Welcome to my zone 9a habitat garden near Houston, Texas.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The devil's trumpet

As a child, I spent a lot of time in solitary wandering around the meadows and pastures of our farm. It was there that I first met many plants that I was to encounter again much later in life and in much changed surroundings. Plants like elderberry, sumac, pokeweed, beautyberry, as well as such wildflowers as butterfly weed, black-eyed Susans, goldenrod, wild roses and asters.

There was one weed in particular that fascinated me. We called it jimsonweed. It was a tall shrubby plant, much taller in its full growth than I was at the time. It had large, dramatically-toothed leaves and beautiful trumpet-shaped blossoms that, as I remember, were rather lavender at their base but became bright white through the body of the blossom. The seed pods that formed later were spiky balls. The plant also had a distinctive odor which I can recall but find it hard to describe. It was not unpleasant, necessarily, but on the other hand, it wasn't especially attractive either.

I don't remember anyone ever warning me about this plant, but perhaps they did. At any rate, I knew it wasn't something to be trifled with. Its gothic appearance alone might have warned me of that.

It was one of many potentially harmful plants in my world. There were plants all around me that could have made me sick or given me some very strange dreams if I had ingested them, but I don't recall ever having any unpleasant experiences with them. I just took them for granted, looked at them, sometimes played with them and watched animals visiting and using their flowers and fruit.

It was much later, probably when I was reading Carlos Castaneda in college, that I learned that this plant whose scientific name is Datura stramonium, had psychotropic, narcotic, and hallucinogenic properties. It has been used in shamanism as a bridge to another level of consciousness and it played a role in Castaneda's The Teachings of Don Juan, which was very popular at the time.

The plant is known locally by many different names. The name by which I knew it, jimsonweed, is actually apparently a corruption of "Jamestown weed." It is also called locoweed, stinkwort, thorn apple (because of its seed pods), mad apple, and devil's trumpet.

The devil's trumpet is, in fact, related to the plant that is commonly grown in our gardens and called angel's trumpet. They are both members of the solanaceae family, many of which can be poisonous, but to which some of our favorite veggies like tomatoes and peppers also belong. The angel's trumpet also used to carry the name of Datura, but some years ago was rechristened Brugmansia. The two are easily distinguished because angel's trumpet blossoms point down toward the earth while the devil's trumpet is pointed up towards heaven.

I was reminded of all this lore about the devil's trumpet when I happened to see a blog post in The New York Times a few days ago. This plant, it seems, grows not just in Southern pastures and meadows but throughout much of the country, including New York City! (Who knew?) Like many weeds and wildflowers, it is an opportunistic colonizer and will go where the wind or a wild animal takes it and often will make itself at home there.

There are several kinds of Datura and some of them are cultivated garden plants. These mostly belong to Datura wrightii, I believe. They are all interesting plants and well worth having in the garden. I've never tried growing one, but I might just look one out for my garden, just for nostalgia's sake. So what if they have an aura of danger? Many of the plants that we grow do. It just brings a little extra fillip of excitement to the staid, bland world of the gardener.


  1. I got some jimsonweed seeds from Native Seed in Junction and was surprised when they flourished. Probably shouldn't have been since they were in the septic spray area and got water and nutrients through the drought.

    Otherworldly blossoms. I loved looking out front and seeing those white trumpets.

    They didn't come back this year, I'm thinking the thick growth from all the rain choked them out. Maybe next year...now that we're started back into a La Nina period.

  2. Apparently they will flourish, given the right conditions, just about anywhere in the country, Kathleen. I'm thinking of giving them a try in the coming year.