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.
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.
Fruits/Seeds: Fruit is a four-segmented egg-shaped capsule, 1-2 inches long, covered with stiff prickles. The capsule opens from the tip when ripe, exposing many dark, pitted seeds with tiny wrinkles.
Leaves: Jimsonweed leaves have an unpleasant odor when slightly bruised. The first true leaves are spade-shaped and have many veins and appear somewhat puckered. Mature leaves are elliptical to egg-shaped, uneven at the margins, and show puckering between the veins. They are 3-8 inches long, 6 inches wide, on long, stout petioles. Margins of leaves have a few large triangular teeth.
Stems: Very stout, hollow, smooth, branching, green or more often purple, with inconspicuous hairs.
Roots: A thick and extensively branched taproot system.
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.
Soils: Occurs on a wide variety of soil types.
Associated Species: Big sagebrush, Utah juniper.
Uses and Management:
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.
It is occasionally grown as an ornamental, and attracts bees, butterflies, and moths.
All parts of jimsonweed are very poisonous. Cattle and sheep have died from eating it. Symptoms include dilated pupils, thirst, fever, loss of coordination, confusion, rapid pulse, labored respiration, hallucinations, convulsions, and eventual coma. Even inhaling the sweet fragrance of the flowers can cause headaches and dizziness. The sap can cause a skin rash.
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Jimson Weed, Datura, Thorn Apple, Toloache
Jimson weed is an upright or sprawling herbaceous perennial with large, showy flowers that open at night. It is a highly toxic plant but was used by knowledgeable native peoples for medicinal purposes and for shamanistic ritual.
The funnel-shaped flower has five white petals united at the base to form the funnel. The closely related species, Datura wrightii Regel., is a similar but slightly smaller plant that is reported to have white to violet flowers. Both plants produce a fruit that is a noding, globose capsule with spiny protuberances. It measures about 1.75 inches in diameter, and pops open when it dries out, releasing the numerous seeds. Jimson weed is widely scattered in dry streambeds, along active stream terraces, and along canyon ledges and rims, and roadsides across the Lower Pecos region.
Jimson weed is one of the most potent narcotic plants native to North America. Unlike many of the cacti that contain psychoactive compounds, jimson weed is a dangerously poisonous plant that has killed many people who have ingested it. When recreational use is attempted in Western societies, deaths often occur (Litovitz et al. 1994). Datura plants contain many powerful compounds including the belladonna alkaloids atropine, hyoscine or scoplalamine, and hyoscyamine (Bye et al. 1991). These compounds produce complex physical reactions when any part of the plant is ingested. Symptoms include hallucinations, memory loss, very high fever, tachycardia (heartbeat above 120/minute), and not infrequently, death.
Archeological occurrence. Seeds were noted in Middle Archaic deposits of Hinds Cave (Dering 1979). The seeds were recovered from a sotol mat fragment adjacent to a hearth within in a large midden-like deposit. The context does not suggest special use or treatment, such as a cache. Datura has been recovered from surface structures at pueblo sites in the southwest, where activity spaces were more formally organized and preservation is much better. At Higgins Flat Pueblo near the San Francisco River, New Mexico, about 900 datura seeds were found on the floor of a room that yielded ceremonial objects (Cutler 1956; Cutler and Kaplan 1956; Yarnell 1959).
Ethnographic records indicate that the use of datura would have been limited to focused activities such as healing ceremonies, rights of passage, and other ritual occasions. Recovering seeds from archeological sites would be considered a very rare find. In Lower Pecos rockshelters, in is quite unlikely that ceremonial seeds would be found in trash or midden deposits. The few archeological contexts within which datura seeds may have been placed are limited to offerings in burials or special caches, most of which have been disturbed or destroyed by looters.
Medicine and ritual. In medicinal or ritual applications, datura was and is a two-edged sword. It had to be used carefully by the experienced practicioner, and even then the drug could either heal or kill (Bean and Saubel 1972:61). The seeds contain the most alkaloids, but the entire plant is loaded with dangerous compounds. Shamans or healers used the entire plant including seeds, roots, stem, and leaves. It was utilized for divination, prophecy, initiation ceremonies, ritual intoxication, diagnosis and healing. Groups of northern Mexico used datura (Bennet and Zingg 1935; Pennington 1963; Zingg 1938). Virtually all the Southwestern groups with a recorded ethnobotany used datura, including the Cahuilla, Chumash, Navajo, Paiute, Yokut, and the Yuman groups (Bean and Saubel 1972; Elmore 1943; La Barre 1975; Schultes 1972). Only a brief introduction to the extensive literature on the subject is presented here. The tribes of southern California and the Zuñi of northern New Mexico provide an interesting overview for the use of this plant.
