Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Jamestown Weed

     The story of how Jimsonweed received its common name goes back to early Virginia history. In 1676, British soldiers were sent to quell Bacon's Rebellion and were stationed in Jamestown. A plant later called "Jamestownweed" was boiled for inclusion in a salad which the soldiers ate.
     As told by Robert Beverly in The History and Present State of Virginia (1705): The soldiers presented "a very pleasant comedy, for they turned natural fools upon it for several days: one would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey, grinning and making mows at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll."
     "In this frantic condition they were confined, lest they should, in their folly, destroy themselves - though it was observed that all their actions were full of innocence and good nature. Indeed they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallowed in their own excrements, if they had not been prevented. A thousand such simple tricks they played, and after 11 days returned themselves again, not remembering."
     The name of the plant used in this salad eventually was corrupted to "Jimsonweed" (though it goes by so many other names). The hallucionatory properties of the Datura genus are well known throughout the world, including in my ancestral lands of Peru where the plant goes by the Quechua names of "Chamico" or "Rurutillo." It has been used in religious ceremonies, as well as to get a high, throughout the world. It has spread from its original range in Mexico and the Southwest all over. Other names for it include: Concombre Zombi (Carib for "Zombie Cucumber"), El-rita (Morocco), Feng-chieh-erh (Chinese), Herbe Aux Sorciers (French "Sorcerer's Plant"), Tatula (Perisan), Yoshu Chosen Asago (Japanese "Exotic Flower"), and numerous Spanish names such as Hierba del Diablo ("Devil's Herb"), Manzana del Diablo ("Devil's Apple"), and Papa Espinosa ("Spiny Potato").
     In Virginia, the plant has a deep and important cultural connection. Jimsonweed played a vital role in the initiation rite of young boys into adulthood among many of the Algonquian speaking tribes such as the Powhatan. Called the "Huskanaw," this ritual lasted for many days where the young teens "died" ceremoniously and were reborn as adult members of the tribes. This was often misunderstood by the colonists who sometimes referred to this ceremony as the "Black Boy Death," perhaps partly due to the ritual painting during part of the initiation. It was believed by them that the boys actually died during the ceremony, which of course would mean a tribe would not last very long sacrificing their teens in this way.
     Rather, the boys fasted, underwent many rituals such as running a gauntlet, and partaking of a special potion which is believed to have contained Jimsonweed. This likely led to hallucinations and perhaps vision quests. Some certainly may have died, especially if they did not perform the ritual correctly, not forgetting their former lives, and having to immediately repeat the initiation in an even weaker condition. Thus this psychoactive plant played a vital role in this all-important rite of passage among these native peoples.
     I still remember working in a park many years ago when some teens approached me asking me if I was familiar with the plants in the park. They actually asked me to help them find Datura stramonium. This was likely the only scientific plant name they knew, but I'm pretty sure I know why they knew it and why they wanted to find it. A very dangerous experiment and way to get high indeed...

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