Weeds With Spiny Seed Pods

Beautiful but dangerous, jimsonweed sent British soldiers who used it in a salad into a stupor for 11 days. We find it in Brooklyn. Thorn apple is a weed that prefers a warmer climate than Britain, but in hot summers they are quite commonly found. Another common name, devil's snare, sounds alarming, but a few simple precautions will enable gardeners to handle this weed without great risk.

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”).

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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.

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.

Datura stramonium (thorn apple)

Thorn apple is a weed that prefers a warmer climate than Britain, but in hot summers they are quite commonly found. Another common name, devil’s snare, sounds alarming, but a few simple precautions will enable gardeners to handle this weed without great risk.

Quick facts

Latin name Datura stramonium
Common name Thorn apple
Life cycle Annual
Areas affected Uncultivated ground, beds, borders

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What is Datura stramomium

Datura stramonium (or thorn apple as it is commonly known) is an annual weed of gardens, roadsides and other waste or cultivated land. It is widely naturalised in warmer countries throughout the world, and is quite common in the British Isles, often appearing in waste and cultivated ground.

Although quite a striking plant, it is as well to be aware that all parts, particularly the seeds, are highly poisonous. It belongs to Solanaceae, a family which includes the potato and tobacco, and many members of this family contain toxic substances. This page looks at options for gardeners when Datura stramonium is becoming a problem.

Appearance

This weed can grow to heights of 1m (3¼ft). It flowers from July to October with wide, funnel-shaped flowers. These are usually white but plants with purple or lilac flowers and purplish stems are referred to as Datura stramonium var. chalybaea (syn. D. stramonium var. tatula).

It produces seedpods which are large and spiny (hence the common name thorn apple) though plants with spineless seedpods are known and these are referred to as D. stramonium var. inermis.

The leaves very broad and coarsely toothed.

The problem

The potentially harmful poisonous and hallucinogenic properties of this plant can sound alarming especially when made much of in the media. The leaves and seed pods also look exotic and alien. In fact this is quite a small plant and not very invasive in Britain. Common sense precautions limit risk factors so that gardeners need not be too alarmed by this weed.

The seed appears to retain its viability for many years when buried and germinates when the soil is disturbed. Spread is facilitated by human activities – in gardens it appears to be a contaminant of birdseed.

Control

The RHS believes that avoiding pests, diseases and weeds by good practice in cultivation methods, cultivar selection, garden hygiene and encouraging or introducing natural enemies, should be the first line of control. If chemical controls are used, they should be used only in a minimal and highly targeted manner.

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Cultural control

There are a number of non-chemical control options.

Dig, pull or hoe out plants before seed is set. Seedlings and plants that have not set seed can be added to the compost heap where the toxins will naturally break down. However, plants that have set seed should be consigned to the green waste collection, buried deeply (60cm/2ft or more) or burnt in order that the seed does not disperse in the garden or persist in the compost heap. Always wear gloves or thoroughly wash hands after handling this plant.

Use a mulch of organic matter, at least 5cm (2in) thick or opaque sheeting, such as woven polypropylene, to smother this weed.

Weedkiller control

Contact herbicides such as acetic acid (eg. Weedol Gun! Fast Acting, Roundup Speed Ultra, Spot On Fast Acting Weedkiller or Resolva Fast Weedkiller), fatty acids (eg. Job Done Garden Ultrafast Weedkiller) and pelargonic acid (eg. Doff 24/7 Fast Acting Weedkiller, Roundup NL Weed Control or Resolva Xpress Weedkiller) are good at knocking back young annual weeds such as thorn apple. Systemic herbicides such as glyphosate (e.g. Roundup Fast Action, SBM Job done General Purpose Weedkiller or Doff Advanced Concentrated Weedkiller) will also be effective and can be used when mature plants need to be eliminated.

These herbicides are non-selective and so care should be taken while spraying near other plants. Plants to be avoided can be covered with a bucket/flowerpot or screened with plastic when spraying.

Inclusion of a weedkiller product does not indicate a recommendation or endorsement by the RHS. It is a list of products currently available to the home gardener.

Download

Weedkillers for gardeners (Adobe Acrobat pdf document outlining weedkillers available to gardeners; see sections 3a and 4)