I asked Aunt Bett why we couldn't pick that beautiful white flower that bloomed in the evening and on into the night. She sat me down right then and there and told me the story of near death and destruction brought about by the misuse of the Devil's Plant. And she made me promise to never touch Devil's Plant no matter what, 'cause the devil got ahold of anybody who did.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on July 24, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
Now if I were telling this story for some of my mountain friends and family to hear, I would tell it like this:
Aunt Bett set me down in a cheer rite aside her and told me to git comforble cause she was gonna tell me sumpin' I needed to know. She said: "Young Mason done gone ahind the barn and picked him some leaves to dry so's he could have him a smoke or two. Seems young Mason din't know the differnce 'tween rabbit 'baccy and devil's weed cause he done picked the wrong one. He dried them leaves of devil's weed and right out ahind the barn he went to have his smoke. His folks done found him layin' thar when they went to milk ol' Bessie next mornin', and young Mason warn't movin'. They run to git Ma, and I come with her when she went to see what uz wrong with young Mason. I seen him a layin' thar in his own bed, white as a sheet and as near to death as I ever seen. My ma, she kept rubbin' his haid an' his face an' th back uv his naick, with a cloth she dipped in camphor water. It smelt right strong but not strong enough to wake up young Mason. I was scairt and thought he was for shore daid. This went on for a day or two and my ma she never left young Mason's side. That camphor was so strong I thought it would wake up all the daid for miles around, but young Mason never moved. I asked my ma if he uz breathin', and my ma said he wuz, but for me to stand back. Young Mason's Ma and Pa wuz thar, sittin' in a corner not sayin' a word, but I could see his ma's lips amovin' and I knowed she wuz aprayin'. I thought them prayers warn't goin' a work, but long 'bout the next nite, young Mason sat straight up in bed and yelled out: 'Lawdy, lawdy, I done seen granma and the devil hisself, and I seen that red lite and I knowed I'd a been strait to hades, laudy, laudy, Ma, come an' hep me, come an' hep me!' And then he laid hisself back down and went asleep."
If I live to be a hundred, I will never forget that story.
Aunt Bett had a lot to say about the plant and she told me that it came in a lot of different forms, none of which she would even touch. It was hard for me to imagine how a plant so beautiful would put such a fear into Aunt Bett. "Wouldn't the asphidity bag stop the devil, Aunt Bett? How 'bout two asphidity bags? If I look at it do you think the devil will know and come lookin' for me?" I guess she realized she had opened up a can of worms by telling me about young Mason, but she answered my questions by telling me a little more of the history of Datura. There are several forms of Datura, all of them toxic and definitely not something for folks to consume. According to her, a long time ago, predating recorded history, priests and shaman alike used it to bring on visions of the future. In some cultures it was an agent of assassination. The Native Americans used it for the rites of passage, and other cultures used it in similar rituals. Some ancient cultures smoked the leaves to relieve asthma. Aunt Bett assured me that it had been controlled by those cultures, but she never felt safe using it for anything. She told me that her grandmother had boiled the seeds and the steam was inhaled by those who suffered from asthma, but Aunt Bett still did not use it at all. She believed it caused people to go out of their minds, and she knew death would soon follow.
Rarely was I ever afraid of a plant, but she made me promise I would never touch the devil's weed. As long as Aunt Bett was around and for many years after, I didn't. Datura stramonium, also known as Jimsonweed was the plant that grew wild in the mountains. It has a smaller flower and a more tooth edged leaf than the Datura inoxia, which is what I want to tell you about.
Last year a friend sent me some seeds and among the many packages she sent was one small package marked TOXIC. I really didn't recognize the seeds, but I went ahead and planted them in a very large container along with a few other things. Quickly the seeds popped up, and within a couple of weeks I had a pot full of plants I could mostly identify, but the ones that were growing by leaps and bounds were unknown to me. I realized that those large plants were from the seeds that had been marked TOXIC. A few weeks turned into a month, and August rolled around. One night my 3 year old grandson was visiting and we were chasing fireflies just at dusk. "Nana, Nana, look at that flower!"
I looked where Ethan pointed, and there was the white flower straight from my childhood. Well, it wasn't excactly the same but it was close enough. A beauty of a flower.....nearly iridescent and glowing in the darkness. Aunt Bett's voice popped straight into my mind: "That's Jimson weed, chile, it's the devil's weed, don't you never ever touch it, you hear me? That devil'll git ahold on you and he ain't goin never let you go!" And out of my mouth came these words: "Ethan, that is a bad plant and we must never touch it. Let's sit down and I'll tell you a story about your Great great great Aunt Bett." And so I did, right there on the steps of my back deck while we watched it bloom.
Ethan never bothered the plant, but he loved to check the pot even during the winter months to see if it had bloomed again. And I don't think he will ever forget the story either. The plant that my friend had given me turned out to be Datura inoxia, more commonly known as the moonflower. Mine was a low growing bush, and through August it bloomed more and more. I did some research and found that there are chemicals that the plant produces that are used medicinally. They are however added to other chemicals to produce products that are used in some medical treatments. They appear in drops used to dilate the eyes, in patches placed behind the ear for vertigo, and in some instances to treat Parkinson's. The active alkaloids are atropine and scopolamine.
In some areas, forms of Datura are considered invasive. It is a lovely plant. If you do enjoy having it in your garden, I would suggest that you handle it with care, control its growth by potting it, and be sure it is never touched by children or pets.
I hope you had an Aunt Bett to warn you of potential dangers in your garden. Mine scared the life out of me, and even now I feel guilty because I have Datura blooming in my garden. Aunt Bett, I promise I will not touch it!
All photos are my own. Thank you, my dear Jude, for your gift of seeds and for all the beauty you gave me.
About Sharon Brown
I am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.