearly, then, by the shape of the flowers, it wasn’t a member of the potato/tomato family. Meanwhile I had also found the plant in the shady, wooded part of the garden. It was probably spread from there to the gravel on someone’s gardening boot.
I picked off a stem and tried again to take a picture of the flowers…
In August we had short holidays in Dorset and West Wales and I saw more of the plant…
Anyway, when we returned from our travels I finally identified the plant – I expect many of you already know. It is Circaea lutetiana or enchanter’s nightshade – what a great name!
So I had been close in my first identification. It is a nightshade, but oddly no relation to the Solanum family of nightshades which includes eggplant (aubergine) as well as potato and tomato. Strange that three such edible plants come from such a lethal family. I think I read somewhere that when the potato was first taken to France from the New World people were poisoned when they ate the fruits instead of the tubers, thinking they were like tomatoes. For that reason the vegetable took a while to become popular there.
Anyway the name Circaea comes from the island sorceress Circe, who turned the Argonauts into swine in the Odyssey. Here is my favourite image of Circe, by my favourite Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones…
This is one of the Victorian paintings I grew up with through images in Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia. Although those pictures were not in colour but in sepia, or monochrome green or blue. I always thought Circe was leaning over like that because the ceiling was too low in her hut, but now I see she is bent double because she is supposed to be looking furtive or wicked as she poisons the wine for her Argonaut visitors (you can see the sails through the window).
The other part of the plant’s name, lutetiana, comes from Lutetia, the Latin name for Paris, which was (Wikipedia tells me) once known as the “Witch City”.
Despite all that, enchanter’s nightshade is not very poisonous. It does contain a lot of tannin, which is an astringent. Maybe that’s why it has been used in the past to treat wounds? The word astringent comes from the Latin adstringere, literally “to bind fast”, and astringents tighten body tissue (imagine slapping on aftershave).
Enchanter’s nightshade is a member of the Onagraceae family. It is the same group as the evening primrose (Oenothera) and willowherb (Epilobium) and I can see the resemblance now, in the four-petalled flowers.
Surprisingly it is also the same family as Fuchsias, where the brightly-coloured sepals also look like petals, disguising the simple four-petal design. I had never noticed that before.
Circaea lutetiana is, according to Wikipedia, native to Europe, Middle Asia and Siberia. Another source says it’s also native to the eastern states of the USA. Perhaps that’s the subspecies Circaea lutetiana canadensis? I don’t know.
One thing is clear, the plant likes shady, wet woodland, particularly on nitrogen-containing clay. It has been a very wet summer in the UK, which has perhaps encouraged the plant to spread and flourish this year…