aka Thorn Apple, Toloache, Zombi, Devil’s Weed, Stinkweed, Prickly Bur, Hell’s Bells, Zombie Cucumber, Jamestown Weed, Mad Seeds, Loco Weed, Angel’s Trumpet, Devil’s Trumpets, Moonflowers, Lovache, Nacazcul, Toloatzin, Toloaxihuitl, Tolguache, Toloache
About This Plant
Moonflower Datura is an herbaceous annual (USDA Zones 5-7) or a short-lived perennial (USDA Zones 8-10) of the Solanaceae family. It is a tuberous-rooted, subshrub that typically reaches a height of anywhere between 1 to 8 feet tall. It is often planted as an ornamental plant with its large attractive leaves, large white trumpet-shaped flowers, and walnut-sized thorny fruit. Plants in the Datura genus often have a confused taxonomy since the plants can vary greatly in their expression due to different growing conditions and locations. Moonflower Datura is considered an invasive species in several locations.
The plant thrives around the globe in tropical and temperate climates and can sometimes be seen growing near landfills or along roadsides. Moonflower Datura, or Datura inoxia, is the best known of the nine Datura species and its use is well-documented in the pre-Columbian Americas. The alkaloids in the plant are highly toxic and hallucinogenic. The plant is adaptable to many types of growing situations and the species can change the size of the plant, leaf, and flowers dependent on the light, nutrient, and moisture conditions. The plants’ toxicity level is also highly variable and there may be as much as five times difference in the amount of toxicity from one plant to the next due to growing conditions.
Moonflower Datura has more of an upright habit compared to some Datura species and a regular branching pattern. Its leaves are dark green to grey-green, up to ten inches long and four inches wide, and have downy surfaces. Its leaves are elliptic and smooth-edged. The leaves feel coarsely textured and are foul-smelling (described as rancid peanut butter) when handled. The sap can cause a skin rash in some individuals. Its stems are also covered with short, soft grayish hairs, giving the whole plant a grayish appearance. Browsing animals tend to avoid eating the plant due to its foul smell and taste.
Moonflower Datura has white, trumpet-shaped flowers that can be over seven inches long. The petals are fused to form a funnel with five lobes. The flowers bloom only in the evening, and only for one night. The furled, cigar-shaped flower buds unwind after dusk and the flowers remain open until about noon the following day before fading. They begin by growing upright and then incline downward. The night-blooming flowers exude a tantalizingly strong scent and produce an addictive narcotic nectar that attracts hawk moths.
Moonflower Datura, with its upward-facing flowers, is the North American counterpart to Angel’s Trumpet–the Brugmansia variety, South American cousins. The Brugmansia genus differs from the Datura genus by being long-lived with woody stems, pendant flowers, and seed pods that need to be broken open. Angel’s Trumpet flowers hang down (as if played from the Heavens), while Moonflower Datura, also called Devil’s Trumpet, faces upward as if being played from below). Both species contain multiple alkaloids that are toxic, narcotic, and hallucinogenic. Moonflower Datura the source of many accidental poisonings and death.
The walnut-sized fruits of Moonflower Datura are egg-shaped and spiny. They sometimes get dispersed by becoming entangled in the fur of passing animals. The fruits will break open when ripe, revealing four chambers inside filled with seeds. Each plant can produce up to 30,000 seeds. Seeds are long-lived and can remain dormant in the soil for several decades before sprouting.
Moonflower Datura has been revered as a sacred visionary plant among many cultures where it has traditionally grown. It has been in use for at least 3,000 years in the southwestern U. S. The plant appears as a character in the creation stories of many indigenous cultures. The Chumash Indians of southern California tell of old grandmother “Momoy” who turned herself into the plant Datura after the great flood, marking the transitions between mythical times and the modern world.
