The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Solanum spp.


Nightshade Species




Solanaceae (Nightshade Family); Subfamily Solanoideae, Solaneae Tribe, Solaninae Subtribe

Some one thousand to two thousand species are currently recognized in the genus Solanum (D’Arcy 1991, 79*; Schultes and Raffauf 1991, 43*; Teuscher 1994, 734). Many Solanum species are edible and are used as sources of food (eggplant, potato, kangaroo berry). A number of species have a long tradition of use as folk medicines. A few species are used as additives for coca chewing (see Erythroxylum coca). Some appear to be psycho-active or to be used for psychoactive purposes. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Zuni Indians were still using Solanum elaeagnifolium Cav. as a sedative snuff (von Reis and Lipp 1982, 271*).

Several members of the genus contain tropane alkaloids (Schultes and Raffauf 1991, 43*) and myricetin derivatives, substances that also are found in such plants as Ledum palustre (Kumari et al. 1984). The roots of many species have been found to contain steroidal alkaloids and sapogenins (Ripperger 1995).


The Peruvian nightshade (Solanum hispidum), shown here with flowers and fruits, is found throughout South America.


Solanum dulcamara L. [syn. Dulcamara flexuosa Moench, Solanum laxum Royle, Solanum lyratum Thunb., Solanum scandes Lamk.]—bittersweet nightshade

This nightshade has been interpreted to be the “sleeping strychnos” (cf. Strychnos nux-vomica) of Dioscorides (Schneider 1974, 3:274*). In ancient times, the root cortex was drunk in wine as a sleeping agent.

The Germanic tribes used the plant as a narcotic and referred to it and Solanum nigrum as “night harm.” Night harm is an illness induced by an elfish demon (nocturnal nightmare demon) during the night while one is sleeping and can be healed using Solanum dulcamara. The illness “should be fought off by the embodiment of another magically powerful elfish demon in the plant, i.e., the nocturnal unrest of the ill person is soothed by means of a narcotic agent” (Höfler 1990, 96*).

Bittersweet nightshade “was regarded as an elfen plant and is still known as alp [= elf] vine. It was placed in children’s cradles to ward off enchantment and was placed around the necks of cattle to ward off ‘hunsch,’ or wheezing. Humans generally appear to have an aversion to this plant, for it has been called sow’s vine, stinking devil, dog berry, choke plant, etc.; it is also regarded as a symbol for a treacherous person” (Perger 1864, 182*). During the Middle Ages, the berries were strung onto cords to make amulets or talismans that were worn around the neck to ward off evil gossip. The plant also played a role in other magical customs: “to initiate a vengeful magic, place the name of an enemy on the dry stem and lay this before the door of that person, [and] the berries can be used as a magical aid for all transformative magic, especially lycanthropic magic” (Magister Botanicus 1995, 193*). It may have been an ingredient in witches’ ointments.

In Mexico, where the plant is known as dulcamara or jazmincillo, it is used in folk medicine as a sedative and narcotic agent. Mexican plant material has been found to contain solanine derivatives and tropane alkaloids (Díaz 1979, 85*).

The herbage contains between 0.3 and 3.0% and the roots approximately 1.4% steroid alkaloid glycosides. The alkaloid content of the fruits declines as they ripen, and ripe fruits are almost completely devoid of alkaloids (Teuscher 1994, 737). The alkaloid content and composition can exhibit considerable variation (Máthé and Máthé 1979). There may be chemical races with psychoactive properties.

Solanum hirtum Vahl


This neotropical nightshade species is known in Mayan as put balam, “papaya of the jaguar.” To the Maya, the jaguar is the most important and most powerful shamanic animal (cf. Nymphaea ampla).

It is possible that this plant was or is still associated with shamanic practices.295 Chewing the fresh leaves produces a narcotic and stimulating effect. The fruits also are used medicinally to treat angina (Pulido S. and Serralta P. 1993, 62*). In Mexico, the very similar species Solanum rostratum Dunal is known locally as hierba del sapo, “plant of the toads” (Martínez 1994, 434*).

