This section is from "The Horticulturist, And Journal Of Rural Art And Rural Taste", by P. Barry, A. J. Downing, J. Jay Smith, Peter B. Mead, F. W. Woodward, Henry T. Williams. Also available from Amazon: Horticulturist and Journal of Rural Art and Rural Taste.
This rank and luxuriant weed, known as "Jamestown Weed," or as it is improperly called, "Jimson Weed," and vulgarly, "Stinking Tom," presents many interesting features. The German name "Stechapfel" is analogous to the common English name at the head of this article. Its scientific generic name, Datura, is a corruption from the Arabic Tatorah. Its botanic name is Datura Stramonium. Whence its specific name of Stramonium is derived I am unable to say, unless it comes from the word "stramen" - straw, litter, or the like, from the fact that it is so common among rubbish in neglected spots of rich soil.
This plant is seldom found remote from cultivated (grounds; it is so common around dwellings, along road sides, and borders of fields, that all will readily know the plant by the rude wood cut of a flower and leaf of the Datura Stramonium.
There are two varieties, those having white flowers on green stalks being the most common, and those having a purple stripe in the flower, and also purple stems, with minute green speckles or spots, considered a distinct species by older writers, and called the D. tatula.
Its native country is not positively known. In Miller's Dictionary by Martyn, the editor in common with other authors refers it to North America.
Nuttall considers it as having originated in South America or Asia. The seeds retain their vitality for some time, and, lodged in the earth used as ballast, are thus carried from one country to the other, and hence it is found in all commercial regions.
Gerard in his Herbal for 1591, figured the plant, and gave the first satisfactory account of it. He introduced it into England from seeds received by him from Constantinople. He says: "The juice of Thorn-Apples, boiled with hog's grease to the form of an unguent or salve, cureth all in-flanimations whatsoever, all manner of burnings or scaldings, and that in a very short time, as myself have found by my daily practice, to my great credit and profit" Reader, stick a pin here, if this is news to you; I can vouch for its great curative power, as a salve, by simply collecting the leaves when the plant is in flower and frying them crisp in lard, expressing and setting by to cool.
Wagoners and plowmen often use the green leaf to apply to galled spots on horses, and, by removing the cause of the gall, cure the sore while working the animal.
Every part of the plant in its green state has a strong, heavy, disagreeable odor, and a bitter, nauseous taste; taken internally it acts like other narcotic poisons, producing more or less cerebral disturbance, vertigo, perversion of vision, delirium and mania. It is therefore dangerous to tamper with internally; the seeds are the most powerful. Even the long plaited bells of the flowers have tempted children to pluck them and suck them as they would "honey-sudde," and produced alarming effects, of which several cases have come to the writer's personal knowledge. The remedies in such cases are, a prompt emetic, followed by a free use of vegetable acids (lemon juice or vinegar) and strong coffee.
In the hands of a judicious physician it is found a valuable medicine, and was first introduced into regular practice by Baron Storck of Vienna, in the cure of mania, epilepsy, etc. Others have found it an efficacious palliative in asthma, and some other affections of the lungs, prepared and smoked as ordinary tobacco.
Many stories have been related of the power of this plant to produce mental alienation without at the same time materially affecting the body, one of which is recorded in Beverly's History of Virginia, p. 121, and reads as follows:
"The Jamestown Weed (which resembles the thorny apples of Pern, and I-take it to be the plant so called) is supposed to be one of the greatest coolers in the world. This being an early plant, was gathered very young for a boiled salad by some of the soldiers sent thither to quell the rebellion of Bacon, and some of them ate plentifully of it, the effect of which was a very pleasant comedy, for they turned natural fools upon it for several days. One would blow up a feather in the air, another would dart straws at it with much fury; 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 sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll".
"In this frantic condition they were confined, lest, in their folly, they should destroy themselves. A thousand simple tricks they played, and after eleven days returned to themselves again, not remembering anything that |had passed".
The above may readily be credited, yet there are exaggerated accounts of its marvelous powers, which in the days of credulity even the Royal Society Of London were simple enough to believe - since they gravely inquired of Sir Philberto Vernatti "Whether the Indians can so prepare the stupify-ing herb Datura that they make it lie several days, months, or years, according as they will have it, in a man's body; and at the end kill him without missing half an hour's time?"
In the language of flowers, this is taken as emblematic of Deceitful Charms, and very appropriately. The bells of the Thorn-Apple droop during the heat of the day, and languish like some of our enervated city belles; on the approach of twilight, however, they revive, coquette-like, to display their plaited corollas of ivory hue, giving out an odor which, with .their deceitful charms, entices the giddy insects that rove abroad at this season to sip its intoxicating nectar even to stupefaction. Thus it is helplessly imprisoned, until it drops to the ground, and restored again by that sun which causes the flower to droop, if indeed it be not past remedy.
The Datura, improved by cultivation, is now classed by botanists as Brugraansia, of which the Knightii is a beautiful garden ornament, as well as the Double White.