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Jimson weed (Datura stramonium, a member of the Belladonna alkyloid family) is a plant growing naturally in West Virginia and has been used as a home remedy since colonial times. Due to its easy availability and strong anticholinergic properties, teens are using Jimson weed as a drug. Plant parts can be brewed as a tea or chewed, and seed pods, commonly known as “pods” or “thorn apples,” can be eaten. Side effects from ingesting jimson weed include tachycardia, dry mouth, dilated pupils, blurred vision, hallucinations, confusion, combative behavior, and difficulty urinating. Severe toxicity has been associated with coma and seizures, although death is rare. Treatment consists of activated charcoal and gastric lavage. Esmolol or other beta-blocker may be indicated to reduce severe sinus tachycardia. Seizures, severe hypertension, severe hallucinations, and life-threatening arrhythmias are indicators for the use of the anticholinesterase inhibitor, Physostigmine. This article reviews the cases of nine teenagers who were treated in hospitals in the Kanawha Valley after ingesting jimson weed. We hope this article will help alert primary care physicians about the abuse of jimson weed and inform health officials about the need to educate teens about the dangers of this plant.
Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) is a beautiful, witchy plant that begins blooming in late summer and continues through the first frost. A member of the notorious nightshade family, its more famous cousins include tomato, eggplant, pepper, tobacco, and potato. Most members of this plant family are poisonous, and jimson weed is no exception. All parts of the plant are toxic, most particularly the seeds. Potent amounts of alkaloid compounds are present, which potentially cause convulsions, hallucinations, and even death if ingested. And as climate change increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, studies have found that the toxicity of plants like jimson weed only increases.
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Though the trumpet-shaped flowers are stunning, my favorite part of the plant is the devilish-looking seedpod. The size of a Ping-Pong ball and covered in spikes, the seed capsule splits into four parts like a monster’s maw, revealing the dark brown seeds inside. In the winter you might notice its tall, dry stalks bearing the prickly seedpods, which to me look like the scepter for a demon. With all its extraordinary looks and lore, jimson weed is a fascinating plant to contemplate (but maybe not cultivate)!
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.
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].”