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Solanum ellipticum Vell. 1929
pronounced: so-LAH-num ee-LIP-tih-kum
(Solanaceae – the nightshade family)
synonym: Pionandra elliptica Miers 1855
pronounced: pee-own-AN-druh ee-LIP-tih-kuh
common names: Potato Bush, Bush Tomato
Authorities do not agree as to which of these names is the accepted name, and which the synonym. Solanum is the ancient Roman name for the deadly nightshade. It is the Latin word for solace or comfort, and refers to the reputed narcotic properties of the type species, Solanum nigrum, the black nightshade. Ellipticum is from the Greek ελλειψις (elleipsis), a falling short, defect. The term ‘ellipse’ derives from ελλειψις (defective circle?), and this species has elliptic leaves. Pionandra comes from the Greek πιων (pion), fat, rich, oily, and ανδρος (andros), of a man.
These common names have been applied to a number of plants, some of which are members of this genus. They are valuable Aboriginal bush foods traditionally gathered in large amounts from the dry outback. Once collected, they are ground to form a paste and rolled into sizable balls, before being covered with red ochre ready for sun-drying. As a tasty larder to be eaten when fresh fruits are scarce, they are either stored hung in tree forks, or strung on sticks that are carried from camp to camp. As many wild tomatoes, e.g. the acid berry Solanum esuriale , are rich in Vitamin C, the early desert explorers (including Charles Sturt) and drovers prevented scurvy by cooking them with their meat stews or mutton chops. Aboriginal culture meticulously passed down through the generations accurate means of identifying the edible bush tomato-producing plants, so that they could be distinguished from the many neighbouring poisonous varieties.
This is a very large genus of about 1700 species, with about 80 species native to Australia. Economically it is an important genus, as it includes a number of human food crops including potato, tomato and egg plant. It also includes many poisonous plants, like the deadly nightshade. The Australian species include important ‘bush tucker’ plants (of which Solanum ellipticum is one), but, as I said above, they also include species with poisonous fruits, including the fruits of Solanum sturtianum.
Solanum ellipticum is a small, fast-growing, waxy-looking spreading shrub or herbaceous plant which can reach about 30 cm in height, and spread to about 1 m in diameter. It usually grows next to creeks, either on heavy clay or on sandy soils. It occurs over most of dry tropical and subtropical Australia. It tends to die out during extended dry periods, and resprout after fire or good rains. Prickles are scattered to abundant on branches, petioles and peduncles, and sparse elsewhere. The leaves (ovate to elliptic) are green above and greyish green on the undersurface. They are hairy, and about 4 – 8 cm long and 2 – 3 cm wide, with petioles 1 – 5 cm long. The attractive purple flowers are about 2.5 cm in diameter. They occur singly, or in inflorescences of up to 7 flowers. They have conspicuous yellow anthers and occur mainly in spring and summer. The yellow-green fruits (often tinged purple) that follow the flowers are about 1.5–2 cm in diameter, and are often streaked; they are 2- or 4-locular. The fruits have a pungent smell, and the plant can be smelled from some distance away when the fruits are ripe. The fruits are edible raw or cooked. Solanum ellipticum is similar in habit to the poisonous Solanum quadriloculatum, so experimenters with ‘bush tucker’ are advised to be very cautious, and to be absolutely sure of their identification before tasting!
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2010-2014
Page last updated 17th February 2017