Datura, a night-blooming flower sometimes raised in home gardens, is also known as Jimsonweed or Thornapple (Datura stramonium). Jimsonweed is a contraction of Jamestown and is the name that early settlers and British soldiers gave the plants. Thornapple is an appropriate common name because it aptly describes the round, prickly seedpod that develop after the spent flowers fall off the plant. The prickly seedpods prevent animals from eating the toxic seeds.
Most species are low-growing, shrublike or spreading perennials or are prolifically reseeding annuals. D. wrightii is the species that is common to the Western United States. Rank-smelling leaves and large, white flowers that are occasionally tinged with purple characterize this plant. A sprawling perennial, the plants have enormous taproots that may extend deeper than 2 feet into the ground. Its geographic range extends from California to Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and into Texas. D. wrightii is considered a cosmopolitan annual weed that seeds prolifically. D. discolor is a native species found in riverbeds and desert washes in Arizona and southeastern California. It has smaller flowers. D, stramonium is naturalized throughout the United States. D. stramonium is distinguished from D. wrightii because the plants have smaller flowers and a more erect growing habit.
Jimsonweed grows to heights of between 1 and 5 feet. Its leaves’ edges are toothed edges and nearly egg shaped with pointed ends. Their length ranges from 2 to 8 inches. Funnel-shaped flowers are 2-1/2 to 4 inches long and open to a trumpetlike bell in white, violet or lavender. The plant’s fruit is a spiny pod measuring roughly 2 inches in diameter. The seedpods grow as they ripen and the seeds mature. Ripe seedpods burst open, scattering the seeds.
The contraction of “Jamestown weed” is the origin of the name Jimsonweed. Soldiers and settlers were poisoned after eating the plant’s leaves in salads. Long ago in India and Russia, robbers would grind up the seeds of Jimsonweed and mix them with water as a way to sedate, induce amnesia or daze people they intended to victimize and rob. Members of the ancient Indian religious order that worshipped Kali, the goddess of destruction, would also grind the seeds and feed them to people before robbing and/ murdering them. In China, Jimsonweed was prescribed for the sedative effects, for foot diseases and used for flatulence.
All parts of Datura or Jimsonweed are poisonous. Keep places where livestock graze free of the plant. Ridding an area of plants is difficult and time consuming because of the ease with which seeds spread. Some people may experience skin irritation from contact with these plants, so wear protective clothing or gear. Symptoms of Jimsonweed poisoning include blurred vision, confusion, dilated pupils, dry mouth, difficulty urinating, hallucinations and tachycardia. Although it rarely causes death, later signs of toxicity may include coma and seizures. Emergency medical attention is necessary in cases of suspected Jimsonweed poisoning. Poisoning is treated with activated charcoal and gastric lavage. Severe sinus tachycardia is treated with beta-blockers.
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.
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)!
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Jimson weed’s white to purple blooms are fragrant at night, attracting moths and other nocturnal pollinators, a common trait in white-bloomed plants. The rest of the plant, however, is stinky! Crush and sniff the oaklike leaves, and you’ll understand why domesticated and wild animals avoid eating this plant—it smells a bit like feet. Indeed, accidental poisonings tend be more common among humans than among other animals.
The Weed of the Month series explores the ecology and history of the common wild plants that most gardeners consider weeds.
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].”