Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Devil's Snare: Jimsonweed

Jimsonweed plant with its closed flower waiting for dusk to open.

     Few plants have as rich a folklore and history of uses as Datura stramonium, which goes by such a varied assortment of common names: Jimsonweed, Devil's Snare, Mad Apple, Thornapple, Moon Flower, Stinkweed, Hell's Bells, Raving Nightshade, Devils' Trumpet, Jamestown Weed, Locoweed, Prickly Bur, Angel's Trumpet, and Devil's Cucumber, among others. This annual herb can grow to 2-5 feet high and is a member of the Solanaceae (night shade) family. Although originally thought to be native to Mexico, it spread to our region and naturalized long ago. It has since spread to many parts of the world as well.

Its spiny seed pod has led to many common names.

     It has been used medicinally all over the world, as well as a recreational and religious drug. Medicinal uses included smoking it for asthma treatment, to treat nerves and colds (by the Chinese), and to treat impotence as well as to stupefy sacrificial victims (in India).
     Francis Porcher in his Confederate medicinal treatise praised its many applications: "A well-known narcotic and antispasmodic, employed in mania, epilepsy, chorea, tetanus, and palsy... maniacs restored to perfect saneness of mind, which they never afterward lost...The seeds are soporific, and are said to induce delirium and partial forgetfulness." He suggested using it to treat "mania without fever...nymphomania...asthma...eaten to control pains, ulcers, tumors,..and dilate pupils. I've seen the extract used to a large extent in the New York Eye Infirmary."

Seed pod and seeds

      Native peoples used it quite extensively as medicine also. The Zuni used it to relieve pain while setting bones. The Aztecs for paralysis and cuts. The Cherokee as a poultice for boils, piles, and to treat asthma and wounds. The Rappahanock would use it for fevers and pneumonia. The Navajo used it for eyes, tooth aches, and even to treat the castration wounds in their sheep.
     But its psychoactive properties were what it was best known for. Whether used in religious ceremonies in India, by the Aztec in Mexico, and even in the most important rite of passage by Virginia's native people (covered in a separate blog posting), it was often assigned religious significance. It has since been rediscovered as a recreational drug, usually utilizing the seeds as a smoking mix. But all these are dangerous practices, especially since the active ingredients of atropine and scopolamine can vary with the age of the plant, the weather conditions, and how fertile the ground is where it is growing. It can have fatal consequences very easily, particularly when its seeds are used.
     While introduced into this region, it has now become quite common. It blooms mostly at night or when the sky is cloudy, the trumpet-like flowers opening and releasing fragrance. I have often seen sphinx moths necataring at it at dusk. Better they partake in it rather than people.

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