Wish List: Solanum atropurpureum “Malevolence”

The formidable Solanum atropurpureum a/k/a Malevolence, Purple Devil or Five-Minute Plant

  • Four to six feet tall, two to three feet wide.
  • Full sun, just like tomatoes.
  • Moderate to light water, less than tomatoes.
  • Not fussy about soil. Likes fair drainage.
  • Hardy to at least Zone 8. Can go as low as -10F for a few nights.
  • Native to South America.

As a devotee of sinister plants I number Solanums among my favorites, with Solanum atropurpureum the holy grail. My quest has finally ended, thanks to seeds provided by Rob Broekhuis of Rob’s Plants in Allentown, Pennsylvania (Zone 6).

When I’m researching plants, Rob’s site is a first stop. And I warn you, the hours will evaporate once you start browsing his plant portraits. Rob is a true botanist, growing well over a thousand different plants on a half-acre of land. He’s a good garden photographer–to me, good means one or two pictures that show the plant in the garden, full shots that give a clear sense of habit and scale. For my purposes, close-ups of bees nestled in dewy blossoms are best suited to greeting cards. Thankfully, Rob uses photography to help describe a plant. See for yourself. Here’s Rob’s take on Malevolence.

It looks delicate, it looks dangerous. Photo Wikimedia

Three years ago, the two beds alongside the front porch were overrun by Vinca major. On the south side, by the trellis, it was strangling a couple of Yucca filamentosa and an adolescent Miscanthus “Morning Light.” Farewell, vinca. I moved most of it to the back woods, in areas controllable by mowing, and began enclosing the porch beds in boxwood (x “Green Velvet,” I believe). The yucca moved to the sun-baked gravel near the road, the miscanthus came out, and in went purple coneflowers and black hollyhocks; pineapple sage (Salvia elegans), and Salvia greggii “Gray”–both flowering bright red in fall; a white Iceberg rose found in a tsunami of wild euonymus out back, and a six-foot arborvitae which should make around 12 feet in 10 years.

Rosa “Red Cascade,” a profusely flowering miniature used as a climber or groundcover. Click image to visit the Antique Rose Emporium.

The trellis on the south side–five feet wide by nine tall–was once home to a Spring-blooming, cherry red climbing rose, a scentless, small-flowered variety which has naturalized all over town. I had seen pictures of that rose in bloom and I liked the look of that bright red flower with the barn-red of the house and all the white trim. But a rose with repeat bloom, at least, and fragrance, if possible, would improve the composition–“Don Juan“, “Dortmund” and the robust miniature “Red Cascade” are good candidates for this year.

Because I want this garden to be somewhat wild-looking and sinister, Solanum atropurpureum has long been on my mind. I’ve grown it before, in California sand, where it reached nine feet and half that in spread. At a distance, the deeply cut leaves make it look almost frilly and a bit weedy–until you get close enough to see those magnificent purple thorns. The first thing most people say when they get close to Malevolence is “Oh!”

Malevolence is a member of the Solanaceae family, kin to tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, peppers and belladonna. As such, it is cultivated in much the same way as tomatoes: plenty of sun and heat, and regular, deep watering–though Malevolence, a plant not far from wild, does better with less water and much less fertilizer than your tomatoes. It is hardier than tomatoes too, taking several nights in the teens to finally knock it down.

Depending on conditions, Malevolence ranges from three to six feet tall and two or three feet wide. It can get lean and leggy, so consider tall, leafy companions to hide the bare ankles. In this case, I’ll be teaming it with Crocosmia “Lucifer,” Eryngium yuccifolium (Rattlesnake Master), Bishop of Llandaff dahlias and a plant or two of Lacinato” kale in the front beds. If there’s room, some borage and calamint. Lots of busy foliage, some dark and shadowy, and a majority of bright red blooms contrasting with the white rose, the haze of calamint and the deep burgundy hollyhocks. The dusky purple-pink of the coneflowers and the dark stems of Sedum “Matrona” should be easy complements to Malevolence’s deep purple thorns.

Immature fruit of Solanum atropurpureum

Like all Solanums, Malevolence blooms and fruits, but in a manner so discreet that the thorns are always the plant’s primary feature. The flowers are small and yellow, much like a tomato, and they produce currant-sized, golden-yellow fruits–certainly no detraction to my color scheme. It is best to assume, however, that all parts of Malevolence are poisonous, much like belladonna. And you definitely don’t want to handle Malevolence without sturdy gloves, but don’t let the thorns deter you from growing this tough, remarkable plant. Is there beauty without suffering?

  1. Calvin said:

    What a beautiful and wicked looking plant…kind of reminds me of a couple girlfriends from right after college. As an afficionado of plants which double as home security systems, you might appreciate the Pacific NW native, Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus). I don’t know if it would work in your zone, or even if you could find it through the nursery trade, but it it would definitely be a conversation piece…and further deter ne’er-do-wells from your garden. Best, Calvin

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