By Kathleen Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society
Perhaps the first struggle between American colonists and the Crown was fought, not with cannon or muskets or even tea, but with a sinister native herb. Datura stramonium, also known as jimson weed, thorn apple, hell’s bells, locoweed, devil’s cucumber and the devil’s snare, was the enemy. A member of the nightshade family, its name “jimson” is a corruption of “Jamestown,” the name of the first continuous English colony on American soil.
Jimson weed is an annual, growing into an erect shrub up to five feet tall, with large, smooth leaves, and long, trumpet-like tubular white flowers. The flowers smell lovely, but the rest of the plant stinks. It doesn’t just stink, it tastes bad as well. At least, that’s what I hear, and I am content not to test that.
Although jimson weed was valued and widely introduced to Europe for its medicinal values, its effects can be nasty, even lethal. And so, European gardeners are urged to remove any plants that they find. And they are advised to wear gloves. The seeds are contained by the hundreds in a spiny, protective capsule). This is easier said than done because seeds can lie dormant for several seasons before sprouting, and are carried widely by birds.
Every part of the plant contains dangerous levels of the tropane alkaloids atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine which, in carefully controlled quantities, have been used for anesthesia and to induce visions. A tiny bit more can kill you. And something in between will cause a nauseated delirium.
People being people, some have tried to use D. stramonium to obtain a recreational high. It’s usually not tried twice. In Haiti, a tradition suggests ingesting the seeds leads to creation of zombies.
That brings us to the reason the plant’s common name includes a reference to Jamestown. In 1676, colonist Nathaniel Bacon had a beef with colonial Governor William Berkeley. Because of a widely held perception that the governor was corrupt and that English authorities were repressive a popular rebellion started and grew.
As part of the rebellion colonists chased the governor out of town and torched the settlement. Any rebellion would be alarming, but Bacon’s Rebellion united both free white settlers and indentured servants and enslaved persons. British authorities found that a very dangerous state of affairs indeed. This would sound noble; however, one of the rebels’ aims was to annihilate or remove native tribes.
Skirmishes continued for years. During the time – according to a story reported in 1705 by Robert Beverly – some of the occupying force was given D. stramonium to eat in a “boiled salad.” The king’s representatives spent the next 11 days in the town lockup, delirious and incapacitated. But they did get better, and we are told, forgot what had passed. The story is immortalized in the plant’s common name, jimson or Jamestown weed.
People still show up in emergency rooms with poisoning from exposure to jimson weed. This can present a real challenge to medical personnel, since the patient is incoherent, and may have no idea what he or she ingested to cause the problem. Entire families have been laid low after enjoying a stew of foraged greens.
And so, the plant deserves a little respect.