Small Enchanter’s Nightshade

There is no good explanation for the species name and the common name of small enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea alpina). A native perennial, small enchanter’s nightshade is not related to either the deadly nightshade (Atropa) or the European nightshades (Solanum). So why it is called a “nightshade” is a mystery. This plant grows from low to mid elevations, but definitely is not found in alpine habitats. So why the species name, alpina, meaning “alpine”? At least “enchanters” in the common name makes sense. The genus, Circaea, is named for the Greek goddess, Circe, who was an enchantress. Members of this genus were supposedly used to make a tempting powder for amorous purposes.

Small enchanter’s nightshade is a small plant growing in cool, damp forests or in other rich, moist sites such as floodplains or along streams. It is found throughout all of North America except the South Central and South East States.

Arising from a slender rhizome with tuberous thickenings, small enchanter’s nightshade often forms extensive beds. The leafy stems are simple or branched, hairless below and somewhat hairy further up the stem.

The heart to oval shaped leaves of small enchanter’s nightshade have short hairs on the lower surface, are opposite and have toothed margins.

The white to light pink small enchanter’s nightshade flowers grow in racemes (unbranched inflorescence with flowers that bloom from the bottom up) atop a long stalk. Unlike most members of the Evening Primrose Family, to which it belongs, small enchanter’s nightshade has only two petals, while most members of the family have four. The two petals are deeply notched and at first glance it may appear that there are four petals. There are also two sepals. Since they do not produce nectar, small enchanter’s nightshade flowers do not attract insects. The pollen is released while the flower is still a bud so the pollen falls on its own stigmas.

Small enchanter’s nightshade fruits are dry capsules that do not split open when ripe and contain one chamber and one seed. The pear to top shaped fruit is covered in short, hooked bristles and clings to fur or clothing.

These small enchanter’s nightshade specimens were photographed in June along Modoc County Road 29 in the Warner Mountains of California or along Chaos Crags Trail in Lassen Volcanic National Park in August (Lassen County CA).


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