Updated: Jan 19, 2022
Datura stramonium, known by the common names thorn apple, jimsonweed (jimson weed) or devil’s snare, is a species of flowering plant in the nightshade family Solanaceae. Its likely origin was in Central America, and it has been introduced in many world regions. It is an aggressive invasive weed in temperate climates across the world. D. stramonium has frequently been employed in traditional medicine to treat a variety of ailments. It has also been used as a hallucinogen (of the anticholinergic/antimuscarinic, deliriant type), taken entheogenically to cause intense visions. It is unlikely ever to become a major drug of abuse owing to effects upon both mind and body frequently perceived subjectively as highly unpleasant, giving rise to a state of profound and long-lasting disorientation with a potentially fatal outcome. It contains tropane alkaloids which are responsible for the deliriant effects, and may be severely toxic.
Mature (left) and immature (right) seed capsules
Datura stramonium is an ill-smelling, erect, annual, freely branching herb that forms a bush up to 60 to 150 cm (2 to 5 ft) tall.
The root is long, thick, fibrous, and white. The stem is stout, erect, leafy, smooth, and pale yellow-green to reddish purple in color. The stem forks off repeatedly into branches and each fork forms a leaf and a single, erect flower.
The leaves are about 8 to 20 cm (3–8 in) long, smooth, toothed, soft, and irregularly undulated. The upper surface of the leaves is a darker green, and the bottom is a light green. The leaves have a bitter and nauseating taste, which is imparted to extracts of the herb, and remains even after the leaves have been dried.
Datura stramonium generally flowers throughout the summer. The fragrant flowers have a pleasing odor; are trumpet-shaped, white to creamy or violet, and 6 to 9 cm (2+1⁄2–3+1⁄2 in) long; and grow on short stems from either the axils of the leaves or the places where the branches fork. The calyx is long and tubular, swollen at the bottom, and sharply angled, surmounted by five sharp teeth. The corolla, which is folded and only partially open, is white, funnel-shaped, and has prominent ribs. The flowers open at night, emitting a pleasant fragrance, and are fed upon by nocturnal moths.
The egg-shaped seed capsule is 3 to 8 cm (1–3 in) in diameter and either covered with spines or bald. At maturity, it splits into four chambers, each with dozens of small, black seeds.
Etymology and common names
Fruits and seeds – MHNT
The genus name is derived from the plant’s Hindi name, dhatūra, ultimately from Sanskrit dhattūra ‘white thorn-apple’. The origin of Neo-Latin stramonium is unknown; the name Stramonia was used in the 17th century for various Datura species. It is called umathai in Tamil.
In the United States, the plant is called “jimsonweed”, or more rarely “Jamestown weed” deriving from the town of Jamestown, Virginia, where English soldiers consumed it while attempting to suppress Bacon’s Rebellion. They spent 11 days in altered mental states:
The James-Town Weed (which resembles the Thorny Apple of Peru, and I take to be the plant so call’d) is supposed to be one of the greatest coolers in the world. This being an early plant, was gather’d very young for a boil’d salad, by some of the soldiers sent thither to quell the rebellion of Bacon (1676); and some of them ate plentifully of it, the effect of which was a very pleasant comedy, for they turned natural fools upon it for several days: one would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey, grinning and making mows [grimaces] at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll.
In this frantic 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. Indeed, they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallowed in their own excrements if they had not been prevented. A thousand such simple tricks they played, and after eleven days returned themselves again, not remembering anything that had passed.
— Robert Beverley, Jr., The History and Present State of Virginia, Book II: Of the Natural Product and Conveniencies in Its Unimprov’d State, Before the English Went Thither, 1705
Common names for Datura stramonium vary by region and include thornapple, moon flower, hell’s bells, devil’s trumpet, devil’s weed, tolguacha, Jamestown weed, stinkweed, locoweed, pricklyburr, false castor oil plant, and devil’s cucumber.
Range and habitat
Datura stramonium is native to North America, but was spread widely to the Old World early. It was scientifically described and named by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753, although it had been described a century earlier by botanists such as Nicholas Culpeper. Today, it grows wild in all the world’s warm and temperate regions, where it is found along roadsides and at dung-rich livestock enclosures. In Europe, it is found as a weed in garbage dumps and wastelands, and is toxic to animals consuming it.
Through observation, the seed is thought to be carried by birds and spread in their droppings. Its seeds can lie dormant underground for years and germinate when the soil is disturbed. The Royal Horticultural Society has advised worried gardeners to dig it up or have it otherwise removed, while wearing gloves to handle it.
All parts of Datura plants contain dangerous levels of the tropane alkaloids atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine, which are classified as deliriants, or anticholinergics. The risk of fatal overdose is high among uninformed users, and many hospitalizations occur among recreational users who ingest the plant for its psychoactive effects. Deliberate or inadvertent poisoning resulting from smoking jimsonweed and other related species has been reported.
The amount of toxins varies widely from plant to plant. As much as a 5:1 variation can be found between plants, and a given plant’s toxicity depends on its age, where it is growing, and the local weather conditions. Additionally, within a given plant, toxin concentration varies by part and even from leaf to leaf. When the plant is younger, the ratio of scopolamine to atropine is about 3:1; after flowering, this ratio is reversed, with the amount of scopolamine continuing to decrease as the plant gets older. In traditional cultures, a great deal of experience with and detailed knowledge of Datura was critical to minimize harm. An individual seed contains about 0.1 mg of atropine, and the approximate fatal dose for adult humans is >10 mg atropine or >2–4 mg scopolamine.