The flowers were a favorite subject of painter Georgia O’Keeffe. The name “Jimson Weed” is shortened for “Jamestown Weed” and was a name given to Moonflower Datura’s cousin, Datura stramonium. In 1676, a troop of British soldiers in Jamestown, Virginia boiled up the leaves of the plant for a meal and, according to historical accounts, went insane for eleven days. In the Caribbean, Datura is used as an ingredient in the ritual practice of zombification and is thus known as Zombie Cucumber. The Aztecs used Datura as a painkiller in initiation rituals and as a narcotic for ritual sacrifices. Some scholars believe the Delphic oracles in ancient Greece used Datura to induce their legendary visions.
In the 1830’s the first of Datura’s active alkaloids, atropine was isolated. Next came scopolamine. Some of the effects of these substances include urinary retention, dry mouth, throat and skin, blurred vision, headache and nausea, dizziness, convulsions, fever, euphoria, hallucinations, short-term memory loss, delirium, hyperthermia, rapid heartbeat, agitation, bizarre and possibly violent behavior, and severe hyper-dilation of the eye pupil that can result in several days of painful photophobia. There are few if any true antidotes to Datura poisoning. Children are especially vulnerable to atropine poisoning and their prognosis is likely to be fatal. Sometimes, just handling the plant is enough to cause toxic effects.
Datura is federally unscheduled in the U.S. but is controlled in several states, including Connecticut, Kansas, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, and Oklahoma. Bans often only apply to the manufacture and distribution of Datura for human consumption.
Moonflower Datura seeds can be directly planted outdoors after the last frost of Spring or started indoors six to eight weeks earlier. Plant seeds ¼” deep. It grows quickly from seeds. When self-seeded, it often sprouts in dense groups. Starts have narrow cotyledons followed by rounded leaves. Scarification and soaking seeds in warm water for 24 hours before planting can be beneficial for germination. Its tuberous root can also be kept from freezing and planted in the Spring the following year.
Its tuberous root can be kept from freezing and planted in the Spring the following year.
After collecting seed, scarify and soak in warm water for 24 hours before planting
Sow ¼ “ deep around mid-March
Acclimate your young Moonflower Datura plants before planting them outside. Plant outside once all threat of frost has passed. Handle the plant with care when transplanting as seedlings can be fragile and sensitive.
Moonflower Datura is a sun-loving plant. With full sun, it will grow into a larger plant, as long as its moisture needs are met. The plant will be leggier and have fewer flowers if grown in partial shade. It needs well-draining soil and will not tolerate saturated soil. Once established, it is drought tolerant. It will do well in most soil types, but will generally do best in humus-rich soil. They are generally pest-free but can get infested with whiteflies, mealybugs, and spider mites.
Seeds can be collected from the brown seed pods. Use gloves whenever working with this plant.
The ingestion of Moonflower is toxic and potentially deadly. There are no culinary uses for this plant.
The ingestion of Moonflower is toxic and potentially deadly. It has been used traditionally as a sacred plant by many cultures however–the seeds, leaves, flowers, roots, and stems have been ingested, smoked, and/or made into a skin ointment. Certain uses produce intensely visionary experiences that can be overwhelming and uncomfortable, characterized by a lasting delirium and realistic hallucinations that can last for several days. Fatal overdoses and adverse reactions are very common. There is tremendous variation in the concentration of alkaloids in different plants, and even between material from the same plant, making providing any kind of “safe” dose range challenging. It can take up to four hours for sensations to fully manifest, sometimes leading people to think their dose has been insufficient–they may consume more and find themselves at even greater risk. Peak effect commonly occurs for 12-24 hours but can last for several days but coordination, perception, and speech may be affected for up to a week afterward. The three primary alkaloids in Datura are antimuscarinic anticholinergics, which, among other symptoms, lead to abnormal breathing and heart rate due to their effects on the parasympathetic nervous system.
D. inoxia is native to the Southwestern U.S., Central, and South America and has been introduced in Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe. The greatest diversity of species in the Datura genus occurs in Central America and Mexico, suggesting this is the origin of the genus. There is evidence that at least one species has been used culturally as a sacred plant in Asia for as least 3,000 years, however.