Solanum erianthum: Potatotree

Family: Solanaceae
Common name: Potatotree, Big eggplant, Mullein nightshade, China flowerleaf, Tobacco tree, Nightshade, Flannel bush, Wild tobacco

A shrub or small tree, Potatotrees are seen in the wild in empty plots, open areas, and roadsides in India. The plants can grow to a height of 6-8 meters with a heavily branched brown stem that has a diameter of 3-4 cms.

Potatotrees have a well-rounded crown with large, alternate leaves that are about 30-35 cms long. The leaves have slightly wavy margins and a pointy tip.

The plant has flowers and fruits almost throughout the year, pale yellowish-white flowers, about 1.5 cms in diameter, having 5 distinct petals. They have 5 stamens with yellow anthers which are packed close to each other. Once pollinated, the flowers form small green fruits which turn yellow on maturity. They contain many small seeds which are 1-2mm long.

Potatotrees can be easily distinguished by their flowers and fruits which are present at the tip of the stems. The name ‘erianthum’ means wooly flowers, denoting the small fussy hairs that cover the flowers, fruits, small leaves, and stem tips. Hence they are also called Flannel bushes. In fact, the stem close to the fruits and flowers is so well covered with tiny hairs that they look like light green felt.

Though the plant belongs to the Potato family of Solanceae, it has no real relation to potatoes, except that the roots smell like potatoes when broken. This Solanaceae family is also characterized by toxicity in the plant parts, which is true of the Potatotree as well. The fruits are distinctly toxic, though they are eaten after cooking in some parts of the world.

These plants are very sturdy and can withstand drought, poor soil, salinity, pollution, and extreme weather conditions. They are rarely grown as ornamental plants; and are sometimes grown as shade plants in coffee plantations.

The plant has many medicinal uses, in the treatment of headaches, fever, diarrhea, dysentery, hemorrhoids, inflammations, arthritis, vertigo, skin irritations, leprosy, malaria, body pain, and urinary problems. The leaves are used to remove grease from dishes because of their texture.

Propagation is through seeds and stem cuttings.