Weeds With Spiny Seed Pods

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Beautiful but dangerous, jimsonweed sent British soldiers who used it in a salad into a stupor for 11 days. We find it in Brooklyn. Appreciate this witchy weed’s beautiful blooms and spiky seedpods, but beware. Its notoriously toxic seeds and leaves can cause convulsions, hallucinations or even death, and climate change is making its poisons even more powerful. Plants With Spiny Seedpods & Flowers. Curious nature lovers regularly find unusual plants poking up in their own yards or those of their friends and family. A striking vegetative combination like spiny seedpods and flowers is bound to get the attention of an onlooker. Whether you’d like to add more of your …

Urban Forager | In This Wicked Weed, the Devil’s Trumpet Blows

Jimsonweed has been on my radar ever since I researched it for a presentation on wild weeds and fungi last year, so I was intrigued when I discovered some spiny seedpods recently in an alley in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Originally thinking they were empress tree pods, which are similarly sculptural but smooth, I brought them back to my workspace, where a friend helped to correctly identify them as Datura stramonium, or jimsonweed, and their source (the garden of a local artist around the corner).

Jimsonweed, a k a Jamestown weed, mad apple, devil’s trumpet, locoweed, stinkwort or thorn apple, is a strikingly gothic-looking plant with seedpods that could have inspired the creator of “Little Shop of Horrors.” It has toothed leaves, stems that are reddish-to-dark eggplant in color and lovely trumpet-shape white or lavender blossoms, as long as a finger, that open at dusk. Found along roadsides, ditches and open fields in most states, including New York, where it grows as far south as Staten Island, it’s listed as a noxious weed in Pennsylvania and banned in Connecticut. An informal poll of writers from the Writhing Society at Proteus Gowanus described the plant as smelling like peanut butter, skunk cabbage and someone’s childhood cottage, but the first time I sniffed it, I thought of tahini.

Much of the literature and testimony surrounding Datura stramonium and related species, including D. meteloides, D. wrightii and D. innoxia, point to its psychotropic, hallucinogenic and narcotic properties, where it is inextricably linked to shamanism (in Carlos Castaneda’s “The Teachings of Don Juan”) and even zombies (from Wade Davis’s “Passage of Darkness” and “The Serpent and the Rainbow”).

Some of the no-joke side effects from ingesting jimsonweed read like a 1970s public service announcement warning against angel dust and PCP: dilated pupils, racing heartbeat, hallucination, delirium, combative behavior and in severe cases, coma and seizures.

In 1676, British soldiers sent to Virginia to quell Bacon’s Rebellion ingested Datura stramonium in a boiled salad and remained in a stupor for 11 days. More recently, in 2008, a family in Maryland was poisoned when they mistook it for an edible garden green and ate it in a stew.

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Written testimonials for Datura on the Erowid Web site , under titles like “Truly the Devil’s Weed,” “Nightmares in Flux” and “This is Madness,” include delusions of phantom cigarettes, conversations with imaginary friends, amnesia, blurred vision, a desire for cold showers and other irrational behavior. It’s no wonder that Amy Stewart devoted an entire chapter to it in her book “Wicked Plants.”

According to Daniel E. Moerman’s “Native American Medicinal Plants,” some American Indians use jimsonweed topically for wounds and inflammation, and there are reports of it being used as a treatment for asthma. But because of the plant’s more negative plant-human interactions, most folks are understandably wary of it, and many parents have been advised to root it out of backyards and gardens.

Jimsonweed is now in full flower across the city and in some cases sprouting mature seedpods, but I’m content to admire its beauty from an arm’s length.

Weed of the Month: Jimson Weed

Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) is a beautiful, witchy plant that begins blooming in late summer and continues through the first frost. A member of the notorious nightshade family, its more famous cousins include tomato, eggplant, pepper, tobacco, and potato. Most members of this plant family are poisonous, and jimson weed is no exception. All parts of the plant are toxic, most particularly the seeds. Potent amounts of alkaloid compounds are present, which potentially cause convulsions, hallucinations, and even death if ingested. And as climate change increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, studies have found that the toxicity of plants like jimson weed only increases.

The genus name Datura comes from the Hindi word for the plant, noteworthy since most botanical names are derived from Latin or Greek. The origins of the plant itself are contested—every source I checked listed a different native origin, ranging from Mexico to India, and it now grows all over the world. Not surprisingly, it has found its way into many cultural and medicinal traditions. Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, and Native American shamanistic practices all employ jimson weed medicinally or ritualistically. Its seeds and leaves are used as an antiasthmatic, antispasmodic, hypnotic, and narcotic.

