The nightshade family is a prolific provider of natural poisons, a byproduct of the plants’ alkaloid arsenal in their fight for survival against insects and would-be predators. Despite our intimate relationship at the dinner table with many members of this family, some nighshades have earned a fearsome reputation as porters of mad dreams, and in some cases even death.
Jimson weed (Datura stramonium) is an annual shrub that is widespread in warm and temperate climates around the world. In Berlin, it often grows in wastelands, although it can easily be encountered along sidewalks or in parks. During late summer and fall, jimson weed is particularly easy to identify because of its unusual spike-covered fruit and its elongated, attractive white flowers.
All cultures that have come in contact with Datura spp. have quickly become aware of the effects of its consumption. In smaller doses, the plant has the effect of causing sleep and stupor; yet upon further use hallucinations and delirium set in. Historically Datura spp. has been used, among other things, in shamanistic rituals and initiation rites, but the possibility for recreational use and abuse has always been present. Recently, art historian David Bellingham has argued that Botticelli’s “Venus and Mars” depicts the gods in the throes of Datura induced delirium. However not everyone is convinced, since the painting was likely completed before Columbus sailed for the New World and a number of botanists believe that Datura stramonium is native to the Americas.
In Haiti, Jimson weed has the nefarious reputation of being used in zombification, which is considered a crime under the Haitian Penal Code. As far-fetched as it sounds, Datura stramonium is thought to be used to revive corpses and induce the psychological stupor characteristic of slow-moving zombies (see this article for more). Hence Jimson weed’s local Haitian name: “zombie cucumber.”