HOW DO YOU FEEL when the most admired thing in your garden is a weed? I was pleased to give a tour of our Master Gardener Demonstration Garden to a group of urban agriculture educators from across New York State. They enjoyed seeing the pollinators working the prairie garden, talked knowingly about the vine borers killing the squash, and nodded politely when viewing the ornamental grasses. Then, over by composting central, we found a healthy specimen of Datura stramonium in full, seductive bloom, and their faces lit up. Jimsonweed! Those with knowledge shared stories with the uninitiated, creating the best educational moment of the afternoon.
I should take comfort that it was no shrinking violet or creeping Charlie which took center stage away from our coddled, cultivated plants. Jimsonweed is a species of mystery, history, power and beauty. The plant grows from two to five feet tall and its large, dark green, deeply lobed leaves vaguely resemble those of an oak tree. Flowering from June into August, the ample white to purple blossoms open late in the day. While a dispassionate botanist could describe them in clinical terms, to my eye they’re flagrantly seductive and perhaps slightly sinister, their spirit captured so well in the paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe. As the flowers fade, green seed pods develop, egg-shaped and covered with prickles. These will dry into capsules of four segments, each containing dark brown seeds.
Do plants have some inner spark, as I and perhaps Ms. O’Keeffe might argue, or are they all innocents until human or beast comes bumbling along? In either case, Jimsonweed has attracted attention for centuries. Containing chemicals called the tropane alkaloids, in small doses it was thought to cure ailments from asthma to diarrhea, but larger quantities proved powerfully poisonous and could cause a trip of delirium, delusions and hallucinations for a few hours to several days. Death is also possible. The plant’s well-known abilities made it part of eastern religions, gave it a mention in Homer’s “Odyssey” and provided it roles in several of Shakespeare’s plays.
While extremely dangerous to those in the know, even more at risk are folks who stumble into Jimsonweed uninformed. Take the English soldiers charged with stamping out Bacon’s Rebellion in the Virginia of 1676, who made a “boiled salad” with this mighty herb as one of the ingredients. Their dinner turned them into raving fools, blowing feathers, kissing one another and removing their official raiments, behavior that precipitated a period of extended confinement. Since the incident occurred near Jamestown, the plant bears a twisted variation of that name today.
A few modern-day gardeners have been exposed to Datura’s influences by mistaking the plant for something edible (oddly, in one case, horseradish) or concocting home remedies. Teens and risk-taking adults occasionally hear of Jimsonweed and decide to experiment with it, since it is free, available, and largely unregulated. In doing so they put themselves in grave danger. The Jimsonweed at our garden has since been removed, making it a safer, if less exciting, place.
To contact David Chinery, horticulture educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County, email