Having grown up in Virginia, I was intrigued by one of the common names I saw recurring in my plant books—Jamestown weed—and researched the origins. One story simply connects the first New World observations of the plant to settlers in this early Virginia colony. A more famous tale tells of the plant’s accidental ingestion by some British soldiers sent there to suppress Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. After eating some in a stew, the soldiers spent 11 days in a hallucinatory stupor, blowing feathers, kissing and pawing their companions, and making faces and grinning “like monkey[s].”

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Jimson weed’s white to purple blooms are fragrant at night, attracting moths and other nocturnal pollinators, a common trait in white-bloomed plants. The rest of the plant, however, is stinky! Crush and sniff the oaklike leaves, and you’ll understand why domesticated and wild animals avoid eating this plant—it smells a bit like feet. Indeed, accidental poisonings tend be more common among humans than among other animals.

Though the trumpet-shaped flowers are stunning, my favorite part of the plant is the devilish-looking seedpod. The size of a Ping-Pong ball and covered in spikes, the seed capsule splits into four parts like a monster’s maw, revealing the dark brown seeds inside. In the winter you might notice its tall, dry stalks bearing the prickly seedpods, which to me look like the scepter for a demon. With all its extraordinary looks and lore, jimson weed is a fascinating plant to contemplate (but maybe not cultivate)!

The Weed of the Month series explores the ecology and history of the common wild plants that most gardeners consider weeds.

Browse the Weed of the Month archives >

Saara Nafici is the executive director of Added Value/Red Hook Community Farm. She is also the former coordinator of the Garden Apprentice Program at Brooklyn Botanic Garden and a longtime activist, feminist, bicyclist, naturalist, and youth educator. Follow her weedy plant adventures on Instagram.

Plants With Spiny Seedpods & Flowers

Curious nature lovers regularly find unusual plants poking up in their own yards or those of their friends and family. A striking vegetative combination like spiny seedpods and flowers is bound to get the attention of an onlooker. Whether you’d like to add more of your newfound plant to the landscape or obliterate it completely, it helps to know what kind of plant you’re dealing with. Several plants sport spiny seedpods and flowers.

Datura

Datura innoxia and Datura stramonium are both ornamental plants that grow in Sunset’s Climate Zones 8, 9 and 11 through 31. These 3- to 6-foot-tall perennials boast large, trumpet-shaped flowers and spiny seedpods. Daturas are night-bloomers that release a perfume into the moonlit garden when planted as part of a landscape. Sometimes confused with moonflower, Daturas are in no way related. Datura is a bushy plant related to imsonweed, where moonflower is a climbing vine related to the sweet potato and morning glory. Many Datura plants are poisonous, so take caution in selecting their permanent locations.

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Castor Oil Plant

The most dominant feature of castor oil plant (Ricinus communis) is the mass of round, spiny seedpods that erupt after its white stalk-borne flowers begin to fade. In Sunset’s Climate Zones 23 through 28, H1 and H2, it can overwinter and grow into an impressive treelike plant. The rest of the country enjoys the unmistakable castor oil plant’s large lobed foliage during the growing season and sacrifice it to the winter, treating it as an annual in plantings. This plant’s seeds are the source of castor oil, although it is not recommended that you attempt to press your own.

Wild Cucumber

Wild cucumber (Marah macrocarpus) is a beautiful native plant related to gourds, squash, cucumbers and melons. This perennial vine emerges yearly from a massive fleshy tuber and scrambles rapidly before setting delicate, white fuzzy flowers in clusters. The 4-inch-long, egg-shaped seedpod hardens into a spiny fruit containing several black seeds. Although once used as marbles and jewelry by Native Americans, the seeds are bitter and poisonous.

Prickly Poppy

Prickly poppy (Argemone mexicana) thrives with abuse and reseeds itself readily when given the opportunity. The only parts of this 3-foot-tall poppy that aren’t covered in spines or sharp edges are the 1 1/4-inch-wide yellow flowers. Although treacherous, this poppy is often grown in Sunset’s Climate Zones 7 through 43, 2A, 2B, 3A, 3B, H1 and H2. The seeds germinate readily, often when one of the spiny seedpods drops to the ground and shatters.

Weeds

Other plants with spiny seedpods and flowers that grow wild could be either puncturevine (Triblus terrestis) or California burclover (Medicago polymorpha). Both are considered weedy plants in many Western states. Puncturevine is mat-forming weed with small, oval-shaped leaves on long stems that generally lie along the ground. It sports small yellow flowers and produces razor sharp, spiny seedpods that can puncture bicycle tires. California burclover is a member of the pea family and strongly resembles white clover. However, its three-part leaf is made of three small leaflets, each held on its own short stem. California burclover can grow up to about 2 feet, but generally lies along the ground. Flowers are small and yellow, eventually giving way to seedpods with two or three rows of prickly hooks.

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