Datura Wrightii

Plant of the Month

Cliff Hutson, RSABG Nature Interpreter

Datura is a member of the nightshade family (Solanaceae) and is common from central California to northern Mexico and east across the Southwest to Texas. Easily recognized by its white (sometimes tinged with violet), trumpet-shaped flowers on plants that grow 30 cm (12 in) to 1.5 m (5 ft) high and wide, it can be found in the Garden and, in some years, is seen along Thompson Creek in Claremont. However, two of my favorite field guides, "Introduction to California Chaparral" and "Introduction to the Plant Life of Southern California: Coast to Foothills," fail to mention it.

Perhaps this is due to the plant’s unfortunate reputation. Datura has been used for hundreds of years for its hallucinogenic properties. However, it is as toxic as it is narcotic and has been responsible for the deaths of some using it for its traditional religious purposes or sadly, in these times, for recreation.

Like many Americans of my generation, I first learned of the properties of Datura through reading Carlos Castaneda’s purported experiences in Mexico in his book "The Teachings of Don Juan." Its use in California is more rigorously documented. The Tongva call it manit and the Chumash momoy.

The book "California Indians and Their Environment: An Introduction," by Kent G. Lightfoot and Otis Parish, has a few interesting entries on what they call toloache. They describe religious uses, such as gaining the ability to transcend reality, and medicinal purposes. Some groups prepared it in a drink as a painkiller and as a treatment for a variety of ailments. Some informants state that it is sacred to the Chumash and Tongva and has been used in ceremonies and rites of passage.

Datura wrightii is sometimes called jimson weed or jimsonweed, but the latter is actually D.stramonium. One account says that jimsonweed is a corruption of Jamestown weed because it poisoned many soldiers sent to the Virginia Colony in 1676 to quell Bacon’s Rebellion.

So remember, all parts of the plant are poisonous and could be fatal if ingested by people or pets. It is lovely to look at, but best left alone.