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's genealogy are the numerous members containing narcotic and sometimes poisonous alkaloids: tobacco, belladonna, horse nettle, bittersweet vine, enchanter's nightshade, jimson weed, and others.
In this region there are five nightshade genera, containing 11 species. In addition to jimson weed, these include apple-of-Peru, ground cherry, several nightshades, and horse nettle.
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 don't think I'd ask for another slice of ground-cherry pie either.
As for jimson weed, I won’t even touch it with my bare hands these days, now that I know more about its properties and history. I regard 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 four 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 immortalized in at least four of her out-sized floral studies. Jimson weed grew near her home in New Mexico. In one of these studies, she placed the four flowers in a design that repeated the tight rhythm of the pinwheel-shaped blossoms, and she highlighted the beauty of the flowers by depicting them using a light, simplified palette of colors.
“When I think of the delicate fragrance of the flowers, I almost feel the coolness and sweetness of the evening,” O’Keefe said. It’s probable that she also knew about the dark side of the plant’s history and lore, but she didn’t bother to mention them to the patron in New York City who commissioned the painting.
Since the fruit of jimson weed is a spiny ball about two inches in diameter, the plant is also called thorn apple. In late fall this pod splits open, revealing four compartments in which there are numerous black seeds. As might be expected, these seeds are the most potent part of the plant. Cattle and sheep have died after grazing on jimson weed leaves and fruit. And the deaths of humans who have devoured the seeds, especially children and old people, 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 America at a very early date. The settlers of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement (1607) in the New World, brought the plant 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 the 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.’” Some historians have conjectured that he, too, may have eaten the same fruits.
Thereafter, the plant was known as "Jamestown weed" — a designation that in time became "jimson weed." By any name, it has a long and lethal history.
Editor’s note: This George Ellison column first appeared in a July 2006 edition of The Smoky Mountain News.