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Wednesday, 29 June 2016 03:11

Backyard weed merits deadly respect

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mtnvoices“Seeds of this common weed do indeed contain an hallucinogenic component, but, as is so often the case, the same chemical is also highly toxic, and the line between ‘a trip’ and ‘the final trip’ is a fine one which varies from one individual to another.”

— Jim Horton, The Summer Times (1979)

If you have a weedy overgrown area on your property, there’s a chance that jimson weed is flowering there right now. The good news is that it’s one of the more interesting species in one of the most remarkable plant families. The bad news is that it’s one of the most toxic and potentially lethal plants in the Smokies region.

Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) belongs to the nightshade family, which includes among its members such familiar garden vegetables and ornamentals as petunias, potatoes, tomatoes, green and red peppers and eggplants. On the darker side of the family tree are numerous plants containing narcotic and sometimes poisonous alkaloids: ground cherry, belladonna, horse nettle, bittersweet vine, enchanter’s nightshade, jimson weed and others.

The yellow, tomato-like berry enclosed in the inflated, lantern-like seedpod of the ground cherry is toxic when green but sometimes harvested and made into jams or pies when ripe. Caution should be exercised. I no longer pop ripe ground cherries into my mouth during fall outings as I once did. And I won’t be asking for another slice of ground-cherry pie either.

As for jimson weed, I won’t even touch it with bare hands now that I know more about its properties and history. I observe the stout three- to six-foot tall plant — which displays large irregularly-lobed, purple-tinged leaves and funnel-shaped flowers — from a distance, according it the same respect reserved for copperheads, rattlesnakes, and amanita mushrooms.

The white or pale violet flowers are about 4 inches long, having an open end that flares into pointed lobes and a closed end at the stem covered by a green angular sleeve. (These are the lushly ominous flowers Georgia O’Keefe, who observed them near her home in New Mexico, immortalized in at least four of her out-sized floral studies.) In late fall the seedpod splits open, revealing four compartments in each of which there are numerous black seeds. 

As might be expected, the seeds are the most potent part of the plant. Cattle and sheep often die after grazing on the leaves and fruit. And the deaths of humans who have ingested the seeds, especially children, are recorded throughout the literature about the plant.

The dried leaves — marketed as “stramonium”— have long been used as cigarettes or other inhalant forms in the treatment of asthma as an antispasmodic. This use apparently encouraged people to experiment with the seeds, which contain potentially lethal doses of several alkaloids.

Authorities differ on the origins of the plant, but it was apparently introduced into North America at an exceptionally early date. The settlers of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement (1607) in the New World, brought it with them and it thrived along the Virginia coastline. 

In 1676, the uprising known as Bacon’s Rebellion took place as a result of governor William Berkeley’s refusal to commission an army to protect Virginia frontiersmen from Indians and other grievances. Nathaniel Bacon raised an unauthorized army against which the governor sent his troops.

Near Jamestown many of the governor’s ill-equipped, famished soldiers devoured the thorny fruits of a plant growing in profusion thereabouts and promptly died. 

Shortly thereafter, Bacon himself, aged 29, died suddenly “of a mysterious fever called the ‘Bloodie Flux.’” Historians have conjectured that he, too, ate the same fruits.

Be that as it may, the plant was henceforth known as “Jamestown weed” — a designation that in time became “jimson weed.” 

(George Ellison is a naturalist and writer. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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