Natural History Amongst the Nightshades: Diversity and Evolution in the Solanaceae

Lecture Theatre 1, Roland Levinsky Building, lymouth University, Plymouth University
Organiser: Plymouth University


​Solanum dulcecamara
Solanum dulcecamara by Svdmolen (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

4th Annual Plymouth Linnean Lecture

Just the name nightshade conjures up images of witches and warlocks, poisons and dangers. But the nightshade family Solanaceae is a paradox – some of its members are laden with deadly poisons like the mandrake and the deadly nightshade, while others, like the potato, help feed the world, and still others, like the petunia, beautify our gardens in summer. No other flowering plant family can boast such a range of human use; nightshades epitomise the power of human domestication to manage and exploit the diversity of plant life. But Solanaceae are much more than just the foods we eat or the poisons we do not. The family comprises some 3000 species distributed worldwide, almost half of these in the mega-diverse genus Solanum. The most diverse part of the world is South America, but Solanaceae have radiated in other areas as well. 

In this talk Dr Knapp will explore the diversity of the family, both in terms of patterns and origins, sharing new data from taxonomic and phylogenetic studies, coupled with analyses using the tools of macroecology and evolution show that diversification of the family at the generic level does not mirror that in the large and complex genus Solanum – where diversification rates are highest not in South America, where species numbers are greatest, but in the arid zones of Australia and Africa, where long-distance dispersal at just the right time from perhaps just the right lineage led to an absolute explosion in species diversity. Solanaceae diversity is truly paradoxical, just like the nightshades themselves, and there is still a lot to be discovered in these most fascinating of plants.

Dr Sandra D Knapp holds a BA Botany from Pomona College, California and a PhD from Cornell University, New York State, and in 2016 she was awarded the Linnean Medel by the Linnean Society of London for her work on botanical taxonomy and systematics. She is a trustee of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN) and a member of the Advisory Board for National Geographic’s Global Exploration Fund. She is Head of the Algae, Fungi and Plants Division at the Natural History Museum, London. In the 1990s, she oversaw the cataloguing of Central American plants for the Flora Mesoamericana, a collaboration between the NHM, the Missouri Botanical Garden and the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Her principal area of research is the genus Solanum, which contains potatoes, tomatoes, aubergines, and boasts over 1,000 species. She is recognised in botanical nomenclature by the standard author abbreviation “S.Knapp” on taxa she has named.

This event is free and open to all. Registration is essential via Plymouth University.