Spiny Solanums

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.




Scott Evans
Scott Evans is a horticulture assistant with Nebraska Extension in Douglas-Sarpy Counties. A certified arborist through International Society of Arboirculture and Nebraska Arborist Association. Scott is also Tree Risk Assessment Qualified through ISA. Scott co-leads the Master Gardener program in Douglas & Sarpy counties. Along with volunteer management he provides his expertise with disease and insect identification, lawn and landscape weed management, plant health, and I.P.M. practices. He also enjoys growing many houseplants ranging from African violets to cacti and succulents. Scott has two Bachelors of Science, one in Biology (emphasis in Botany, Ecology and Environmental Science) and second in Environmental Geology from Northwest Missouri State University. He earned his Master of Agriculture from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.