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Toxic Beauty

October 6, 2010

It hits me one evening as I step out onto the porch: an intoxicating perfume from the Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii) in our back yard. The recent rains have been good to this plant, and a dozen huge white trumpets glow in the moonlight.

Though an icon of the American Southwest thanks to the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe, daturas are found throughout the warmer parts of the world. All parts of the plant are toxic, with effects ranging from delirium to death. These properties have been well known since ancient times, earning the plants a long list of intimidating names: locoweed, devil’s weed, devil’s trumpet, devil’s cucumber, Hell’s bells. It also goes by thorn-apple, apple-Peru, pricklyburr, stinkweed, moonflower, and jimson weed.

There’s a bit of American history enshrined in that last name. It’s a corruption of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in what was to become the United States. The human colonists knew daturas as colonists of disturbed soil, as described by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter:

…a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pig-weed, apple-peru, and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilized society…

In 1676, British soldiers cooked up a pot of the young leaves of this plant. The hallucinogens did their work, and, according to early Virginia historian Robert Beverley (1673-1722), the soldiers went on an unexpected trip:

…they turn’d natural Fools upon it for several Days: One would blow up a Feather in the Air; another wou’d 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 snear in their Faces, with a Countenance more antick, than any in a Dutch Droll. In this frantick 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.

They survived, but in no shape to do the job the crown sent them to do: quell a rebellion of Virginia colonists. Protesters led by Nathaniel Bacon, angered by their governor’s response to conflicts between colonists and Native Americans, set tribes against one another, massacred whole villages, and eventually burned the capitol to the ground. It’s sobering to ponder how many lives might have been spared had the British soldiers recognized the plant as poisonous and kept their wits about them. –SW

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