Solanum hypomalacophyllum Bitter ex Pittier


This plant, which is known as borrachera in Venezuela, may contain tropane alkaloids (Schultes 1983a, 271*). Steroid alkaloids (solaphyllidin, solamaladin) and a steroid sapogenin (andesgenin) have been isolated from the plant (González et al. 1975; Schultes and Raffauf 1991, 44*). Whether the plant has psychoactive effects and has been used for this purpose is unknown, although possible. Why else would it be known as borrachera, “inebriator”?

Solanum leptopodum Van Heurck et Muell. Arg.


The Secoya Indians call this bush oyo-ha’-o, “bat leaf,” and use the leaves for washings to treat and calm crying children. It may exert a sedative effect (Schultes and Raffauf 1991, 44 f.*).

Solanum ligustrinum Lodd.—natre


This bush is used in Chilean folk medicine to treat fever. It has mild analgesic properties and is known by the interesting name of hierba de chavalongo, usually translated as “typhus fever plant” (Hoffmann et al. 1992, 154*). But the similarity between this name and that of the still unidentified cabalonga, the psychoactive magical plant of the northern Andes region, is almost too striking. More detailed investigations into the ethnobotany of this plant would likely yield some very interesting findings. The plant is known to contain several alkaloids (natrine, huevine) as well as solanine (Hoffmann et al. 1992, 156*).

Solanum mammosum L.


In South America, the powdered fruits of this species are used as a cockroach poison. The plant reputedly is used in Colombia to “satisfy children,” i.e., as a sedative narcotic (Schultes 1978a, 193*).


The fruits of Solanum dulcamara have a bittersweet taste.



The bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) in bloom.



The leaves of the tropical nightshade species Solanum hirtum, known in the Yucatán as “papaya of the jaguar,” have narcotic effects. (Wild plant, photographed near Chichen Itzá, Yucatán, Mexico)



The black nightshade (Solanum nigrum) occurs in a number of varieties and forms throughout the world. (Wild plant, photographed in Hamburg)



Originally from South America, the potato (Solanum tuberosum) has been found to contain trace amounts of a natural sedative agent.



Early illustration of the “garden nightshade,” either Solanum nigrum or Solanum dulcamara. (Woodcut from Gerard, The Herball or General History of Plants, 1633)


“In the empire of Ethiopia, the ‘criminal telepath’ was an established institution until at least the time of the Second World War. Usually an as yet untouched boy, such a person was known as a lebaschà (concentrating searcher). He was called upon when a theft occurred. The lebaschà was required to imbibe a drink that contained the leaves of nightshade plants along with other things, there are also reports of drug smoking. The lebaschà would then enter an inebriated kind of state and follow ‘the scent’ to all of the places that might be connected with the theft, and would ultimately find the object and the person who had stolen it.”




Solanum nigrum L. [syn. Solanum americanum Mill., Solanum caribaeum Dun., Solanum nodiflorum Dun.; for other synonyms see Teuscher 1994, 744]—black nightshade


This nightshade has been interpreted as the “garden strychnos” (cf. Strychnos nux-vomica) of Dioscorides (Schneider 1974, 3:274*). It has often been attributed with psychoactive properties: “the nightshade was a true Germanic narcotic” (Höfler 1990, 96*). The plant was one of the ingredients in witches’ ointments.

In Mexico, where the American variety of the black nightshade is known as chichiquilitl or hierba mora, the plant is used in folk medicine as a local analgesic, a sedative, and a stimulant and to treat Parksinon’s disease and epilepsy (Díaz 1979, 85*). The plant is called yocoyoco in Venezuela, a name strikingly reminiscent of that of Paullinia yoco (see Paullinia spp.) (Blohm 1962, 97*). In Chile, the black nightshade is used as an antidote for overdoses of Latua pubiflora. The herbage contains chiefly solanine as well as related alkaloids. The unripe fruits can contain as much as 1.6% alkaloids, whereas ripe fruits are usually devoid of alkaloids (Teuscher 1994, 744). Further research is needed to determine whether the plant can be used for psychoactive purposes.

Solanum subinerme Jacq.—gujaco


The Witoto Indians add the ripe fruits of gujaco or ujaca, as they call the species, to their cassava beer to impart to it a special taste. It is not clear whether this affects only the taste or whether the fruits also contribute to the psychoactive effects (Schultes and Raffauf 1991, 46*).

