Datura stramonium L.

Jimsonweed, Devil’s

Trumpet, Thorn Apple

       The dramatic effects of consumption of Datura were first recorded by Europeans at Jamestown colony: its greens were often confused with those of spinach, causing several near fatalities (Mann 1992). D. stramonium is a hallucinogen and hypnotic (Emboden 1979), but also may be used for medicinal purposes (King 1984, Moerman 1986, Mann 1992). All parts of the plant, and the seeds in particular, are poisonous if ingested by humans or livestock (Radford et al. 1964).

       Datura in archaeological deposits may indicate prehistoric use of the plant for either ritual or medicinal purposes. This review will focus on D. stramonium. The species has been subdivided into var. stramonium and var. tatula (Steyermark 1963). Becase this division has not yet been accepted universally (Yatskievych and Turner 1990), and the distributions of the two varieties are mostly sympatric, D. stramonium will be treated as a single unit during discussion.


       The component of Datura most likely to be found is the seed. In autumn, a dehiscent, desiccated fruit releases several dozen non-coated seeds. A typical D. stramonium seed is shaped like a squat kidney (Delorit 1979), and measures about 3.0 mm in length, 2.0 mm in width, and 1.2 mm in thickness (Figure 1). The USDA Agricultural Research Service (1974) reports seed dimensions of 2.5-3.5 mm (length) x 2.5-3.0 mm (width) x 1.2-1.4 mm (thickness). Viewed in cross section, the two planar surfaces of the seed are roughly parallel, with rounded edges. They often show a slight dip hear the triangular hilum, or may be wedged slightly toward it. The hilum measures 0.4-0.8 mm (length) and lies in the notch of the seed, and the embryo is linear and annular (USDA 1974). The topography of the seed is dominated by numerous pock-like depressions, the diameters of which range from 0.3 to 0.5 mm. The surface of the seed is covered evenly with minute bumps. Seeds range from yellow-brown to near black in color.

       Seed morphology varies markedly, even among specimens obtained from a single plant (Figure 2). Outlines may be nearly round, triangular, or rectangular. The most characteristic features of D. stramonium seeds are therefore the pocks and the bumpy texture. Despite the intra-specific morphological variation noted above, D. stramonium, D. innoxia, and D. meteloides have seeds that are quite easy to distinguish (Figure 3). Seeds from the latter two species are longer, wider, and slightly thinner. They do not have the pock-marks characteristic of D. stramonium. Uncarbonized, they are pale to dark gold in color.

Archaeological Distribution

       Charred seeds of D. stramonium have been recovered from a Stirling phase pit at the BBB Motor site, where they co-occur with large amounts of charred wood from Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) to form a “ritual context” (Whalley 1978). Fragmentary carbonized specimens have been found in three separate Mississippian contexts during the ICT-II investigations at Cahokia. These contexts include 329-3, a large external cache or storage pit; 370-27, a well-stratified, interior storage pit; and 38\73-11, an external pit that may date to Moorehead/Sand Prairie phase transition (Lopinot 1991). Lopinot deems these contexts as  secondary to those of likely deliberate use of Datura, and suggests that the seeds were introduced inadvertantly from agricultural weeds in prehistoric times. Fifteen uncarbonized Datura seeds have been recovered from the Koster site, and are thought to be contaminants (Asch et al.1972).

The Modern Plant and its Distribution

       North American Datura species are ultimately of Neotropical origin (Bailey 1949), but are thoroughly naturalized to temperate environments across the United States. They should be regarded as native species for the purposes of archaeological investigation, althrough northward expansion of D. stramonium has been noted recently (Weaver et al. 1985). The current range of D. stramonium is from Nova Scotia to Minnesota, south to Florida and Texas and Central and South America. D. innoxia also grows in the Eastern Woodlands, but the range of D. meteloides is farther west (Moerman 1986).

