A toxic beauty
There’s a beautiful plant that shows up (sometimes planned, sometimes not) in many Santa Fe gardens, and it has a deadly reputation. References to this toxic beauty have been documented from Homer’s Odyssey to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, as well as the story of Anthony and Cleopatra. Those who underestimated its lethal, though alluring hallucinogenic powers have learned the hard way: this is one plant best enjoyed from afar.
The seductive Datura wrightii is one of those interesting botanicals with a lot of monikers, like Jimson weed, sacred thorn apple, angel trumpet, sacred Datura, Indian apple, moon lily, moon flower, and toloache. That’s a lot of names for a plant that also made Georgia O’Keeffe a heap ofmoney; it was a favorite subject of the renowned painter.
Most commonly referred to as Jimson weed, the plant has been associated with bad trips and deadly consequences for centuries due to its poisonous alkaloids that include atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolomine. These narcotic and hallucinogenic properties have been used by many cultures in sacred rituals and wild-eyed experimentations, resulting in several popular catch phrases such as, “Red as a beet, dry as a bone, blind as a bat, mad as a hatter.” This is probably because that’s howyou’re going to feel if you try to ingest any part of this plant.
Jimson weed is native to both India and North America and was imported to Europe, where it spread quickly. Often considered to be a weed, it is a perennial herb that grows up to five feet tall, with pale green stems and spreading branches and leaves that are ovate shaped. It is a self-pollinator with showy blooms with white (sometimes tinged purple) and pointed corollas up to four inches long. Their “evil” seeds are contained in hard, spiny capsules, about two inches in diameter, which split into four parts when ripe. It blooms mid-summer to early fall, but its fragrant flowers don’t open up fully until the evening (like the other members of the Nightshade Family), shriveling back up by daylight.
Jimson weed as a sacred herb is where it gets its rep as a dangerous “tripping” flower” reputation. In ancient herbal medicine, it was ingested to treat madness (although it often caused more), epilepsy, and melancholy. As an ointment, it was thought to help burns and rheumatism. It has also been used for weight loss. Shamans have used the roots to make tea made to provide them clairvoyant abilities and spiritual guidance. However, Jimson weed is generally considered too toxic and unreliable for medical applications today. Effects of the plant include exhaustion which develops into hallucinations, leading to deep sleep and eventual loss of consciousness. In large doses, death or permanent insanity may occur. Its rap sheet is well known, making its magical healing attraction a risk many choose to avoid if they are smart.
Luckily, all parts of this plant are unpleasant to the taste, which makes it unappealing to children and animals. Although it grows wildly in pastures, cattle tend to avoid it unless there is sparse food to graze on. In this case, they generally die from poisoning, but this is uncommon.
No matter what Jimson weed’s background is, there is no disputing this plant is absolutely lovely. When it blooms in the evening, the flowers draw you in with their perfect shape and dreamy scent. So, next time you spot Jimson weed, get high off its beauty instead of its leaves and seeds. That’s one psychedelic, toxic trip you can afford to miss.
Carole has been in the floriculture industry, from international wholesale and retail sales to event planning, for over 20 years. She has floral studios in Santa Fe and Baltimore, was a Santa Fe Master Gardener, and supports local/national flower farms and beautification projects. She is available for demonstrations and lectures. Contact her at clan[email protected] or visit www. flowerspy.com.