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jimson weed seed pod

The genus name Datura comes from the Hindi word for the plant, noteworthy since most botanical names are derived from Latin or Greek. The origins of the plant itself are contested—every source I checked listed a different native origin, ranging from Mexico to India, and it now grows all over the world. Not surprisingly, it has found its way into many cultural and medicinal traditions. Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, and Native American shamanistic practices all employ jimson weed medicinally or ritualistically. Its seeds and leaves are used as an antiasthmatic, antispasmodic, hypnotic, and narcotic.

The Weed of the Month series explores the ecology and history of the common wild plants that most gardeners consider weeds.

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The Weed of the Month series explores the ecology and history of the common wild plants that most gardeners consider weeds.

Having grown up in Virginia, I was intrigued by one of the common names I saw recurring in my plant books—Jamestown weed—and researched the origins. One story simply connects the first New World observations of the plant to settlers in this early Virginia colony. A more famous tale tells of the plant’s accidental ingestion by some British soldiers sent there to suppress Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. After eating some in a stew, the soldiers spent 11 days in a hallucinatory stupor, blowing feathers, kissing and pawing their companions, and making faces and grinning “like monkey[s].”

Jimson weed’s white to purple blooms are fragrant at night, attracting moths and other nocturnal pollinators, a common trait in white-bloomed plants. The rest of the plant, however, is stinky! Crush and sniff the oaklike leaves, and you’ll understand why domesticated and wild animals avoid eating this plant—it smells a bit like feet. Indeed, accidental poisonings tend be more common among humans than among other animals.

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The Datura genus represents around nine species of poisonous flowering plants that include the sacred thornapple (Datura wrightii, USDA growing zones 9 through 11), jimson weed (Datura stramonium, growing zones 6 through 9) and toloache (Datura inoxia, growing zones 9 through 10). The plants are sprawling annuals or short-lived perennials, perhaps best known for their wavy, trumpet-shaped flowers that can grow in many different colors.

Datura plants need a good deal of room, and they can grow quickly to reach several feet assuming the weather gets warm enough. They are commonly seen in pots, but they fair best in the ground, though they cannot survive cold weather. They require very little by the way of pruning and have few if any pests, though they may attract mealybugs, spider mites and whiteflies.

What Is Datura?

To keep seeds for storage and future planting, the seeds must be dried, ideally on paper towels or other absorbent materials. They should be stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark area.

There are different species in the genus around the world. Some people will consume the various parts of the plants as a psychoactive substance despite the dangers associated with it. The flowers of these plants will eventually fade and transform into spiny seed pods around the size of a walnut.

The seed pods of the plant start off green but will split when ripe and release flat, tan-to-black, kidney-shaped seeds that will not germinate before the pod ripens, but when they reach that point, they will remain viable for a few years. In some cases, these plants can become invasive if the seeds spread in areas where the plant is not native.