There are a number of plant families of which I am especially fond. The mints and the legumes alone could keep one busy for a lifetime.
But there is nothing that quite captures my imagination so much as the Solanaceae. I have grown more than a few members of this family here in Southeastern New Mexico.
A strange, purple, toxic family; this one. Its members include deadly nightshade, jimsonweed (datura), tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant, tobacco and petunia.
I adore the Mediterranean Diet members of the group, and would hardly know how to eat without their inclusion in my comestibles; but as far as odd ornamentals go; the more obscure members of the family can be even more intriguing.
Take the Naranjilla, for instance. Solanum quitoense; The Little Orange. These can get quite tall, with their big greeny purple extensively fuzzy leaves and tiny citrusey orange fruit. Just great. I tried to find seed for them a few years back on the net and they were hardly there at all.
Or the Solanum atropurpurea, var. "Malevolence." I was initially apprised of this Solanum species a few years back, by some fine folks in La Honda, the J L Hudson seed company, who most usefully include all sorts of interesting stuff in their catalog with their seed listings, including the occasional note from their happy buyers. The listing for S. atropurpurea that year had a note from one such satisfied buyer who said she'd grown it up to six feet, and that it was covered with striking thorns, and that she'd named that particular specimen "Malevolence" in honor of its impressiveness. As I started to write this diary, I stopped and looked up S. atropurpurea, and quickly found a website listing plant species by their scientific names, cross-referenced by common names. In S. atropurpurea's case, the common name was listed as "Malevolence." Considering how frequently common names are poorly assigned, I was happy to see this particular one catching on, having grown this thorny little critter myself once. I was sadly disappointed, though, that it did not reach anywhere near six feet, or set seed. Fortunately, others have taken up this particular baton.
There are bunches of odd little Solanums, many with strange little eggplant-like fruit, including actual eggplant - white ones, orange ones, all tiny. I'd love to devote my life to growing all of them, but alas; at times I must actually grow things to eat.
I live in the desert, and the soil tends to the alkaline, and though I've occasionally seen stalwart potato patches in the vicinity, I mostly don't bother myself. I will note though that the one time I grew ones that hung in through the heat, for a long time, they were those purple Peruvian natives (and indeed potatoes are native to the Andes).
I unfortunately had to leave Artesia that year so I didn't get to see what they did the next year, but it was most impressive, as this is not a potato climate. These purple guys weren't doing a lot of potato growing, but they were doing a fine job of leafing out, all summer, and in this climate, that's pretty impressive for a mere potato.
Normally they like more acidic soil, they get scab in alkaline soils. Maybe one could grow more standard potatoes here in tubs, like one grows strawberries (which also prefer strongly acidic soils) in tubs. I've heard of people growing them quite successfully, flat on the ground, and covered by straw, in enclosures made of stacked up tires. Have at it, you people who have soils with pH below 6.5. And let me know what happens, please.
However, my Solanum failures being what they are, I tend to work more on peppers, tomatoes and eggplant, all of which I've had some success with.
Hot peppers are pretty easy to grow here in Carlsbad. On the other hand, since one can purchase an excellently roasted bushel of impressively hot (and fresh!) chile for about $15 here in the late summer, and then clean, bag and freeze it, growing these has little attraction unless you have a farm and intend to enter the chile farming business.
The standard chile we buy down here cheap is like a hot version of the Anaheim chile. They are long and pointed and run lightish green.
It's nice to have a few jalapeno plants around, though, for fresh salsa, and they are pretty easy to grow without much trouble. Poblanos as well aren't all that difficult to grow, and you can always roast them in your oven if you don't have a barbeque. You can't buy poblanos roasted down here for $15 a bushel, and they are wonderful for rellenos, so that's worth thinking about. In the oven; you turn it up high for a bit, around 400oF, to blister the skin a bit, maybe 10 minutes max - and then down a lot lower to more slowly roast them some more. That way you can get the skin off more easily. When roasting over a grill, do the best you can. If you overcook them they become difficult to work with (and that goes for all chile) and if you undercook them it's hard to get the skin off. That doesn't make them useless, but it's sometimes preferable to have them cleaned.
