7 Nematology (Botany) Circular No. 25 Fla. Dept. of A it n sumer Serv.
February 1977 Division of Pla ta &s9,I nce
DATURA SP.: WEED, ORNAMENTAL, DRUG,
POISON; WITH A BIZARRE MEDICAL HISTORY MAR 26 1987
C. R. Artaud and K. R. Langdon nvest
Un vers ty of Florida
The genus Datura in the family Solanaceae is distributed thiuiugh nt-rn-mropora and
tropical regions of the world and contains over a dozen to possibly 25 species with numerous
common names. Datura, Angel's trumpet, Jamestown weed, Jimson weed, thorn-apple, and apple of
Peru are the most generally used names in the United States. Several species are found native
and naturalized in the United States, and several others are occasionally cultivated for their
conspicuous flowers and fragrances.
The most common species in Florida are D. stramonium L. (fig. 1), D. metel L., D. meteloides
Dunal, D. candida (Pers.) Pasquale, D. arborea L., and D. suaveolens Humb. & Bonpl. In addition
to plants under cultivation, it is common to find them in waste areas, barnyards, heavily used
pastures, and roadsides. There are numerous instances of livestock being poisoned from eating
datura when other forage was scarce.
The technical description of the genus Datura is given by Gentry and Standley (1974) as
Herbs, shrubs, or small trees, glabrous or pubescent; leaves alternate,
entire to sinuate, or shallowly lobed, membranaceous, petiolate; inflorescenses
consisting of a solitary flower, the flowers pedicellate and in the forks of the
branching stem, small or very large and showy, erect or pendulous; calyx long
tubular, 5-lobed or spathe-like and cleft down one side, sometimes circumscissle
near the base and leaving a persistent flaring collar under the fruit; corolla
funnelform or narrow funnelform, white, yellow, pink, or red, the limb 5-lobed
or 10-toothed, the lobes acuminate to long caudate, plicate in bud, the tube long
and slender; stamens 5, inserted near the middle of the corolla tube, included
Sor slightly exserted; filaments slender, pubescent or glabrous below; anthers
linear, free or rarely coherent, longitudinally dehiscent; ovary bilocular (some-
times falsely tetralocular), the ovules numerous; style filiform, included; stigma
bilobed; fruit a capsule, 4-valvate or breaking open irregularly, armed with spines
or unarmed; seeds numerous, laterally compressed or angulate; embryo curved.
Datura has had a long and interesting history in countless civilizations around the world.
Early Sanskrit writings mention
datura. Virgil and Shakespeare
wrote of its properties. Numer-
ous accounts are recorded of its
widespread distribution as well
as its multiple uses. Found
throughout Asia, Africa, Amer-
ica, and Australia, datura has
been used, abused, and misused
for everything from headaches
to hemorrhoids. Scientific and
historical accounts reveal its
usage as a mind-altering decoc-
tion in primitive puberty rituals,
a pesticide, a green dye, an aph-
rodisiac, a relief for asthma suf-
ferers, a local anesthetic, a dand-
ruff cure, and many others. Some
of the more dramatic accounts in-
clude its use by prostitutes to
stupefy their clients, making
them more vulnerable to robbery.
Datura was also used by priests
to make rain and to find gold.
* South American tribes fed datura
extracts to young maidens to calm
thc(. before burying them alive.
Fig. 1. Datura stramonium (after West and Emmel, 1960)
Contribution No. 163, Bureau of Nematology, P. O. Box 1269, Gainesville, Florida 32602
P Because of the high toxicity of the plant, it is not unusual to find historical accounts of
its calculated use to poison victims. Women of the East Indies fed datura leaves to beetles then
poisoned unfaithful lovers with the beetle excrement.
Accounts consistently warn of the toxicity of datura, all parts of the plant being toxic,
with the seeds and young leaves the most toxic and the roots the least. Even pollen or honey
made from nectar of datura flowers is toxic. Entire groups of people have been poisoned when
datura seeds were accidentally ground with grain for bread or when beans were contaminated with
datura seed. The genus contains alkaloids common to the nightshade family (Solanaceae). In
fact, there are instances when datura has been mistaken for, and even used as a substitute for
belladonna -Atrepa bel-ladonna-L.), the primary source of atropine.
The chief alkaloids found in datura are atropine, hyoscyamine, hyoscine (scopolamine), and
meteloidine. It must be strongly stated that poisoning may occur from an overdose of any of the
alkaloids found in datura. It is difficult to determine the amounts of material ingested in poi-
soning cases, but based on the toxicity of atropine, it is generally believed that as little as
4 grams of the leaf can be fatal to a child. This is particularly distressing because the large
flowers and spiny seed capsules are very attractive to children.
Many variables in the toxicity of the alkaloids make it difficult to categorize the symptoms.
Alkaloid concentration, method of ingestion, dosage, etc., influence the reaction. Symptoms may
appear within minutes or not for several hours. Extreme thirst and dilatation of the pupils are
usually the first symptoms. Even drinking large amounts of water does not satisfy the thirst.
Vision is impaired, and hallucinations occur to the point that the victim begins grabbing at ob-
jects that are not present. A high temperature, flushed skin, and extremely rapid heartbeat are
usually observed. The subject is delirious and may become violent. Severe cases lead to convul-
sions followed by coma and death. With less than fatal doses, symptoms subside in 12 to 48 hours.
Impaired vision may persist up to 2 weeks. In some cases, recovery takes place after a period
of lethargy where the subject may not even recall what has happened. An account from Jamestown
in 1676 concerns a whole troop of soldiers who ate the leaves of datura in a salad. After eleven
delirious days, the symptoms passed and not one of them could recall what had happened.
A few people have foolishly tried datura as a hallucinogenic drug, but this practice is
extremely dangerous and may easily prove fatal.
Since datura is widely distributed in the United States people need to be aware of its toxic
properties. If poisoning symptoms are noticed, immediate medical attention is needed. Vomiting
should be induced if the case is recognized early. Datura poisoning is similar to that of atro-
pine and is treated accordingly with morphine, physostigmine, caffeine, or similar medications.
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