What are those beautiful white flowers growing around the trails of Southern California?
If you’ve been hiking in the foothills, chaparrals, or even just around Griffith Park this spring, you’ve probably noted these femme fatale white blooms growing out in the open inviting curiosity and question. Datura stramonium – aka Jimson weed, the Devil’s Trumpet, thorn apple, or moon flower – has a fascinating history, earning an intertwined history and reputation as both a toxic killer and a hallucinogenic medicinal of powerful healing abilities: the priests of Apollo at Delphi reputedly used it to assist them in seeking their otherworldly prophecies, the Peruvians concocted a delirium-indducing beverage from the plant’s seeds, and the Arabs of Central Africa dried the leaves, flowers, and roots to smoke it for its narcotic effects. Locally, California native tribes would ingest the black seeds to purchase a roundtrip ticket into the spirit world, probably resulting in vision quests not unlike this (One Who Jumps With Modine has sadly faded from tribal oral history).
Because the plant is easily available and identifiable throughout the Americas, the leaves are sometimes collected by teens today seeking the plant’s powerful mind-bending hallucinogenic effects. But the Devil’s Trumpet’s toxicity can make ingesting the seeds or smoking the leaves a dangerous game of Russian roulette without proper understanding of the amount of alkaloids present in younger and older plants, and each year a few of those thrill-seekers find themselves taking a “trip” to the ER instead of their intended destination (note this description from Uses and Abuses of Plant-Derived Smoke: Its Ethnobotany as Hallucinogen, Perfume, Incense, and Medicine and it becomes clear the plant isn’t to be trifled with).
Yet the plant also harbors the ability to aid rather than just ail. The Indians and Chinese have long used Datura seeds (hidden inside characteristic green spiked pods which eventually dry and open into the appearance of a fierce mouth) to effectively treat the symptoms of asthma, while the other alkaloids present within the plant – when administered in the right amounts – can be used to treat Parkinson’s disease, combat motion sickness, and “inhibit parasympathetic stimulation of the urinary tract, respiratory tract, GI tract, heart and eye“. Killers can be complicated like that.
More recently Datura stramonium was revealed to be the mysterious inspiration for the theme song of HBO’s series, True Detective. The Handsome Family’s Far From the Road takes on another dimension of beauty when understood by the song’s original deadly romance inspiration:
“I saw some Jimson weed and it’s a plant that only blooms at night and you can see these huge white flowers and there are these moths that feed on them just at night so it’s like a secret night time blooming and romance. Jimson weed actually goes back to Jamestown and there’s a story of it driving people insane because it’s psychedelic and because it gets into people’s water all the time. So it’s about these moths and this sexy, forbidden ritual they have in the darkness.”
Now the next time you happen upon these beguiling flowers while hiking Griffith Park or many other trails here in SoCal, I bet you’ll find yourself humming the song in your head while on your journey to visit the Yellow King in Carcosa.