Bell peppers are a little tricker, as they like a little more moisture in the soil, like eggplants. Both will do better in the desert if you put them in a place where they get a fair amount of sun, but not too much, and the drainage isn't perfect. The best (and only really successful) eggplant I've grown down here was in a little plot about 30 square feet, that was cemented in on the sides and had a cement slab about 24" down, that was roughly broken so it did drain, but slowly. There was no sun from the west but good eastern sun. I had a half dozen Japanese eggplant in there and they all got about 40 inches tall and produced really well for months after the flea beetles got done with them.
That brings us to another subject, now that we're on to eggplant. Flea beetles eat tiny holes in the leaves of eggplant, and I've seen them do it to jimson weed as well, but eggplant haven't been as resilient as jimson weed in my experience. I've tried over and over again to grow eggplant, and the flea beetles always just about kill them but never quite do (which is quite evolutionarily clever of them, when you think about it), and finally, the flea beetles, which are early season sorts of critters, give up and then the stunted eggplants try to grow eggplant and eventually give up and then it's fall and it starts to get too cold and they get dispirited, and at that point you might as well dig them up and plant spinach.
I have no idea how to control flea beetles without poison, but it's possible you could do it with fine net. They are really small though, and fast, and it's hard to think of anything that might successfully predate upon them.
But like with some tomato pests, you can perhaps get a decent crop if you get the plant strong enough in the first place, like I did with those amazing eggplants that year, in the cemented in corner.
The worst tomato pest you get down here in the southwest is curlytop, which is a virus spread by beet leafhoppers. They are about 1 cm long and green and thin, and they theoretically only like to feed in the sun, although I think that's a myth myself, as I have personally seen these insects most scurrilously disobeying their own supposed behavioral dictates.
The curlytop virus is worse some years than others, as it too evolves and devolves cyclicly in its beet leafhopper host. Last I heard there weren't any serious tomato variety contenders for resistance, but I have grown tomatoes some years that I'm pretty sure got it but still gave me a pretty good crop, because they were pretty hefty plants when they got hit with it.
With a smaller plant though - like about 18" or under - when I see the symptoms; the distorting of the leaf ends and general yellowing, starting at the tips - I grit my teeth, pull the plant, and wish I'd put in a few more on the other end of the yard. Once you've seen it a few times you know what it is. It's a judgment call as to whether to pull the plant or not, but it can easily spread just by one leafhopper moving from plant to plant.
This disease, on the other hand, can be controlled by net, because these leafhoppers can't get through it. There are different ways to do this, but mostly we're talking about wire and whatever sorts of fabric that allow air flow, that you can come up with that work in your circumstances.
When I gardened in Los Angeles, which I did for years, I used to run into trouble with buffalo treehoppers, which are another sort of leafhopper. The adults of these are green with arched backs like dinosaurs (which ones are those? I can never remember) and the larvae are thorny and brown and they sucked the death out of the peppers, tomatoes and eggplants I grew there, quite reliably, every year, while unhelpfully spreading killing viruses at the same time. I took to buying bridal netting (because it was quite cheap by the yard) and making frameworks to keep them off, but eventually they tended to win.
One of the great gardening mysteries of my life is that we also have these treehoppers here - they show up on sowthistle from time to time, a plant in the Compositae that is in no way related to the Solanaceae - but they never, never have gone anywhere near any of my eggplants, tomatoes or peppers here. Los Angeles - desert. Carlsbad, New Mexico - desert. What's different? It's hard to imagine that these are all that different, these groups of critters, but I've killed enough of those spiny little devils by hand to know what they look like; the way there are bunches of them in different sizes feeding on one stem, etc. And it's not like I leave the sowthistle around for them, and it's not like there wasn't sowthistle in Los Angeles.
Come to think of it, I didn't see any of those buffalo treehoppers here last year. Maybe I could work something out with the flea beetles, to send them to Los Angeles?