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MMWD Blog: Think Blue Marin

Welcome to our blog! Written by staff at MMWD, “Think Blue Marin” explores all things water in south and central Marin—water supplies, conservation, new projects, watershed management, and more.

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Dec 15

The Topic of the Day

Posted on December 15, 2017 at 11:54 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

I’m often asked where I come up with topics to write about for the blog. My response is always the same: The topics present themselves to me. Sometimes ideas form as I’m walking through a garden, or talking to a friend, or reading an article that sparks my interest. 

This week’s topic revealed itself yesterday while I was at the grocery store. A perfect stranger lifted up a pack of heritage cherry tomatoes, directed the clear plastic container toward me, and wondered aloud if the tomatoes within had any flavor. This comment led to a discussion about the tomatoes he grew and how hybrid-grown veggies often lack the flavor he is seeking. From there, the conversation morphed to a discussion about another member of the nightshade family: potatoes. 

potato plants
Potato plants
Though we tend to associate the term “nightshade” with highly poisonous plants, the same plant family (Solanaceae) also includes edibles such as potatoes and tomatoes, as well as eggplants and peppers. Who would have guessed? Interestingly, as part of their natural defense system potato plants contain the compound solanine, found in poisonous members of the nightshade family. And in fact, parts of potato plant are poisonous, including the leaves, shoots and even tubers that have been exposed to light and turned green under the skin. Because potatoes grow underground, the tubers normally contain very little toxin unless they are exposed to the sun while growing. My fellow produce shopper was very knowledgeable about all of this, and it was delightful to hear his stories of gardening and growing crops.

As I left the store, a checker noted the poinsettias in my basket and wondered aloud why someone would want poisonous plants in their home. I was picking up on a theme! You see, like the potato, poinsettias are members of a family (Euphorbiaceae) that includes some poisonous members. In fact, euphorbias are often grown to deter gophers from entering your garden. 

However, contrary to popular myth, poinsettias are not toxic, though the leaves are very bitter to the taste—not that I am recommending you try them. At worst, if you come in contact with the milky fluid from the stems, it may cause skin irritation. An animal ingesting the leaves may require frequent "outings" due to an upset stomach, but would not require a call to the poison control center. 

The chemistry of the plant world is complex and fascinating, producing colors, flavors and, yes, toxins that can vary widely even within a single plant family. On that note, enjoy plants this holiday season: Many are beautiful, fun for decorating your home indoors and out. And many of them are downright delicious! As for blog topics, this one only required a trip to the store to find a subject.

A very happy and healthy holiday season to all of you.


Anonymous User
December 16, 2017 at 11:26 AM
Nice, Charlene. Have a Happy Holiday, and I look forward to more wisdom and humor from you in the New Year. From a friend who always loves talking about plants. Alice Bachelder

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