The Jimsonweed Junkies

Across the Americas, during the twilight hours of the summer, a poisonous perennial weed unfurls its ingeniously folded conical wildflower and offers itself to all comers. Every bit of the weed is toxic, and its nectar is held deep within it’s corolla tube, so there are few takers. One family of moth, however, happens to have just the tools for the job; Its proboscis is long (longer in most cases that the rest of its entire body) and its proclivities… well… let’s just say this moth likes to get high baby.

The weed is Datura wrightii, known variously as Sacred Datura, Jimsonweed, Nightshade, Angel’s Trumpet, Moonflower, Thorn Apple, and Devil’s Weed. It’s classified as a “deliriant” which Wikipedia describes as follows:

“The deliriants (or anticholinergics) are a special class of acetylcholine-inhibitor dissociatives. The name comes from their primary effect of inducing a medical state of frank delirium, characterized by stupor, utter confusion, confabulation, and regression to ‘phantom’ behaviors such as disrobing and plucking. Other commonly reported behaviors include holding full and lifelike conversations with imagined people, finishing a complex, multi-stage action and then suddenly discovering you had not even begun yet, and being unable to recognize one’s own reflection in a mirror (and thus becoming angry with the ‘stranger’s’ acts of mimicry). The effects have been likened to sleepwalking, a fugue state or a psychotic episode.”

These effects are caused by the alkaloids present throughout the plant. 

Quote: “The leaves, stem, root and fruits of Datura contain a battery of tropane alkaloids, the most potent of which are atropine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine. These alkaloids affect the central nervous system, including nerve cells of the brain and spinal cord which control many direct body functions and the behavior of men and women. They may also affect the autonomic nervous system, which includes the regulation of internal organs, heartbeat, circulation and breathing. One autonomic response of atropine is the dilation of pupils, once considered to be a beautiful and mysterious look in Italian women. In fact, belladonna means ‘beautiful lady,’ so named because sap from the closely related belladonna plant (Atropa belladonna) was used as eye drops to dilate the pupils.”

Californian settlers called it “Indian Whiskey” because it was used ritually by soaking and steeping the leaves into a tea or by chewing the seeds or roots. It was used mainly in rites of passage and as a means of “seeing the future” though wikipedia also mentions that “during a frightening situation, such as when seeing a coyote walk like a man, a leaf was sucked to help keep the soul in the body.” And who couldn’t use a little help in that regard?

Elsewhere in the world, and throughout history, Datura has been used for varying purposes, all of which seemed to call for just a pinch of that special poison. Some examples-

Quote: In the East Indies, women fed Datura leaves to beetles, and then fed the poisonous dung to faithless lovers.

Prostitutes in India added the seeds to their patron’s drinks to induce sexual excitement. In fact, the use of Datura as an aphrodisiac spread throughout India, the Far East and Europe, and was an important ingredient in love potions and witches’ brews.

Specially prepared salves and ointments were also applied to various parts of the body. The famous seventeenth century Dutch artist, David Teniers the Younger, made several paintings of witches preparing for their demonic orgy or sabbat. The scenes frequently depicted a nude witch being anointed while she straddled a broom. According to M.J. Harner, writing in Hallucinogens and Shamanism (1973), the use of a broom or staff was undoubtedly more than a symbolic Freudian act, for it served to apply the salves to sensitive vaginal membranes.

Greek and Roman physicians used Datura mixed with opium as a sedative and general anesthetic during surgery.

Some aboriginal Indians in South America gave a Datura-alcohol beverage to wives and slaves of dead warriors and chieftains. The powerful brew induced stupor before they were buried alive to accompany their dead husbands and masters on the long journey to heaven.”

Whew! So enterprising and imaginative we humans are. In any case…

Though panic, blindness, convulsions, stupors, and respiratory depression are delightful prospects, and might seem a perfectly acceptable risk in trade for some people in order to achieve outlandish hallucinatory states, Datura can be lethal, and in as much has rarely been considered a substance to be taken recreationally.

Except by the moths of course.

The moths in question are the family Sphingidae called variously hawk moths, sphinx moths and hornworms. They are one of only three nectar feeders who have evolved the ability to hover (the others being the hummingbird and certain bats) and are very often mistaken by onlookers for hummingbirds. They are among the fastest flying insects on the planet, able to reach 30 mph, and as mentioned previously, they like to get high. Lucky for them, in return for a stint of pollination duty, Datura wrightii is all too happy to oblige.

Quote: “Several intoxicating alkaloids are known to occur in Datura, but heretofore have not been correlated with pollination. Apparently Datura nectar is ‘spiked’ with alkaloids and the hawk moths seem to like it and come back for more. Sometimes they arrive early and hover around the flowers, impatiently waiting for the blossoms to pop open. We have observed what appear to be intoxicated moths flying erratically around D. wrightii, clumsily landing on blossoms and crashing into leaves or falling upon the ground.”

Arriving early? Waiting impatiently? Sounds like Mr. Sphingid needs it bad.

Further: “Although the potent alkaloids of Datura have produced untold suffering and psychedelic binges among people through countless generations, they may also be an ingenious strategy to insure repeat visits by long-tongued hawk moths through the medium of drug addiction. When the moths sober up they come straight back for more nectar.”

So enterprising and imaginative these plants are, ay?

In our weakling 21st century brains, browbeaten into hypersensitivity over anything habitual, and so very quick to pull the “addiction” trigger, many people will involuntarily view this symbiosis as a dealer/junkie relationship and be tempted, against their own good sense, to heap moral scorn on a flower. It’s useful to remember, however, that pollination can be a brutal business-

Quote: “In truth, pollination often involves abuse, a range of violence and deceit. Some orchids imprison their pollinators in a carnival fun-house of chutes and cages. Sometimes these flowers eject their pollinium (a disk of pollen with a stem attached) into a sphinx moth’s eye, an experience akin to having a hockey stick attached to your face. Eventually, the vision-impaired insect may starve if it cannot feed itself. In the meantime, it might pollinate a few more flowers. Flowers pretend to have nectar when they don’t, or they exaggerate the richness of their pollen with bright yellow coloring. In the common milkweed, pollen can stick so persistently to a visiting bumblebee that, as the bee flies away, its legs tear off. By comparison, the interaction between a sacred datura and a moth almost seems romantic. At least no one is getting hurt.”

Indeed. The flower gets laid and the moth gets high. It’s a victimless crime baby.


To the adults- Hope you ejoyed.
To the kids- Just say no to deliriant flowers… and stay in school.


The information for this post was drawn from the following:
Wayne’s Word: Plants That Make You Loco
One Earth: Sex in the Garden
Wikipedia: Detura Wrightii
Wikipedia: Sphingidae

09.23. filed under: science. 6