Moon flower, one of the triumvirate of powerful helping plants in the ancient Lower Pecos, is known by many names: Jimson weed, loco weed, datura, stink weed, thorne apple and devil’s weed, to mention the most common. These plants are members of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, which claims over 2,500 species such as potatoes, eggplants, and tomatoes. Datura stramonium, or moon flower, is a fragrant night-blooming plant that grows wild all over the world, including the Lower Pecos, and can cause delirium, anxiety, hallucinations, stupor, coma and death.
The plants contain the tropane alkaloids– atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine. These alkaloids have many uses in modern medicine, but also serious side effects. Atropine interferes with activity in the brain stem, ranging from motor impairment to rapid heart beat, to overheating of the body. Internal bleeding and stroke can occur. Scopolamine and hyoscyamine are also sometime known as “zombie drugs” because of the delirium and unpleasant hallucinations they can cause.
The seeds and leaves are the most potent, but all parts of the plant are toxic. Uncomfortable effects generally begin 20-30 minutes after ingestion. Effects can last from eight hours to three days.
Many researchers agree that ancient people of the Lower Pecos used moon flower, or datura, as a plant helper to converse with the ancestors and gods. Their shaman were undoubtedly familiar with the plant and learned to dose themselves and others carefully to prevent dire reactions. Some images in rock art have been interpreted as datura seed pods.
The Hopi used this plant for divination purposes, and Carlos Castaneda wrote about it in his famous book from 1968 The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. In the European Middle Ages, the deadly nightshade known as belladonna was often used in magical brews.
A large moon flower plant grew at the base of our back door steps when I was a child. I was fascinated by the aromatic flowers that bloomed as the summer twilight deepened , and I wanted to pluck them for my hair. But my mother always cautioned me strongly not to even touch the plant, and especially never to eat it. (It was not unknown for us kids to eat a little grass with our mud pies, but then, those were simpler days, when kids made up their own games outdoors.)
There must have been a note of truth and urgency in my mother’s voice when she cautioned me, for I obeyed her on this. And I was not known for being obedient.
Once my grandfather and I were riding horseback through a field when we came upon a moon flower plant. I still remember the sharp distaste my grandfather conveyed as he said, “Don’t let the horse get into that! That’s loco weed. Now I have to get out here and get rid of it.”
The Center for Disease Control reports a number of datura or moon flower intoxications over the past few years which resulted in trips to emergency rooms and admission to intensive care units. In one case, a family accidentally ate datura leaves in a stew, thinking it was an edible wild herb. Six members of the family were taken to the hospital, two of them unconscious.
Moon flower is not regulated in any way in the United States, even though it can cause severe reactions. It carries no warning signs in gardens or in the wild. Archaic people knew the power of this plant, after generations of dangerous trial and error. Modern people should be aware that even one seed is poisonous and can cause severe discomfort.
The ancient people of the Lower Pecos used all parts of their environemnt, including toxic hallucinogenic plants. A post in January discussed mountain laurel in Part 1 of this series, and an article on peyote is coming in March. Nature is beautiful and complicated, as we learn over and over again. Four thousand years ago in the canyon lands near the Pecos River and the Rio Grande, the people knew this well.