Sacred Datura

Datura wrightii

white flower with spikes on end

The spectacular flower of sacred datura (or western jimsonweed, toluaca or thorn apple: Datura wrightii), is a Georgia O’Keefe flower. The plant is a member of the nightshade family, which also includes tomatoes, potatoes, petunias and tobacco. Members of this family typically contain organic compounds that range from beneficial to toxic. Compounds in sacred datura are psychedelic, and the plant was important to native Americans in their sacred ceremonies. However, if misused, these same compounds are fatal.

 

Other Common Names:

western jimson weed, toluaca, toloache, thorn apple

Description 2,11, 23, 26, 59

Sacred datura is a sprawling to ascending perennial herb arising from a large, fleshy storage root. Triangular leaves are less than 4½ inches (11 cm) long with margins that are smooth or coarsely toothed. Leaves are green, given a gray sheen by a covering of short, whitish hairs. Crushed leaves emit an unpleasant odor. In our climate, the plant is evergreen.

The large, fragrant flowers are white, sometimes tinged with lavender. Each flower arises from a fork in the stem. Petals are fused together into a flaring trumpet, up to 8 inches (20 cm) long and 6 inches (15 cm) in diameter. Petals form five sharp points arranged symmetrically around the flower margin.  Flowers are bisexual. Five male stamens and a single female pistil emerge from the throat of the flower.

Sacred datura blooms from April to October.1 The fragrant flowers open late in the day and remain open until late morning the following day.

The fruit is a pendulous, flat-topped ball, usually less than 1½ inches (4 cm), covered with long spines, many hooked. The fruit is green when young, brown when mature and resembles a small wild cucumber fruit. Each fruit contains numerous large flattened tan seeds, about ¼ inches (6 mm) long. When dried, the fruit splits open, releasing the seeds.

NOTE: Like many members of the nightshade family, sacred datura contains a variety of alkaloid compounds. In this species, the primary alkaloid is scopolamine.34 All parts of the plant are toxic.

 

green spiked seed pod
white flower open on branch
white flower with purple edges

Distribution

Sacred datura is native from central California to northern Mexico and in other parts of the southwestern US.7 It occurs below 4000 feet (1200 m), especially in open, sandy or disturbed areas.11,26

In the Reserve, sacred datura is often found along the trails. There are several plants on the south side, east, and west of the Rios trailhead, and also between the Santa Inez and Santa Carina trailheads. As of Oct. 2013, there are no plants along the Nature Center loop.

Classification 2

Sacred datura is a dicot angiosperm in the tobacco family (Solanaceae). Members of this family have five petals that are fused into a tube, at least at the base. There are five stamens.  Many members of this family contain alkaloid compounds which may be toxic or narcotic.

The tobacco family includes many well-known food and ornamental species such as tomato, pepper, potato, petunia, and night-blooming jasmine. The family also includes tobacco and belladonna.44 As of 2018, eight species in this family have been reported from the Reserve48 including the threatened California box thorn, Lycium californicum (CNPS list 4B) and the invasive tree tobacco, Nicotiana glauca.

The genus, Datura, is distinguished by characteristics of the dry, prickly fruit. All members of this genus are toxic. Only one species is found in the Reserve.

Alternate Scientific Names:

Datura meteloides

Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
dried spiked seed pod
green leaves
inside of flower with pollen collectors

Ecology

As the name “nightshade” suggests, the flowers of sacred datura open near dusk and close again by midmorning. The large, fragrant white flowers attract night-flying pollinators, but even during the day a variety of insects can be seen in the flowers. A mutually beneficial relationship has evolved between Datura spp. and sphinx (or hawk) moths.57,58 These moths have the longest tongues of any moth, up to 14 inches (35 cm) long, specially designed for extracting nectar from the deep tubular flowers. Their caterpillars, including voracious tomato hornworms, feed on the plant and even derive some secondary toxicity from it. In turn, the adult moths effectively pollinate their Datura hosts.58 Ironically, the alkaloid compounds in Datura spp. probably evolved as predator deterrents.44

The deep taproot allows this plant to utilize subsurface moisture, permitting rapid growth and abundant flower nectar even during the dry summer months.4,11

white flower with circular shape
green spiked seed pod on branch
white flowers in bush

Human Uses

Since ancient times, sacred datura and its relatives have been used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes, by holy men and medicine men, by sorcerers and witches.58 The pounded root was an all-purpose cure, good for cuts, bruises and gunshot wounds.34 Gamblers kept a root in their pocket to enable them to foresee the cards and guide their bets.34

Native Americans in southern California also used sacred datura for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. It was the most important medicinal plant of the Chumash.15 The Luiseño used the smoke to relieve the pain of rheumatism and earaches.17 Medicine men of the Chumash, Luiseño, and Kumeyaay used sacred datura to produce hallucinations during puberty rites.15,17,18 A young Chumash boy was given a liquid from pounded datura root. The resulting dreams revealed a spirit guardian, or “dream helper” to give him guidance in the future.15

In spite of its extreme toxicity, sacred datura is a popular garden plant.24 The International Brugmansia and Datura Society74 is dedicated to the culture and cultivation of Datura and two closely related genera.

 

dried up flower coiled up
circular white flower
trail with bush and white flowers

Interesting Facts

The common name, western jimsonweed is derived from that of a closely related species, jimsonweed (D. stramineae), which was first collected in Jamestown Va., from which it got its name. In 1676, a group of British soldiers mistakenly ate jimsonweed in their salad and hallucinated and acted crazy for 11 days.55 In one version of this story, the jimsonweed was deliberately added by the Jamestown settlers.56

white circular flower
white flower in the sun
close up of tree branch

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