Its scientific name is Datura stramonium, but it has other names too. Jimson weed, the devil’s cucumber, Hell’s Bells, pricklyburr, moonflower, mad seeds. But where I grew up it was simply known as locoweed.
Known to kill livestock, the plant can also be consumed by people as a hallucinogenic drug. Do NOT do this. While it’s active ingredients, atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine, can produce euphoric visions, other common symptoms include “delirium…; hyperthermia; tachycardia; bizarre, and possibly violent behavior; …painful photophobia that can last several days… pronounced amnesia… The overwhelming majority of those who describe the use of Datura find their experiences extremely mentally and physically unpleasant and not infrequently dangerous.” Furthermore, the actual level of these alkaloids can vary wildly between plants. Deaths from accidental overdose are common (and messy. Hope you enjoy convulsions and comas) and datura is “a popular poison for suicide and murder.”
There have been more than a few recorded instances of unwitting victims being dosed with Datura. It was used against British troops during Bacon’s Rebellion, as reported in Robert Beverly’s account below.
The James-Town Weed (which resembles the Thorny Apple of Peru, and I take to be the Plant so call’d) is supposed to be one of the greatest Coolers in the World. This being an early Plant, was gather’d very young for a boil’d Salad, by some of the Soldiers sent thither, to pacific the Troubles of Bacon; and some of them eat plentifully of it, the Effect of which was a very pleasant Comedy; for they turn’d natural Fools upon it for several Days: One would blow up a Feather in the Air; another wou’d dart Straws at it with much Fury; and another stark naked was sitting up in a Corner, like a Monkey, grinning and making Mows at them; a Fourth would fondly kiss, and paw his Companions, and snear in their Faces, with a Countenance more antick, than any in a Dutch Droll. In this frantick Condition they were confined, lest they should in their Folly destroy themselves; though it was observed, that all their Actions were full of Innocence and good Nature. Indeed, they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallow’d in their own Excrements, if they had not been prevented. A Thousand such simple Tricks they play’d, and after Eleven Days, return’d to themselves again, not remembring any thing that had pass’d. -1673-1722
Furthermore, a report in The Lancet by Littlewood and Douyon implicates Datura as one of the ingredients (alongside pufferfish poison, ground insects, and human remains) traditionally used by voodoo sorcerers (known as bokors or bokos) to create subservient zombies from living humans. They should know as two seperate bokos provided this information. Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who underwent involuntary zombification, also implicates datura. His story inspired the book The Serpent and the Rainbow.
Some good does come from the plant. Its alkaloid ingredients have become widely used in medicine as sedatives and amnesiacs. Hyoscyamine can help control the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease and if you have ever had your pupils dilated and it might have been with scopolamine.
Nevertheless, I don’t believe I will be ingesting anything known as the devil’s cucumber any time soon.
Sources: Toxicity of Datura Stramonium, Freye (2009), The History and Present State of Virginia, In Four Parts by Robert Beverly, 1673-1722, Clinical findings in three cases of zombification, Littlewood and Douyon (1997), firstways.com, georgetown.edu, PubMed Health, PubChem, and Wiki-nevergoin’togiveyouup-pedia