Sandy Parrill: Finding the devil's seed -- plant is dangerous, beautiful

Datura inoxia is a native weed “discovered” by plantsmen that made its way into garden markets as an ornamental under the moniker of moonflowers, from its evening blooming habit. It is beautiful but very toxic in all parts. Courtesy | Sandy Parrill

The heat lay in shimmering waves above the desert; only a single low mesa broke the horizon across rock and sand before the long, hazy purple line of mountains in the distance marked the curve of Earth. One lonely tumbleweed skipped and bounced in a hurry to go nowhere, with the constant wind carrying on its hot breath the dry, dusty creosote bush/sage smell of the living desert. We had driven for miles making our way east. The road was getting long and thirsty and in need of a break when the incongruous sight of a lone wind generator came into view close to the highway, towering over a concrete block building fronted by a little curve of blacktop with a wooden sign that had “New Mexico Land of Enchantment Rest Stop” deeply carved and traced with yellow paint — a welcome oasis just as desperation was setting in. The long arms of the wind generator powering the rest stop sounded an eerie, unearthly thrum. I could feel it vibrating through my body and into my soul, settling forever in my memory.

A lone bit of green in the rocky landscape, populated by scurrying lizards and sparsely dotted with tufts of greyish grass and scruffy weeds caught my eye. Growing boldly and lush against the base of the generator, huge ethereal white flowers glowed in the dimming late afternoon sun. That was my first encounter with fabled Jimsonweed of Western song and stories. Brushing aside a moth or two fluttering lazily around the trumpet-shaped flowers to inhale the lemony sweetness, I was instantly in love — though the foliage had the rank smell of unwashed tennis shoes worn by a hormonal teenage boy.

A couple of plum-sized, thorny seed pods ripe to bursting sort of fell into my hand (well, maybe with the aid of my pocket knife) and were tucked away so I might try this wondrous plant — that I was not even sure would grow in my Missouri garden, being a desert dweller. Little did I know.

Jimsonweed, one of the datura family, Datura stramonium — also known variously as thornapple, devil’s trumpet and other rude names — is native to the American continents, probably originating in Central America and expanding its range over several centuries. It has now spread worldwide. A member of the highly poisonous nightshade family that includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, tobacco and peppers, the datura I brought home is one of the most toxic of the bunch. All parts of the plant, including the seeds, are highly toxic and hallucinogenic. But I didn’t know that then, or I might have been a little more cautious in handling it. Considered a noxious weed in the West, it is hated by ranchers and farmers and illegal to grow in some states. It spreads rapidly, contaminates crops and is poisonous to livestock and anything else (except some native insects) that ingests or handles it, producing many dire consequences including hallucinations, amnesia, convulsions and possible death. The name “Jimsonweed” was a corruption of Jamestown weed. A tale is told of British soldiers sent to stop a rebellion spending days in a hallucinogenic stupor after eating datura leaves in a stew near Jamestown in 1676. No word on who prepared the stew.

Datura wrightii, called sacred datura, has been used ceremoniously by shamans in the Southwest and Central America in rituals for its mind-altering properties. Aztecs as well as Native Americans used datura medicinally. It found its way into Old World (Europe and Asia) herb gardens. There it was, and still is, used in ritual and religious practices as well as herbal medicines for a number of ailments — including diarrhea, asthma, baldness, insanity, impotency and rabies, among others — and as a tranquilizer. Its many alkaloids are valuable in modern medicines.

I grew my purloined desert devil’s trumpet successfully for a few seasons, until I neglected to save seeds one year and lost it. Some years passed before I found it again in the form of Datura inoxia, far from Southwestern deserts in a garden center. This wicked native weed “discovered” by plantsmen made its way into garden markets as an ornamental under the moniker of moonflowers, from its evening blooming habit; though that common name is more properly applied to a vining member of the morning glory family (Ipomoea alba). Hybridized widely, it is available in single and double purple flowers and pale yellow, as well as white. Much the same plant as the closely related D. stramonium, with larger flowers and a subtle difference in leaf shape, it is still very toxic in all parts (as is foliage of most nightshade plants — tomatoes and potatoes in particular, though we can eat fruit or roots of those). Interestingly, it can be a warning monitor for climate change. According to an article from the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, rising levels of carbon dioxide increase toxicity of alkaloids in plants such as Jimsonweed.

As easy to grow as tomatoes, daturas need full sun and adequate moisture, though they are drought tolerant and not too fussy about soil. They often grow in cracks of asphalt and concrete — like the weeds they are — as is true with many native plants. In good garden soil, they will grow an impressive 4-5 feet tall and wide.

Annuals in our climate, daturas die with a hard frost, but seedlings from saved seeds started in March or early April will be ready to set out in early May for early blooms. The best results are with seeds left to stratify in freezing outdoor winter temperatures. In the garden, they may be left to self-seed or planted in fall. One gardening friend grows daturas by her driveway that seed so prolifically most need to be pulled for control. I now grow mine in a pot, simply letting seeds fall and seldom have to replant. Pruning faded flowers keeps the plant blooming through summer. I only let the last pods ripen for seed.

Toxic as they are, daturas are no more poisonous than many other common garden plants; it just has a visibly bad rep. They should not be grown where pets and small children might eat them or pick the flowers, but deer won’t touch them, so there is that. Their beautiful flowers, gracing gardens and beloved by artists the world over, will always be welcome in my garden. But I will always wash my hands after I touch them. My fantasies don’t need any extra fuel.

Sandy and Jim Parrill garden at Chaos, their acre of the Ozarks in Joplin. Sandy is a lifelong gardener, a Missouri master gardener and winner of The Missouri Writers Guild 2018 first place award for Best Newspaper Column. Jim is a former garden center owner and landscaper; both are past members of the Missouri Landscape and Nursery Association. Email them at parrilleluniverse@yahoo.com and follow their Facebook page, A Parrillel Universe of Wonderful Things.