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Spotlight on Datura: A Poison Plant

By: Liz Clift

This is the time of year when, in the evenings, I can find bees buried into the trumpeted blossoms of Datura sp. These plants are commonly called datura, as well as devil’s trumpets, moonflowers, and jimsonweed (among other names). Datura is part of the nightshade family (Solanaceae) and all species of datura are poisonous, especially the seeds and flowers.

In my neighborhood, there are a few isolated patches of well-established datura spills onto the sidewalks in the summer. It is here I go looking for bees in datura. The bees crowd into the Datura blossoms—sometimes as many as six or seven at a time! —which open as the day cools into night. Fortunately for us, and for the local honeybee keepers, there’s no evidence that honey that may have been partially created from datura flowers has had any ill effects on people.

Datura. Image from: Wikimedia Commons

As a child, in the south, I would sometimes go on early morning walks. Datura, in bloom, and reflecting the light of the moon, appears exceptionally bright and I would marvel at this plant that defied what I considered at the time to be a basic premise of being a flowering plant: flower during the day so you can be pollinated. At the time, I didn’t know there were nighttime pollinators.

Large moths, including hawkmoths, are among other pollinators of datura, although I haven’t observed these pollinating the blossoms of my local plants (I also haven’t gone looking for them). Hawkmoths have been observed nestling their bodies inside the blossoms, and staying for a while, rather than hovering while collecting nectar. This may allow more pollen to accumulate on their wings, and thus increase the rate of pollination for this plant.

Perhaps you’re wondering why anyone would plant this plant, knowing it’s poisonous. Although people have a variety of reasons, I imagine that its large, showy blossoms are one reason.

Datura Blossoms. Image from: Wikimedia Commons

It’s good to be wary of datura, like other poisonous plants, as consumption can lead to death. However, many of these plants that we fear have long traditions of being used by our ancestors. It’s important we understand how these plants have been used historically. As with everything, the dose makes the poison (and in some cases, that is incredibly small). In this case, the specific species of datura, along with the dose can make the poison. The ethnobotany of daturas includes:

  • Painkiller (Aztecs);
  • Ritual zombificiation (Caribbean peoples);
  • Creation mythology (Chumash peoples);
  • Sacred visions (various peoples); and
  • Treatment of bruises and broken bones, as a poultice (various peoples).

Datura, along with other poison plants may also be a key component of our folklore that witches ride on brooms. But I’ll let you google that yourself.

Datura seedpod. Image from: Wikimedia Commons

Although datura is a poison plant, and perhaps you’re feeling some healthy wariness about it, it’s also important to remember that other animals may rely on it, and that it has co-evolved with certain pollinators to provide a food source at a time of day when fewer food sources are available.

If you’re curious if it’s growing near you, take a walk this evening, or tonight, or tomorrow morning and take a look. Its large blossoms are distinctive, and it’s a good way to get an appreciation of what other things flower in your region during these hours. Plus, since it’s National Pollinator Week, you’ll have the opportunity to go seek out the pollinators that live in your community.

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