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Datura stramonium, thorn apple, jimsonweed
The hallucinogenic properties of this plant are remembered in its common name, jimsonweed, and it may have given us a common phrase meaning to take great care over a task.
Read more about Datura stramonium in these blog entries;
Contaminated frozen vegetables poison nine people in Finland.
Claims that Datura causes 'hundreds of deaths every year' look unsustainable
No stories about jimsonweed appearing in the garden this summer
Datura poisoning in India and the sub-continent
A Remembrance Day look at plants associated with war and soldiers
'Silly season' stories about jimsonweed in gardens
Meaning of the Name
Datura stramonium, jimsonweed
May be from the Arabic 'tatorah' but also said to be from the Hindi ‘dhatūrā’ or the Sanskrit ‘dhattūrāh’ both meaning ‘thorn apple’. The Hindi name is thought to only date from the mid 17th century whereas the Sanskrit, it is claimed, is much older.
In Latin, ‘datura’ can be translated to mean ‘send to die’ which might provide a logical explanation for the name. It does not appear in Pliny or Gerard so the possibility exists that its Latin meaning was applied to the plant in India and then, when the plant reached the West, the Hindi/Sanskrit name was returned to Latin.
Is said to be a modern Latin rendering of the French ‘stramoine’ but this word does not appear in modern French dictionaries. It has been suggested that the word originates from the Tatar ‘turman’, a medicine for horses. Otherwise, all definitions are circular; ‘stromonium’ means ’jimsonweed’, ‘jimsonweed’ means ‘stramonium’.
Common Names and Synonyms
How Poisonous, How Harmful?
The whole plant has an unpleasant taste so accidental poisoning from direct ingestion of plant material is unusual. Most poisoning results from the consumption of a tea made from the seeds either for its alleged medicinal benefits or for its hallucinogenic effects. Some arise from alleged 'herbal remedies' but the majority are the result of attempts to use the plants psychoactive properties recreationally.
A number of symptoms have been reported and not all are present in every case. Twenty-nine sources have been examined, both scientific papers reporting on specific cases and 'herbals' going back to Dioscorides.
The overwhelming majority say confusion, delirium and hallucinations are the principal effects with drowsiness, sleep or coma generally following. Dilation of the pupils is such a common effect it gets mentioned in passing in some reports.
Agitation and convulsions requiring the use of restraints or sedatives are reported in around a third of the sources; a similar proportion give death as the outcome of Datura poisoning.
Only a few sources mention the muscle weakness which was supposed to make Datura a useful murder weapon by rendering the victim helpless and memory loss, supposed to help whores get away with robbing their clients, is also a given in a minority of the sources.
In Jamestown in 1679, soldiers ate leaves in a salad and experienced ‘a very pleasant comedy’. In the “History and Present State of Virginia” (1705), Robert Beverly gives an account of what happened. “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 would dart Straws at it with much Fury; another, stark naked, was sitting 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 Dutch Droll. . . . A thousand such simple Tricks they play’d, and after Eleven Days, return’d to themselves again, not remembering anything that had pass’d.” This incident gives the name jimsonweed (Jamestown Weed).
In 38 A.D. Antony led another attempt by the Romans to subdue the Parthians and, as with previous expeditions, met with no success. Starving on the way back, his soldiers were reduced to living off the land and some of them ate Datura. As a result they are reported to have done nothing but ‘turn over every stone in his path with the greatest gravity, as though it were a difficult task.’ It is sometimes said that this incident leads to the saying 'leaving no stone unturned' to mean taking great care over a task.
(It should be said that various plants are cited in connection with the retreat from the Parthians but the Datura is the one most commonly referenced.)
There have been a number of cases of accidental poisoning as well as poisoning due to experimentation. See, also, Datura suaveolens.
