Solanaceae / Nightshade
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Lore: Whatever it's origin Datura figures prominently in the history of medicine, myth and magic. There is a well known story about the name Jimsonweed having arisen from the colony at Jamestown Virginia.(Dobelis) (Grieve) Versions of the story differ in details but it seems a group of British soldiers, sent there to quell a rebellion in 1676, were fed the leaves of this Datura, which was common around the settlement. As the story goes, the soldiers were out of their minds for about a week and when they finally recovered they remembered nothing of what had happened.
The use of Datura by priests and shamans predates history. It may have been used at Delphi by priests of Apollo to bring on visions of the future and its use was certainly known by ancient Peruvians and others in South and Central America. It was smoked by Arabs and used as an agent of assassination in India.
Occasionally a youth attempts to use Datura as a recreational drug often ending up in a hospital emergency ward. The seeds are usually taken and a small dose can produce profoundly distressing effects if not death. As little as half a teaspoon of crushed seeds can produce complete delirium in an adult followed by days of disorientation and loss of equilibrium. I have interviewed a young man who experimented with Datura and there was nothing remotely pleasant or recreational about the experience. In fact, nothing was remembered of the first day and his actions were known to him only as related later by witnesses.
Medical Uses: All parts of the plant contain the active components but it is the leaves and seeds most often used medically. The active alkaloids are hyoscyamine, atropine and scopolamine. The plant has well known and proven properties which include being antispasmodic and anti-asthmatic. It is a hallucinogenic, produces delirium and death. Other effects include the dilated pupils and airways, increased heart rate and dry mouth. The most common medical use of the plant has always been the treatment of asthma. It seems the leaves have long been smoked for that purpose in this area by Native Americans and by many others in far flung corners of the earth. Chemicals from Datura are used to dilate the eyes, in patches placed behind the ear for vertigo and to treat Parkinson's disease. (Grieve) (Hamel/Chiltoskey) (Dobelis) (Foster & Duke) Warning: This plant should never be used for self medication. The effects are unpredictable and possibly deadly. There are many deaths reported! Even when the plant is used by knowledgeable practitioners accidents are common perhaps due to the unpredictable effects from plant to plant and person to person. Contact with the plant my produce certain physical effects such as dilated pupils.
Similar Species: Sacred Thorn-apple
(Datura wrightii) is a southwestern species sometimes found as far east as Florida. It has flowers up to 20cm (8")
long that have violet highlights. The plant is downy. Pricklyburr (Datura inoxia) has flowers with ten points to about
15cm (6") long. The leaves are not toothed. It too is downy. Datura Metel is a garden plant from the old world
tropics that may escape cultivation in the deep south.
One of the best general guides to wildflowers of the North Eastern and North Central United States. Newcomb's key is an excellent, simple method for identifying plants. Newcomb has drawings for almost every plant mentioned that are excellent aids to identifying the species. Though only the more common plants are covered this is often the first book I pick up when trying to identify a wildflower.
This is perhaps the best of many field guides covering this region. Featuring 446 excellent color photographs (located with the text) and mentioning as similar to those illustrated are another 800 or so species for a total coverage of over 1,200 species. The start of each family section includes line drawings of some of the species showing important features. The text includes the usual description, bloom season, range, habitat and additionally includes information such as medical uses and lore and how the species was named. This is the official field guide of the Tennessee Native Plant Society.
Angiosperms / Flowering Plants
Dicots / Two Seed Leaves