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  • Paula Ogilvie

DATURA

Dangerous Beauty

by Paula Ogilvie


I’ve grown datura for many years and have become complacent about it in my yard. A vigorous grower with large, showy, white trumpet flowers, it seeds around on its own every year.


The fragrant flowers open in the evening with a slightly heavy undertone since they attract night pollinators like moths, bats, and other nocturnal creatures. As the flowers slowly unfurl in the still light early evening eager honey bees push their way inside, impatient to sip its nectar in the short window before nightfall. Upon exiting the flowers the bees often appear to be a bit zonked buzzing around in drunken patterns due to the plant’s complex psychoactive and toxic compounds. 


Pollinated datura flowers produce large, round, spiny seed pods which give the plant one of its other names - thornapple. I try to remove the spent flowers to prevent seeds from developing and dispersing because I’ve observed large groups of datura growing in other yards. But deadheading is where I made my mistake.


First let me explain a bit more about the plant.


Datura, also called jimsonweed or devil’s trumpet, grows in the Southwestern United States and other species grow throughout the world. Its hallucinogenic properties have been noted and exploited for centuries, including to break the will of slaves in the sugarcane fields of the tropics.  A member of the nightshade family, which includes both edible plants, (tomato, eggplant, peppers, potato), and poisonous ones like belladonna (Atropa belladonna or deadly nightshade), datura is extremely toxic.  Its hallucinatory experience has been described as horribly nightmarish and can lead to death. Another nickname is hell’s bells. 


While I was aware of datura’s toxic psychoactive compounds what I didn’t know is that it also contains atropine and scopolamine, which can have serious side effects.  Datura is related to belladonna which contains the same compounds. In medieval times Italian women added drops of belladonna sap to their eyes in order to dilate their pupils since large pupils and a hazy stare were considered the height of fashion. In Italian belladonna means beautiful lady.


In summer I’m always weeding and deadheading outside. One night while washing up at about 10 pm I noticed that one of my pupils was completely dilated. On the internet I found that can be a sign of stroke. Yikes! I went to nearest ER which is just a mile away and the doctor went through all the tests. Although I was fine he could find no reason suggesting the condition and recommended that I see my eye doctor. The next day I considered the plants in my yard and zeroed in on datura as the possible culprit. At my appointment the eye doctor became fascinated by my suggestion. After looking up and reading about dthe plant, he too became convinced it was the cause.  He explained that atropine was used in the past by eye doctors and is still used occasionally. It took about a week for my pupil to return to normal, and while my vision was okay I was more sensitive to light and needed to wear sunglasses.


Lesson learned!  While I still deadhead datura I wear gloves or wash my hands immediately.  A plant that I’ve grown for years and thought I knew has taken on another whole dimension. I doubt that most who grow it have any idea about the powerful complexities of this enticingly beautiful but dangerous plant.


Paula Ogilvie is a former instructor of botany and biology in Denver.

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