A Datura Adventure—Colonial Style

DaturaMontage

I’m often intrigued by the eerie, almost sinister looking, half-closed flowers over at the edge of the yard. Sometimes in the mornings there will be an industrious bumble bee forcing its way into the wilting floral tube. This almost luminescent, ghostly white flower opens in the twilight and perfumes the night with a strangely alluring aroma that lasts until morning.

Datura stramonium is its scientific name. The name comes from the Hindu word for the plant, Dhatura . Most of us know it as jimsonweed or thorn-apple. I was surprised to learn that it is native to Asia, though it’s now considered “cosmopolitan” and can be found growing in most temperate parts of the world.

It must have come to America with the Jamestown colonists because it was growing there around 1676 when those hungry soldiers arrived to quell Bacon’s Rebellion. They gathered, cooked, and ate some tender young greens they found growing at the edge of the village. These greens turned out to be Datura, and the soldiers responded to it rather dramatically–as reported by Robert Beverly in his 1705 History and Present State of Virginia:

This being an early Plant, was gather’d very young for a boil’d Salad, by some of the soldiers…and some of them eat plentifully of it, the Effect of which was a very pleasant Comedy; for they turn’d natural Fools upon it for several Days: One would blow up a Feather in the Air; another wou’d dart Straws at it with much Fury; and another stark naked was sitting up in a Corner, like a Monkey, grinning and making Mows at them; a Fourth would fondly kiss, and paw his Companions, and snear in their Faces, with a Countenance more antick, than any in a Dutch Droll. In this frantick Condition they were confined, lest they should in their Folly destroy themselves; though it was observed, that all their Actions were full of Innocence and good Nature. Indeed, they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallow’d in their own Excrements, if they had not been prevented. A Thousand such simple Tricks they play’d, and after Eleven Days, return’d to themselves again, not remembring any thing that had pass’d.

This was the first account of Europeans having a psychedelic experience in North America. (An 11 day trip, no less!) After that event, the plant became known as “Jamestown weed.” Over the last couple of centuries the name has become corrupted, so we now know it as “jimsonweed.” Those soldiers were very lucky. There have been many human interactions with the plant since, and most of them have not ended so happily. Jimsonweed is loaded with powerful alkaloids, and ingestion of even small amounts can cause permanent mental damage; many fatalities have been recorded. If you are interested in ingesting mind-altering plants or wild greens, Daturas are best left alone.

Datura2Late one overcast summer afternoon I passed this clump of jimsonweed blossoms. They were opening early. It’s rare to see them open in the daylight so I snapped a couple of photos. I was gratified that Jim Duke and Steven Foster chose this photo as an illustration in the Peterson Field Guide to Medicinal Plants and Herbs. I have spent thousands of hours with that series of field guides, and I have learned much of what I know about the natural world from them. It was an honor to actually be able to contribute to one.

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Thanks to Todd Elliott for the use of two of his photos.
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