Tobacco Nightshade (Solanum mauritianum), a South American shrub introduced to Australia as an ornamental selection, naturalised on that basis, and then distributed further as a dubious agricultural cure-all.
The species is believed to have been distributed to Indonesia, Mauritius and Madagascar by Portuguese operations in the 16th century. As a consequence, it was named from type material from Mauritius, received through British botanical trade, and continued to be treated through the 19th c. as having originated in the Indian Ocean.
A collection in the Melbourne herbarium made by Ferdinand von Mueller records that the species was cultivated in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens by 1848; newspaper coverage indicates it was introduced to the Royal Society Gardens at Hobart around 1858. The first naturalised collections may have been made at Sydney in 1880 and on the Endeavour River in northern Queensland in 1883.
By 1903, the plant was described in a newspaper account as ‘all-pervading’ on Norfolk Island. Despite wide establishment as an invasive plant in NSW and QLD during this period, the search for agricultural miracles to salvage Australia’s perpetually catastrophic crop systems seized upon Tobacco Nightshade as a solution to fruit fly. Between 1914, when its adoption appears to have first been promoted, and 1921, when its usefulness was debunked, many growers presumably planted the species on that basis. The Brisbane Courier decried its presence in the state’s naturalised areas in 1932, describing the ‘sad fact that when once we reach the plateau of Tamborine Mountain, almost the most outstanding feature of the vegetation along the roadsides is a gigantic coarse greyish weed.’
In Victoria, Tobacco Nightshade appears only to have been collected since the 1970s; principally around Port Phillip and the eastern ranges, but with scattered collections through Gippsland as well as around Shepparton and Wangaratta. The photographed plants were found on a street in Richmond, and in a small wetland draw in Yarra Bend Park.