Photo and article by Donna Iverson
Poisonous, mind-altering, and hallucinogenic are some of the words used to describe the native plant, Datura. Commonly known as jimsonweed, it has naturalized in the Muskegon River Basin especially in wetlands.
It was there I found it growing along the Lakeshore Bike Trail which runs from Muskegon to Hart. I might have kept riding, except for a recently-published book I was reading by Michael Pollan, entitled This is Your Mind on Plants.
In the first section of the book, Pollan describes growing poppy flowers in his garden and a particular poppy, Papaver somniferum. According to Pollan, the seeds of this poppy can be used to make opium tea. It is legal to grow the poppy plant as long as your intention is just to enjoy its decorative qualities. But if your intention is to make homemade opium from the seeds, that is a serious drug felony.
Turns out, Datura has a lot in common with the opium poppy. It’s seeds are also hallucinogenic and mind-altering. But it is not classified as an illegal drug although it is a very dangerous plant. Native Americans used it in sacred ceremonies but warned its tribal members: “eat too much and don’t wake up.”
Frankly although I found both plants fascinatingly beautiful, I wasn’t about to try growing either one of them. As for the opium poppies, I didn’t want to risk tangling with the FBI. As for Datura, I didn’t want to risk a fatal dose.
Ironically, even though Datura was used medicinally in our colonial past to treat pain and fever and induce sleep, today only it’s alkaloids are approved by the FDA. These include atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine.
A member of the nightshade family, Datura has acquired many names over the years: moonflower (because it opens and closes at night), locoweed, Mad Hatter, zombie cucumber and Hell’s Bells.
Gene Autry sang about it in his signature song “Back in the Saddle Again,” when he crooned, “I’m back in the saddle again where the longhorn feed on the lonely jimsonweed.”
In 1676, British soldiers in Jamestown reportedly feasted on boiled salad made from the plant turning them into “natural fools.” It took almost two weeks for them to recover. Afterwards, they remembered nothing of the incident, history books report.
In 1971, the author Hunter Thompson mentioned jimsonweed in his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And Georgia O’Keefe often painted the plant, which grew wild around her New Mexico home. In 2014, one of her jimsonweed paintings sold for $44 million.