Plants & Gardening
We get a lot of questions about one particular plant in the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden: Naranjilla (pronounced nahr-ahn-HEE-yah). It’s easy to see why.
You can find this naranjilla (Solanum quitoense) in Bed #10 in the Growing Garden.
This attractive plant has large, thick, green leaves, is about 10–12 inches long and 8–10 inches wide, with deeply serrated edges, and is completely covered in tiny, purple hairs (which are not really hairs—in the botanical world they are called “tricomes”). It is native to Ecuador and other South American countries.
There is more to notice about this intriguing plant than its gorgeous coloring, interesting texture, and striking presence. First, the naranjillas in this small garden bed, number 10, were put there for a reason. All but one of the plants in this bed are in the nightshade family, Solanaceae. This family includes tomato, eggplant, potato, and petunia. Naranjilla is cousin to these more familiar plants.
Upon closer inspection, it’s easy to see how these plants are related.
When you’re in the garden, take a look at the flowers on these plants. You will see the similarities that characterize plants in the nightshade family. Notice that they all have five petals that are fused so that they look like a funnel with five lobes. You’ll easily be able to pick out the one plant that does not belong in the family.
See how this ‘Pink Dreams Fuseable’ petunia (Petunia x hybrida ‘Pink Dreams Fuseable’) has five petals fused together, so it is like one continuous petal? You’ll find the same bloom design on tomato and other nightshade flowers.
The naranjilla won’t bloom until much later in the summer, and when it does you’ll recognize the similar flower shape. Naranjilla means “little orange” in Spanish, because the fruits are small, yellow, and spherical like little oranges. Unfortunately, our growing season in Chicago is not long enough for naranjilla plants to produce the sweet fruits, which are juiced for beverages in Ecuador.
Another interesting thing about the naranjilla—a detail that separates it from other members of the family—is that the leaves look soft and fuzzy, but they can grow sharp thorns along the veins. As you might expect, the thorns discourage large animals from eating the leaves. They are not as sharp and menacing as rose thorns, but you wouldn’t want to stroke a naranjilla leaf that bears thorns.
This naranjilla leaf, which is growing in a container on the Learning Center deck, is covered in thorns. There are no thorns on the plants in the Growing Garden. (The white things on this leaf are stamens fallen from the nearby “bunny tail” grass.)