Corn snakes and eggplants

… with belladonna as a bonus.

Two more photos by my man Jacques (of uncertain date), in Columbus OH:

(#1)

The snake is curled up in a crevice in the house’s crumbling cellar wall. The corner on the upper right is the edge of the back steps. (Eventually the cellar wall was completely rebuilt, and this spot was transformed into an excellent wooden deck.)

The snake just turned up on a sunny day, looking a bit like a copperhead, but seeming to be unthreatening, which copperheads are not.

The plants in pots in front of the snake are eggplants, bearing their glossy black fruits. The eggplant has come up frequently on this blog as a versatile foodstuff, several times as a member of the Solanaceae / nightshade family — it’s essentially edible nightshade — and occasionally as a phallic symbol, but I haven’t done justice to it as a plant.

The snake. We were pretty sure the snake wasn’t dangerous, but we didn’t know what it was. This was before easy access to on-line information, and we had no reptile book, so I called the state Extension Service, which actually had a guy on-site to answer questions like ours (if it’s a plant, you have to bring a sample in to the office, but nobody expects you to bring in live critters). He was delighted to help, because we had a Frequently Asked Question, about one of his favorite animals: safe, amiable, beautiful, and very beneficial.

We had a classic wild corn snake (I say “wild”, because many hundreds of varieties have been bred as pets). From Wikipedia:

(#2)

The corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus) [‘spotted panther-snake’, Lat. guttata < gutta ‘a drop’] is a North American species of rat snake that subdues its small prey by constriction. It is found throughout the southeastern and central United States. Their docile nature, reluctance to bite, moderate adult size, attractive pattern, and comparatively simple care make them popular pet snakes. Though superficially resembling the venomous copperhead and often killed as a result of this mistaken identity, corn snakes are harmless and beneficial to humans. Corn snakes lack venom and help control populations of wild rodent pests that damage crops and spread disease.

The corn snake is named for the species’ regular presence near grain stores, where it preys on mice and rats that eat harvested corn. The Oxford English Dictionary cites this usage as far back as 1675. Some sources maintain that the corn snake is so-named because the distinctive, nearly-checkered pattern of the snake’s belly scales resembles the kernels of variegated corn.

We had a rich supply of mice, voles, and chipmunks near our back door, and the snake probably came seeking chipmunks that lived in those crevices (and a nearby woodpile). We hoped it would stick around and help us with our rodent problems, but it was gone the next day.

The eggplant. Some classic plump glossy purple eggplants and some white ones:

(#3)

(#4)

There are also little ones, long thin ones, light purple ones, etc.

And there are the flowers:

(#5)

Very much like other purple-flowered plants in the family. That’s the Solanaceae / nightshade family, embracing (among others):

potato, tomato, tomatillo (see my 12/29/15 posting), chili pepper and bell pepper, eggplant, Solanum crispum ((Chilean) potato vine; see my 8/16/14 posting), Cape gooseberry (Physalis peruviana), Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade), Datura stramonium (jimson weed; see my 10/17/12 posting), Chinese lantern (Physalis alkekengi), tobacco, petunia

Belladonna. From Wikipedia:

(#6)

Atropa belladonna, commonly known as belladonna or deadly nightshade, is a perennial herbaceous plant in the nightshade family Solanaceae, which includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, etc. It is native to Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia. Its distribution extends from Great Britain in the west to western Ukraine and the Iranian province of Gilan in the east. It is also naturalised and/or introduced in some parts of Canada and the United States. The foliage and berries are extremely toxic, containing tropane alkaloids. These toxins include atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine, which cause a bizarre delirium and hallucinations
… It has a long history of use as a medicine, cosmetic, and poison.

Look at the photo in #6. Again, the purple flowers. And then there are the little berries, which start out as green, turn red, and then mature to glossy black (very pretty, and extremely toxic). Those berries look much like little eggplants — which, in a sense, they are. Put the other way: eggplants are just great big, edible nightshade berries.

Deadly nightshade grew wild in our Columbus garden. I left some of the vines to flower and fruit, because they’re so pretty. Yes, both poisonous and attractive, but that was true of lots of the plants in our garden, and it’s true of even more of the popular ornamentals here in California.

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