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jimson weed fruit seed

Seed capsule covered with stiff prickles

Jimsonweed – (Datura stramonium L.)

Crop and Soil Environmental News, April 2004

Russell A. B., J. W. Hardin, L. Grand, and A. Fraser. 1997. Poisonous Plants of North Carolina; North Carolina State University. Raleigh, NC.

Stolon/rhizome/roots No stolon or rhizome; stem stout, branched and green to purple in color; thick, shallow and extensively branched taproot system

Cheeke P. R. 1998. Natural Toxicants in Feeds, Forages, and Poisonous Plants. p. 382-383. 2nd. Ed. Interstate Pub. Inc. Danville, Illinois.

The genus name Datura comes from the Hindi word for the plant, noteworthy since most botanical names are derived from Latin or Greek. The origins of the plant itself are contested—every source I checked listed a different native origin, ranging from Mexico to India, and it now grows all over the world. Not surprisingly, it has found its way into many cultural and medicinal traditions. Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, and Native American shamanistic practices all employ jimson weed medicinally or ritualistically. Its seeds and leaves are used as an antiasthmatic, antispasmodic, hypnotic, and narcotic.

Having grown up in Virginia, I was intrigued by one of the common names I saw recurring in my plant books—Jamestown weed—and researched the origins. One story simply connects the first New World observations of the plant to settlers in this early Virginia colony. A more famous tale tells of the plant’s accidental ingestion by some British soldiers sent there to suppress Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. After eating some in a stew, the soldiers spent 11 days in a hallucinatory stupor, blowing feathers, kissing and pawing their companions, and making faces and grinning “like monkey[s].”

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The Weed of the Month series explores the ecology and history of the common wild plants that most gardeners consider weeds.

Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) is a beautiful, witchy plant that begins blooming in late summer and continues through the first frost. A member of the notorious nightshade family, its more famous cousins include tomato, eggplant, pepper, tobacco, and potato. Most members of this plant family are poisonous, and jimson weed is no exception. All parts of the plant are toxic, most particularly the seeds. Potent amounts of alkaloid compounds are present, which potentially cause convulsions, hallucinations, and even death if ingested. And as climate change increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, studies have found that the toxicity of plants like jimson weed only increases.

Though the trumpet-shaped flowers are stunning, my favorite part of the plant is the devilish-looking seedpod. The size of a Ping-Pong ball and covered in spikes, the seed capsule splits into four parts like a monster’s maw, revealing the dark brown seeds inside. In the winter you might notice its tall, dry stalks bearing the prickly seedpods, which to me look like the scepter for a demon. With all its extraordinary looks and lore, jimson weed is a fascinating plant to contemplate (but maybe not cultivate)!

Soils: Occurs on a wide variety of soil types.

It is occasionally grown as an ornamental, and attracts bees, butterflies, and moths.

Growth Characteristics: When mature, Jimsonweed plants are erect, 1.75 to 4 feet tall, often with a similar spread. It often falls over from its own weight. Jimsonweed germinates readily and self sows under most conditions.

Uses and Management:

Jimsonweed prefers warm growing areas. It competes aggressively for water and grows rapidly. It is a common weed in pastures, barnyards, roadsides, and waste places.

Most parts of the plant contain atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine. Jimsonweed and its derivatives have several medicinal uses. At low doses, it is used to treat asthma, muscle spasms, and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. At higher doses it causes hallucinations.

Stems: Very stout, hollow, smooth, branching, green or more often purple, with inconspicuous hairs.

Flowers: Showy white to purple trumpet flowers are 2 to 4 inches long. Individual flowers occur on short stalks that arise from leaf or branch axils. The sepals enclose the lower part of the flower. Flowers open for only one evening, but new ones continue to open throughout the summer and autumn.