       An annual herb (Delorit 1979), D. stramonium is a common weed in agricultural fields. The plant has characteristic lavender-tinged trumpet-like flowers, heavily bristled seed pods that split into quadrants, and a carrot-like root stock that may extend  more than 10 cm below ground. It grows well in disturbed areas, barnyards, waste ground, rocky open areas, and along roadsides and railroad tracks (Steyermark 1963). In describing habitats in which he finds wild Cucurbita along the Buffalo River, Smith (1992) notes the presence of Datura in several cases, also in association with Amaranthus, Solidago, Ipomoea, Xanthium, and Chenopodium.


       Datura contains hyoscyamine and the tropane alkaloid atropine (Fernald and Kinsey 1958; Mann 1992). Both chemicals selectively block certain acetlycholine receptors; atropines are anti-inflammatory, and hyoscine prevents secretions and is a component of commercial pre-anaesthetic drugs and Omnopon-Scopolamine (Mann 1992). Small doses of these chemicals, present in most Datura species, may produce a sedative effect and cause submissive behavior and memory loss. In 1720, Cotton Mather described its effects on colonists in The Christian Philosopher:


“In Virginia there is a plant called Jamestown weed, whereof some having eaten plentifully become fools for several days; one would blow up a feather in the air, another sit naked, like a monkey, grinning at the rest, or fondly kiss and paw at his companions, or sneer in their faces” (Mann 1992:85).


Use of Datura is dangerous. Its flowers and seeds are known to have poisoned curious children (Fernald and Kinsey 1958; Steyermark 1963), and the greens may be confused with those of spinach (Fernald and Kinsey 1958). Ingestion can cause raving, insensibility, and death (Mann 1992). Various species of Datura were used historically throughout the Americas, to poison Spanish explorers, and for infanticide and as preparation for mass-inhumation in Colombia. The Yaqui of Mexico have made ointment from Datura for hallucinatory effects as recently as 1968 (Mann 1992). Many Native American groups east of the Rocky Mountains added D. stramonium to tobacco or chewed it for hallucinogenic effects (Epstein 1981). Similar and other explicitly ceremonial uses of a related species, D. meteloides, have been recorded among southwestern Native American groups (Moerman 1986; USDA 1974). A third species, D. innoxia, is present in the Eastern Woodlands, but its distribution is infrequent (Fernald 1970), and records concerning its use are scant.
       In Eastern North America, Native Americans used D. stramonium for medicinal purposes. The Cherokee and the Rappahannock smoked it for respiratory problems, including asthma. Atropine and analogous structures are effective against asthma because they prevent inflammation. The Mohegan, Delaware, Oklahoma, Cherokee, and Rappahannock applied it to the skin as a dermatological aid. In addition, Datura was used as a hemorrhoid remedy by the Delaware and Oklahoma,and as a febrifuge, throat aid, or poison by the Rappahannock (Moerman 1986). Other reported uses include snakebite poultices and salve for infected wounds (King 1984).

       The alkaloids in Datura are significant in respects other than their medicinal properties. They often leach from seeds into the surrounding soil (Levitt and Lovett 1984). The resulting environment is toxic to some plants, but may be favorable to others due to decreased competition. D. stramonium inhibits germination and root growth of Helianthus annuus; the strength of its effects depend on the amound of alkaloid adsorbing clay in the soil (Levitt and Lovett 1984). The presence of Datura near wild cucurbits and other members of the complex of starchy seeds used by prehistoric occupants of the Eastern Woodlands (Smith 1992) suggests that not all crop plants would be deleteriously affected by its proximity. By poisoning weeds in agricultural fields, D. stramonium instead might have had a positive effect on the growth of certain crop plants that can tolerate leached alkaloids. Depending on the suceptibility of various cultigens in the Eastern Woodlands to alkaloid poisoning, prehistoric Americans may have left Datura as a useful weed that discouraged ordinary pernicious invaders, or removed it with special care due to its effect on crops.



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    1984   Activity of allelochemicals of Datura Stramonium L. (thorn-apple) in contrasting
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    1991   Archaeobotanical Remains. In The Archaeology of the Cahokia Mounds ICT-II:
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    1985   Variation and Climatic Adaptation in Northern Populations of Datura stramonium.
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    1978   Plant Remains from the Stirling Phase. In The BBB Motor Site (11-MS-595), by T.
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Written by: Elisabeth Hildebrand