In July 2008, a family of six was admitted to hospital in Maryland, USA, a few hours after eating a home made stew. Two were unconscious and the others were laughing, confused, dizzy, thirsty and suffering hallucinations. It was not possible to obtain any information from them and they were treated symptomatically, including tranquillizers in four cases to control their agitation.
Investigators visited the family home and found evidence of green leaves in the remains of the stew, discarded plant material in the kitchen waste bin and a Datura stramonium plant in the garden with numerous freshly cut-off stems.
All six recovered and were released from hospital over the following three to five days. They were, probably, fortunate that a relative happened to visit about an hour after the meal by which time they were already showing sufficiently severe symptoms of mental disturbance as to render them incapable of summoning assistance for themselves.
In the UK, August is known as the 'silly season' in the media because it is the time when, with many people on holiday, there is a lack of real news. This leads to 'silly' stories being published which would, normally, be ignored. Most years, one of the main 'silly season' stories is about people discovering they had Datura stramonium growing in the garden.
Typically, these reports start with a single incident. For example, in 2009 it began in the East Midlands of England with a couple saying they had been amazed to find they had 'a mysterious tropical plant'. Within a few days, other occurrences were reported from East Anglia, Bristol Cornwall and, again, the East Midlands.
In Edmond, Oklahoma, two fourteen year-old boys were hospitalised, also in August 2009, after ingesting seeds from a plant they found growing in a front garden. Police were called three times to the hospital after the boys became violent under the influence of the plant.
The 2010 'Silly Season' produced a typical crop of stories about 'killer plants', generally including a comment from some 'expert' about how rare and dangerous it is. There was even one occurrence in my local area and I think the reporter from the local paper was a bit disappointed when I explained that it occurred a lot more than ever got reported and that it didn't do any harm if you just pulled it up and composted it.
In fact, on one gardening website where people can post questions, the main answer to the often asked question 'What is this plant?' is Datura stramonium. Though some people will leave an intruding plant to mature just to see what it is, most will weed out anything they didn't plant before it reaches any size. This means it is impossible to know how many thousands of Datura grow in UK gardens every year.
In 2012, there were far fewer reports. This may have been because the very wet summer reduced the appearances of the plant or it could have been that the events of that year, the Diamond Jubilee, Olympics and Paralympics, simply consumed all the media's attention.
Under state law in Oklahoma, it is illegal to grow the plant. The local news station, however, reported that since this law was passed, in 2004, there have been 63 hospital admissions for Datura poisoning.
In October 2009 it was reported that a few students, 'less than 10', from the University of Pennsylvania had been admitted to hospital after smoking cannabis laced with leaves from Datura stramonium. It is not clear whether the students added the leaves themselves or if the adulteration had been done by someone else.
The students were reported to be suffering unpleasant hallucinations but not to be in any danger.
In November 2009, five students from Fayetteville, Arkansas required hospital treatment after exposure. The circumstances of the exposure were not known at the time the local newspaper reported the incident.
Folklore and Facts
John Gerard says it has a drowsy and numbing quality not inferior to mandrake. In the form of a salve it cures all manner of burns even those from lightning strikes. He first used it for Mistress Lobel, a merchant’s wife from Colchester, whose recovery ‘when all hope was passed’ after being ‘grievously burned with lightning’ was attested to by a Notary public enabling Gerard to use it, daily, ‘to my great credit and profit’. In the 19th century book, 'American Medicinal Plants' by Charles F. Millspaugh, Baron Storck is credited as the first to use D. stramonium medicinally. In the custom of the time he used it to treat diseases whose symptoms matched those caused by the plant. Thus it was used to treat mania, epilepsy and as a narcotic. It was believed to cause nymphomania and was, therefore, used to treat this ‘condition’.
The production of convulsions was thought to be a sign that it might be a treatment for rabies and Millspaugh says work should be done in this area noting that a letter from the Catholic Bishop of Singapore published in the ‘Straits Times’ gives details of cases in Asia and India where Datura plants have cured rabies.