By Tom McDonald
Also known as the southwestern thorn apple, sacred Datura might be recognized by many as jimson weed, a noxious plant that thrives in disturbed soil and is poisonous to humans, livestock, and pets.
Datura wrightii, our desert species, is also used in landscapes that feature native plants. Growing to a sprawling two to three foot height, with grayish green foliage and golf ball sized thorny seed pods, the large spectacular flowers make it a showstopper. The trumpet-shaped white bloom is often tinged with hints of violet and only opens in the evening to late morning making it a great addition to a moon garden. Producing copious amounts of nectar, the plant is the favorite of the ‘Hawk moth’, one of the largest nocturnal moth species. Datura is one of only a handful of desert natives that has large leaves. Most desert plants either have no leaves or very small leaves to conserve water. Scientist are still unclear how the Datura survives and thrives in the Sonoran desert environment with such large leaves.
Datura wrightii has been used as medicine, in ceremonies and rites of passage by southwest Native Americans since the beginning of recorded history. Early European and Hispanic settlers soon were also treating physical disabilities such as bruises, burns, hemorrhoids, cramps, and muscle spasms with Datura. A member of the nightshade family, the plant is highly toxic if taken internally. It became a ‘fad’ hallucinogenic in the sixties and seventies but many who partook ended up blind or a permanent guest of the psyche ward.
The ASU web site describes Datura as “a striking, spreading herbaceous plant for desert themed gardens” along with the warning that “all parts of the plants contain dangerous levels of scopolamine….and may be fatal if ingested by humans or other animals.”
Due to its toxic nature, few nurseries carry Datura plants but seeds are readily available online.
Datura joins oleander, euphorbia and castor bean as a beautiful plant that must be grown responsibly by the desert gardener.