The Cahuilla shamans used datura to transcend the physical world and embark on magical flights to the spirit world. The shaman journeyed to the spirit realm to gain useful information for his people. The Cahuilla and other southern California groups used the properties of datura in puberty rites for boys. While under the influence of datura, the young boy would receive information regarding his talents and make connections with the spirit world, and these would affect his standing in the community as an adult (Bean and Saubel 1972:62). Dancers used the plant to gain strength for very long ceremonies including the eagle dance. In ceremonies requiring singing, the singers were permitted to take datura for strength. These applications involved very low doses of datura, sometimes added to other drinks (Bean and Saubel 1972:65). Chumash shamans used datura to journey to travel to the spirit realm and gain information with guardians or dream helpers, communicate with the dead, predict the future, and to heal (Applegate 1975).
The hallucinations generated by datura intoxication, when mediated by the shaman or other religious authorities, produced verification of the mythic traditions of the society. As Bean and Saubel (1972:62) stated: “Datura enabled [the initiate] to glimpse the ultimate reality of the creation stories in Cahuilla cosmology.” The imagery involved in datura intoxication, and its connections to physical-world animals and plants and belief systems in indigenous Southwestern groups, is briefly summarized in Boyd (2003: 95-99).
In far lower doses, datura was utilized in more mundane, medicinal applications. The Cahuilla understood that datura was a pain reliever, especially for setting bones, and applied it to specific areas of the body. For wounds like broken bones a paste of powdered leaves would be heated and applied to the area of the break, and a hot stone would be pressed against the area for warmth. Powdered leaves were made into an ointment and spread on an afflicted body part, including teeth and gums, or insect bites (Bean and Saubel 1972:62).
For bad colds, asthma, or bronchitis, the patient would inhale steam from datura leaves to relieve congestion. The atropine in the plant effectively dilates and dries out nasal passages (Bean and Saubel 1972:62). The Zuñi made a paste of the root and flowers and applied this to all types of wounds, claiming that the practice accelerated healing (Stevenson 1915:46).
Applegate, Richard. B.
1975 The Datura Cult Among the Chumash. Journal of California Anthropology 2:7-17.
Bean, Lowell J. and Katherine S. Saubel
1972 Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants. Malki Museum Press, Morongo Indian Reservation, Banning, California.
Bennet, Wendell C. and Robert M. Zingg
1935 The Tarahumara: An Indian Tribe of Northern Mexico. University of Chicago Press. Chicago, Illinois.
Boyd, Carolyn E.
2003 Rock Art of the Lower Pecos. Texas A&M University Press, College Station, Texas.
Bye, Robert, R. Mata, and J. Pimentel
1991 Botany, Ethnobotany, and Chemistry of Datura lanosa (Solanaceae) in Mexico. Anales del Instituto Biológica, Universidad Nacional Autónomo, Serie Botánica 61(1):21-42.
Cutler, Hugh C.
1956 The Plant Remains. In Higgins Flat Pueblo: Western New Mexico, edited by P. S. Martin, J. B. Rinaldo, E.A. Bluhm, and H. C. Cutler, pp. 174-183. Fieldiana, Anthropology 45, Chicago Museum of Natural History, Chicago.
Cutler, Hugh C. and Lawrence Kaplan
1956 Some Plant Remains from Montezuma Castle and Nearby Caves (NA4007B and C on Dry Beaver Creek). Plateau 28:98-100.
Dering, J. Philip
1979 Pollen and Plant Macrofossil Vegetation Record Recovered from Hinds Cave, Val Verde County, Texas. M.S. thesis, Texas A&M University. Published by the Department of Anthropology. College Station, Texas.
Elmore, Francis. H.
1943 Ethnobotany of the Navajo. University of New Mexico Bulletin. Monograph Series 1(7). University of New Mexico Press. Albuquerque, New Mexico.
La Barre, Weston
1975 The Peyote Cult. 4th edition. Schocken Books, New York, New York.
Litovitz T. L., L. R. Clark, and Soloway R. A.
1994 The 1993 Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers Toxic Exposure Surveillance System. American Journal of Emergency Medicine 12:546-84.
Pennington, Campbell W.
1963 The Tarahumara of Mexico: Their Environment and Material Culture. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, Utah.
Schultes, Richard E.
1972 An Overview of Hallucinogens in the Western Hemisphere. In Flesh of the Gods, ed. by Peter T. Furst, pp. 3-54. Praeger, New York.
Stevenson, Matilda Coxe
1915 Ethnobotany of the Zuñi Indians. In Thirtieth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology. [1908-1909], pp. 35-103. Washington, D.C.
Yarnell, Richard A.
1959 Prehistoric Pueblo Use of Datura. El Palacio 66(5):176-178.
Zingg, Robert M.
1938 Report of the Mr. and Mrs. Henry Pfeiffer Expedition for Huichol Ethnography: The Huichols, Primitive Artists. 1977, reprint. Kraus Reprints, Millwood, New York.