Datura intoxication typically produces delirium, hallucination, hyperthermia, tachycardia, bizarre behavior, urinary retention, and severe mydriasis with resultant painful photophobia that can last several days. Pronounced amnesia is another commonly reported effect. The onset of symptoms generally occurs around 30 to 60 minutes after ingesting the herb. These symptoms generally last from 24 to 48 hours, but have been reported in some cases to last as long as 2 weeks.
As with other cases of anticholinergic poisoning, intravenous physostigmine can be administered in severe cases as an antidote.
stramonium var. tatula, flower (front)
The active agent in datura is atropine which has been used in traditional medicine and recreationally over centuries. The leaves are generally smoked either in a cigarette or a pipe. During the late 18th century, James Anderson, the English Physician General of the East India Company, learned of the practice and popularized it in Europe.
The Zuni people once used datura as an analgesic to render patients unconscious while broken bones were set. The Chinese also used it as a form of anesthesia during surgery.
John Gerard’s Herball (1597) states,
“[T]he juice of Thornapple, boiled with hog’s grease, cureth all inflammations whatsoever, all manner of burnings and scaldings, as well of fire, water, boiling lead, gunpowder, as that which comes by lightning and that in very short time, as myself have found in daily practice, to my great credit and profit.”
William Lewis reported, in the late 18th century, that the juice could be made into “a very powerful remedy in various convulsive and spasmodic disorders, epilepsy and mania,” and was also “found to give ease in external inflammations and hemorrhoids.”
In treatment of respiratory diseases
Henry Hyde Salter discusses D. stramonium as a treatment for asthma in his 19th-century work On Asthma: its Pathology and Treatment.
Smoking of herbs, including D. stramonium, has been a recognized temporary relief to asthmatics by physicians since antiquity, onto the early 20th century. The mainstream medical use of smoking D. Stramonium to treat asthma would later wane in popularity, following new understandings of asthma as an allergic inflammatory reaction, and developments in pharmacology that provided a variety of new, immediately more effective treatments for asthma.
Muscarinic antagonists, found in the tribe Datureae (among other plants), such as atropine, and synthetic tropane derivatives selective for muscarinic acetylcholine receptor subtypes such as ipratropium bromide and tiotropium bromide, are prescribed in some cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma.
Spiritualism and occult
Seed capsule, showing dehiscence of the four valves to release seeds
The ancient inhabitants of what became central and southern California used to ingest the small black seeds of datura to “commune with deities through visions”. Across the Americas, other indigenous peoples, such as the Algonquian, Navajo, Cherokee, Luiseño and the indigenous peoples of Marie-Galante also used this plant in sacred ceremonies for its hallucinogenic properties. In Ethiopia, some students and debtrawoch (lay priests), use D. stramonium to “open the mind” to be more receptive to learning, and creative and imaginative thinking.
The common name “datura” has its origins in India, where the sister species Datura metel is considered particularly sacred — believed to be a favorite of Shiva in Shaivism. Both Datura stramonium and D. metel have reportedly been used by some sadhus and charnel ground ascetics, such as the Aghori as both an entheogen and ordeal poison. It was sometimes mixed with cannabis as well as highly poisonous plants like Aconitum ferox to intentionally create dysphoric experiences. They used unpleasant or toxic plants such as these in order to achieve spiritual liberation (moksha) in settings of extreme horror and discomfort.
Among its sacred and visionary purposes, jimson weed has also garnered a reputation for its magical uses in various cultures throughout history. In his book, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Wade Davis identified D. stramonium, called “zombi cucumber” in Haiti, as a central ingredient of the concoction vodou priests use to create zombies. However it has been noted that the process of zombification is not directly performed by vodou priests of the loa but rather by bokors.  In European witchcraft, D. stramonium was also a common ingredient used for making witches’ flying ointment along with other poisonous plants of the nightshade family. It was often responsible for the hallucinogenic effects of magical or lycanthropic salves and potions.
Datura stramonium prefers rich, calcareous soil. Adding nitrogen fertilizer to the soil increases the concentration of alkaloids present in the plant. D. stramonium can be grown from seed, which is sown with several feet between plants. It is sensitive to frost, so should be sheltered during cold weather. The plant is harvested when the fruits are ripe, but still green. To harvest, the entire plant is cut down, the leaves are stripped from the plant, and everything is left to dry. When the fruits begin to burst open, the seeds are harvested. For intensive plantations, leaf yields of 1,100 to 1,700 kilograms per hectare (1,000 to 1,500 lb/acre) and seed yields of 780 kg/ha (700 lb/acre) are possible.
In popular culture
The American artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) painted “jimson weed” several times. She was fond of the flowers, which grew wild around her New Mexico house. These paintings of the exotic white pinwheel blooms, hugely magnified, are among her most familiar works. In 2014 one such painting sold for $44 million, a record price for a female artist’s work. However given the location of Keeffe’s residence in the New Mexico desert, it is unlikely that she saw Datura stramonium but rather a different species of Datura, possibly ‘western’ jimson weed.
The plant is also mentioned in Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 roman à clef novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. In part 2, chapter 5 of the book, a jimsonweed experience is recounted by the character Dr. Gonzo as described here: “Last Christmas somebody gave me a whole Jimson weed – the root must have weighed two pounds; enough for a year – but I ate the whole goddamn thing in about twenty minutes. Luckily, I vomited most of it right back up. But even so, I went blind for three days. Christ I couldn’t even walk! My whole body turned to wax. I was such a mess that they had to haul me back to the ranch house in a wheelbarrow… they said I was trying to talk, but I sounded like a raccoon.”