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Cestrum nocturnum L. 1753
pronounced: KESS-trum nok-TUR-num
(Solanaceae – the nightshade family)
common name: Night-blooming Jasmine
The cestrum was a tool used by practitioners of Cerostrotum, an early form of encaustic painting, which was done on ivory or bone, the colours mixed with wax. It was a graving tool made of ivory, pointed at one end, and flat at the other. Presumably the flowers of this genus are a similar shape. Nocturnus is Latin for nocturnal, by night.
This is an evergreen woody shrub that grows from 1 m up to about 4 m tall. It has simple, narrow-lanceolate shiny dark green leaves, measuring 10-20 cm long by 2-4 cm wide, smooth and glossy, with an entire margin. The leaves have an unpleasant odour when crushed.
The greenish white flowers have a slender corolla tube 2 cm or more long, with 5 acute lobes, a little over a centimetre in diameter when fully open at night. The flowers are in cymose inflorescences. At hight they release a powerful sweet perfume, that has been described as having almond, honey and musk overtones.
The fruits are berries, green when young, either whitish or a dark purplish, almost black, when mature. They are about a centimetre long, and about 5 mm in diameter.
The plant, although originating in the West Indies, has become naturalized in many parts of the world, including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, southern China, and the southermost parts of the USA. It is very difficult to eradicate, and has been declared a noxious weed in several countries, including NSW. It has escaped from gardens and invaded bushland around Sydney.
The plant normally spreads from seeds dispersed by birds after they have eaten the fruits. It will also grow easily from cuttings left in compost heaps or near watercourses, where they can be washed downstream and later take root. The seeds can remain dormant for many years.
Descriptions of the plant’s toxicity vary. The plant, especially the immature berries, is said by some to be highly toxic, although birds seem to eat the berries with impunity. Medical attention should be sought without delay if symptoms arise after parts of the plant are ingested by adults, children or pets. Symptoms are reported to include elevated temperatures, a rapid pulse, excessive salivation, respiratory difficulties, gastritis and headaches. The nocturnal fragrance can affect some people with irritation of the nose and throat, sneezing, intense headache, nausea and dizziness. The plant is also said to be toxic to cattle, horses and poultry.
There is some anecdotal evidence of psychoactive effects of the plant, including shamanic use in Nepal.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2016
Page last updated 24th August 2018