Solanum topiro Humb. et Bonpl. [syn. Solanum sessiliflorum Dun.]—de-twa’


The Taiwano Indians dry and crush the small seeds from the edible fruits and add the powder to coca leaves when the oral mucosa have become irritated from too-frequent coca chewing (cf. Erythroxylum coca). The mixture is said to provide relief (Schultes 1978a, 194*; Schultes and Raffauf 1991, 46*).

Solanum tuberosum L.—potato


The potato is one of humankind’s most important food plants. It originated in Peru, where there are numerous sorts, and is now planted worldwide. In the culture of inebriation, it is used both as a fermenting agent for chicha and beer and in the distillation of vodka (alcohol). The roots contain solanidine (Ripperger 1995). Recently, the potato was found to contain a “natural Valium” (see diazepam). Using very accurate methods of analysis, “traces of substances were found in the tubers that inhibit the binding of benzodiazepine to benzodiazepine receptors in the rat brain. To date, 8 of these have been identified as benzodiazepine derivatives, including diazepam and lormetazepam” (Teuscher 1994, 747). However, it is unlikely that one would notice any effects of these substances from eating potatoes, as one would probably need to consume an entire bushel for the effects to manifest.

Solanum verbascifolium L.


This plant, which has a pantropical distribution, is known as toonpaap (“hot tail”). The shamans of the Yucatec Maya (southern Mexico) appear to make use of the plant, although no precise information is available (Garza 1990, 189*). The Mayan name seems to suggest an aphrodisiac use of the plant.

Solanum villosum Mill. [syn. Solanum nodiflorum Jacq.]—witch’s tomato


This species is very closely related to the black nightshade (Heiser et al. 1979). The plant is known as tomate de la bruja (“witch’s tomato”) in Spain, where it allegedly was once used for psychoactive purposes (J. M. Fericgla, pers. comm.; Fericgla 1996*). It may have been one of the ingredients in witches’ ointments.



See also the entries for Atropa belladonna and Datura stramonium.


Bonin, Werner F. 1986. Naturvölker und ihre übersinnlichen Fähigkeiten. Munich: Goldmann.


Gonzáles, Antonio G., Cosme G. Francisco, Raimundo Freire, Rosendo Hernández, José A. Salazar, and Ernesto Suárez. 1975. [New sources of steroid sapogenins. 29:] Andesgenin, a new steroid sapogenin from Solanum hypomalacophyllum. Phytochemistry 14:2483–85.


Heiser, Charles B., Jr., Donald L. Burton, and Edward E. Schilling Jr. 1979. Biosystematic and taxonomic studies of the Solanum nigrum complex in eastern North America. In The biology and taxonomy of the Solanaceae, ed. J. G. Hawkes et al., 513–27. London: Academic Press.


Kumari, G. N. Krishna, L. Jagan Mohan Rao, and N. S. Prakasa Rao. 1984. Myricetin methyl esters from Solanum pubecens. Phytochemistry 23 (11): 2701–2.


Máthé, Imre, Jr., and Imre Máthé Sr. 1979. Variation in alkaloids in Solanum dulcamara L. In The biology and taxonomy of the Solanaceae, ed. J. G. Hawkes et al., 211–22. London: Academic Press.


Ripperger, Helmut. 1995. Steroidal alkaloids and sapogenins from roots of some Solanum species. Planta Medica 61:292.


Teuscher, Eberhard. 1994. Solanum. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 6:734–52. Berlin: Springer.


Usubillaga, A. 1984. Alkaloids from Solanum hypomalacophyllum. Journal of Natural Products 47:52.


“Dulcamara. (Stipites.)


One of the most excellent agents of the practice of the poor, powerful, and inexpensive. It is one of the most effective remedies for chronic rheumatism, catarrh, for beginning catarrhal and tubercular phthisis (the most common of them all), for chronic skin diseases, for whooping cough. The dosage is 2 to 4 drams daily, not as an infusion but rather as a decoction, because only the boiling brings out the power sufficiently.—The same thing is true of the extract that has been said about the plant.”