Sometimes called angel's trumpet, mad apple, moonflower, stinkweed or Jamestown weed, the tall jimsonweed plant is not an unusual sight in unused land–railroad sidings, vacant lots, construction sites and abandoned property. It is an especially common weed in the Southern and Western United States, where it grows rapidly in sandy soil which has good drainage. It is sometimes cultivated as an ornamental plant with its glossy, dark-green wave-edged leaves (up to about eight inches long) and trumpet-shaped white to light purple flowers. The leaves are rank-smelling but the flowers have a pleasant fragrance. The fruit of this plant is a walnut-sized green thorny oval. These seed pods give rise to another name for the jimsonweed, the thornapple (sometimes hyphenated).
Species Datura stramonium
There are two easily-confused species of Datura, with similar common names: Datura stramonium and D. wrightii. D. stramonium is the accepted name, although the name D. tatula is an earlier name which still shows up from time to time.
A Toxic Plant
Many of the plants in genus Datura are toxic to one degree or another, jimsonweed falls somewhere between the extremes of toxicity. It contains a strong mixture of alkaloids, including hyoscyamine, stropine, meteloidine, norscopolamine and scopolamine. Ingestion of any part of the plant may cause dilated pupils, dry mouth, reddening of the skin, headache, extremely elevated heart rate and weird, unsettling hallucinations, often featuring small, fast-moving people, animals or things.
Despite the unpleasant odor of the leaves, they are often eaten or smoked by young people hoping to get high. The seeds are sometimes eaten by curious children (even a very small amount, about 4 grams, is enough to kill a child). The toxicity is very high and many people ingesting or smoking jimsonweed wind up dying. A tea is also sometimes made from jimsonweed with purported narcotic or even medicinal properties. Drinking this tea is also frequently fatal.
Some odd cases of jimsonweed poisoning have involved gardeners who have grafted tomato plants to jimsonweed (trying to produce frost-resistant tomatoes). As these plants are in the same family, such grafts will usually take. The fruits thus produced are usually quite toxic and may cause severe intoxication or even death.
Jimsonweed's odd-smelling leaves are usually avoided by animals. In the Western United States, the plant was sometimes called locoweed (this is not the only plant with that nickname), since those animals who did eat it acted strangely.
Native Americans sometimes used the crushed leaves of jimsonweed as a salve for external wounds. Some plants of genus Datura have been used for centuries in Europe, Asia and South America for medicinal purposes. The toxic properties of some of these plants have also led to use in killing unwanted babies. Jimsonweed is also medicinally useful, as it has been used for compounding antispasmodics and asthma drugs.
In the 1680s, some English troops in Jamestown ate the leaves of this plant in their salads and got whacked out of their minds. The plant was thereafter called Jamestown weed, which was later corrupted to jimsonweed. The latter rendering of the name is used almost exclusively these days.
The jimsonweed's flowers are quite striking! As FeltTips points out, Georgia O'Keeffe did some very beautiful paintings of the jimsonweed flower that are very well worth checking out.
Grim, Pamela, “Vital Signs: Runaway Heart” Discover, April 1998, pp. 40-46.
Foster, Steven & Caras, Roger “Venomous Animals and Poisonous Plants” (Houghton Mifflin Co, Boston, 1994).
Creekmore, Hubert, “Daffodils are Dangerous; the Poisonous Plants in your Garden” (Walker and Company, New York, 1966).
Hardin, James W. and Arena, Jay M., "Human Poisoning from Native and Cultivated Plants" Second Edition, (Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina, 1974).
Foster, Steven and Hobbs, Christopher, "Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs" (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2002).
Higginbotham, Cynthia C., "Flower Brew is a Tool of Death" New Orleans Times-Picayune, 14 August, 2004 p. 6
Taxonomy from ITIS Standard Report Page: http://www.itis.usda.gov/servlet/SingleRpt/SingleRpt?search_topic=TSN&search_value=30520
Jensen, Lynne, "Popular Tropical Plant Playing Poisonous Pied Piper to Teens" New Orleans Times-Picayune, 16 October, 1994, p. B3