By Linda Jones.
The family Solanaceae is an oddity. Some of our most important vegetables and fruits are in this family: tomatoes, peppers, tobacco, eggplants, and potatoes, to name a few. Some beloved ornamentals, such as petunias, are also in this family. But then there's bluewitch nightshade (Solanum umbelliferum) and Datura species, which contain hallucinogenic and poisonous tropane alkaloids such as atropine and scopolamine.
Datura: Past and Present
Part of the mystery of Datura plants is their long history as part of native rituals. The plants were valued by the Chumash and other peoples for their vision-inducing and pain killing properties. They were an integral part of religious beliefs and practices although they were always used with great caution.
Datura plants were particularly used in rites involving boys entering manhood. The boys drank a weak mixture and followed with dancing and having dreams that were interpreted by a dream specialist. If the boy saw a spirit, that became his talisman of protection and he could call on this spirit during times of crisis. Chumash Ethnobotany, by Jan Timbrook, gives more details of Datura's use by the Chumash. Modern medicine has experimented with a variety of uses for Datura, but its use is most commonly seen today in the prevention of motion sickness.
Two non-edibles of this family are found locally: sacred, or western, datura (Datura wrightii) and the non-native D. stramonium (jimsonweed, or moon flower). There are two characteristics that make it easy to differentiate them: on sacred datura, the small, spiky fruits are held downward on the stem, while on jimsonweed, they are held upward. Sacred datura is found both near water and in dry places, including along roadside berms, while jimsonweed prefers areas near flowing water or seasonal wetlands.
Sacred Datura in the Garden
Sacred datura is widespread in the southwest. Most sources list it as a native here, but some attribute its importation to early Spanish or North American natives.
The gorgeous blooms are a reason to grow and enjoy sacred datura. The funnel-shaped blooms are large, up to eight inches in length and four inches across, and have five lobes in the form of a star. They are fragrant and they vary from pure white to tinged with lavender. One of the prettiest things about the buds are the spiral shape. They start opening late in the day and last only a day. To encourage more blooming, remove the spent blossoms. This night-blooming plant can be a show stopper in a moonlit garden. In fact, Georgia O’Keeffe was one of the many artists inspired to create a close-up enlarged painting of the beautiful flower.
Sacred datura is pollinated mainly by large hawk moths (the adult form of the dreaded tomato worm), which feed on the nectar. The nectar contains alkaloids which may both intoxicate and addict the moths to the plants. The moths lay eggs on the flower and the larvae then grow BIG, feeding on the datura leaves; the larvae feed so voraciously that the plant may have to use its energy stores from its roots to regrow. The plant toxins are incorporated into the moth larval tissues and provide predator protection. A few other insects are also able to detoxify the alkaloids in sacred datura and feed on the plant leaves or roots.
Sacred datura is an herbaceous perennial that dies back at the end of the growth season. It blooms from about April to October, although many plants here near the coast are still blooming and producing new buds in early November. It is a drought-tolerant plant that dislikes summer watering (a true native!). It grows in sun to partial shade. Its roots are heavy, fleshy, and store water and nutrients.
This is a spreading plant, forming clusters up to six feet across; most clusters are smaller though. It is generally low-growing (up to three feet or less), but it can reach five feet in the right conditions.
The large leaves are dark green—lighter gray-green on the underside—and are ovate and shallowly lobed with pointed tips (see photo on the left). The stems and leaves have short, soft hairs and may have a bad smell.
Fruits are on the plant in early November. The capsules are about one inch in diameter and are spiky. They form as green balls and change in color to brown as the seeds ripen. The capsule ultimately splits open and releases brown, disc-shaped seeds.
Sacred datura's blooms can add a touch of beauty to your garden, especially a moonlit garden. But treat the plant with respect for its less wonderful qualities. Remember: ALL parts of the plant are poisonous, so plant it where pets and small children won’t eat it.