Thursday, September 6, 2007

Happenings: Something Sinister Blooms

Despair and discontent are not the only things that bloom during the Santa Claritan summer. So too does Western Jimsonweed (Datura wrightii). Its large white flowers open at dusk, going through most of the procession below in a single night.

The plants pictured, incidentally, are growing in a vacant field beneath some Southern California Edison power lines (I'm sure I got a year's worth of radiation exposure while taking these photos). Amazingly, they manage to thrive in full sun without a speck of rainfall from the time they emerge to the time they senesce.
I should mention that it’s best to appreciate the flowers of Jimsonweed visually rather than gastronomically: they’re living reservoirs of toxic plant compounds (e.g., atropine, scopolamine, dihydroxytropane...). Ingesting Datura can cause everything from intense, terrifying hallucinations to temporary blindness to death.
Despite these dangers, many SoCal Indian tribes utilized the plant in medicinal and spiritual applications. Some of these are discussed by James Adams and Cecilia Garcia, authors of the very interesting Spirit, Mind and Body in Chumash Healing[1]. Of course, indigenous Californians aren't the only ones to use Datura--"Momoy" to the Chumash. Adams and Garcia explain:
Momoy is currently abused in the American Southwest and results in many deaths and hospitalizations every year. Unfortunately, the Internet, popular fictional accounts and word of mouth have spread rumors that eating the seeds is safer than using the rest of the plant, since the seeds are supposed to contain less atropine and scopolamine. This appears to be completely false. Eating 20 or more seeds has resulted in many deaths (8). There are three common types of deaths that occur from eating momoy (9). The first occurs when the person panics as the auditory and visual hallucinations start. The person may drive a car into a fatal accident or have some other fatal accident, usually due to loss of vision. The second type of death occurs when a person on momoy has had a nonfatal accident and goes to the emergency room. The doctors in the emergency room may anesthetize the person. This is usually fatal since anesthesia causes respiratory depression that is additive with the respiratory depression caused by momoy. The third type of death occurs in people who have very slow and erratic absorption of scopolamine. Perhaps one quarter or so of people are in this category. These people take more momoy when the first dose has no effect. Death occurs from D. wrightii ingestion with blood levels of as much as 47 ng ml–1 of atropine and 21 ng ml–1 of scopolamine. Urine levels at death can be as high as 200 ng ml–1 of atropine and 95 ng ml–1 of scopolamine (3). Death from respiratory depression may occur as late as 13 h after the initial ingestion of momoy.
As is the case in most states, Jimsonweed/Datura/Momoy ingestion is not forbidden in California[2]. People have only their common sense to keep them from doing something stupid with the plant (God help SCV).
[1]Published in Oxford University Press' Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (2005). If you're like me and don't happen to have that journal just lying around the house, you can read their full piece online at Volume 2, issue 4, pp. 459 - 463.
[2]This National Drug Intelligence Center .pdf brochure tells the tale of Jimsonweed (note: the one they talk about is in the same genus as our local jimsonweed and very similar to it; it's just not the same species). The information is a little out of date because Oklahoma has also legislated against the plant.

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