Over the last few weeks I’ve talked about perennials and how common names can inherently hurt them. However, this week the plant that has caught my eye and has recently become a new obsession is the porcupine tomato Solanum pyracanthos. Unlike other plants with a misleading common name, this one delivers. Yes this is a tomato and yes it has quills.
Since it is a true tomato it belongs in the same family with the edible tomato, eggplant, and potatoes. Botanically speaking it belongs in the subgenus Leptostemonum often called the spiny solanums. What most of us don’t realize is the species richness of the genus Solanum which by some authors contains up to 1500 species of plants.
On a recent trip to the Denver Botanical Gardens I accidentally and metaphorically brushed up against this plant. The fluorescent orange spines were glowing in the afternoon sunlight and the purple star shaped flowers immediate indicated that this alien plant was a member of the nightshade family. Needless to say I was enthralled and the needed to learn more about the plant.
Hardly to USDA Zone 9a and greater this plant should be treated as an annual. Some people who I’ve talked to have indicated this can be a little weedy and removal the fruit is warranted to help prevent spreading. Another word of caution, the berries are surrounded by the same fluorescent orange spines so care is needed to protect yourself from an accidental puncture. The porcupine tomato is native to the African island nation, Madagascar.
I will be searching for a source to obtain either the plant or the seed to try in our garden next year. So please check back to see how this adventure plays out.