Agriculture

Jimsonweed Poisoning in Humans and Animals

Rakesh S. Chandran, Ph.D.
IPM Specialist
WVU Extension Service Dave Workman
Hardy County Extension Agent
WVU Extension Service
July 2000

Introduction

Jimsonweed, Datura stramonium, is believed to have originated on the Indian subcontinent; it made its way to Europe and finally to the United States along with early settlers. Sometimes known as Jamestown-weed, after the town in Virginia to which it was first brought from Europe, it caused mass poisoning of soldiers in 1676 at Jamestown. Jimsonweed is also referred to as Jamestown lily, green dragon, loco weed, madapple, thorn apple, devil’s apple, stinkwort, devil’s-trumpet, angel’s trumpet, and fireweed, among other names. There are a few closely related species in the genus Datura, all of them are toxic. Although jimsonweed has certain medicinal values, it is considered a nuisance and obnoxious weed, capable of severely poisoning both humans and livestock who happen to ingest the plant parts.

Habitat and Characteristics

Jimsonweed is found throughout West Virginia but is more prevalent in the eastern part of the state. This weed thrives well in cultivated fields, overgrazed pastures, and waste lots. Apparently, jimsonweed populations have increased in certain parts of the state as a result of the severe drought we had this year. It prefers fertile soils and has been found throughout the eastern United States. In certain states, laws prohibit natural growth or cultivation of this weed in personal property.

Jimsonweed, belonging to the nightshade-family (Solanaceae), is an annual herbaceous plant with a disagreeable odor. Growing several feet tall, it is characterized by irregularly toothed leaves and funnel-shaped and purplish or white flowers. They produce prickly fruits about 2 inches long with small kidney-shaped seeds, brownish or black in color.

Toxic properties

The toxic properties of Jimsonweed have been well recognized from the early days. The entire plant is poisonous especially the leaves, and more so, the seeds. This plant contains a narcotic poison, called stramonium. Stramonium comprises several alkaloids like atropine, scopaline, and hyoscyamine. Stramonium is not only a potent hallucinogen but also a toxic poison. Several people have died as a result of consuming jimsonweed. Instances of jimsonweed poisoning have been reported more frequently in humans than in animals. Experimenters frequently require medical attention immediately after use. Common symptoms include rapid pulse and breathing, dilated pupils, restlessness, nervousness, muscular twitching, diarrhea, depression, anorexia, and weight loss. In fatal cases, the pulse remains rapid but weak, breathing becomes slow and irregular, body temperature becomes subnormal, urine may be retained, and convulsions or coma precede death.

Jimsonweed is poisonous to animals, but because of its strong odor and unpleasant taste, animals rarely eat enough of the green plant to be fatally poisoned. In cattle, early signs of poisoning include excitability, tremors, nervousness, bloat, and anorexia. Occasionally, death is reported. In other animals like goat and sheep, jimsonweed causes tremors, drowsiness, inability to stand, altered motion, and reduced drinking.

Hungry animals should not be let to graze in fields having this weed. Most cases of livestock poisoning occur after the animals have consumed hay containing dried parts of jimsonweed. Hence, it is imperative to completely remove this weed from pastures or meadows, especially before making hay.

Management

Proper sanitation and prevention are ideal ways to control this weed. Hand pulling, hoeing, and other mechanical control strategies work well if the infestation is isolated. Chemical control is warranted for instances of high weed pressure or widespread infestations. Chemical control is most effective during spring months when the weed is actively growing.

Selected References

Barclay, A. S. 1959. Studies in the genus Datura (Solanaceae): Taxonomy of subgenus Datura. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University, 1959.
El Dirdiri N.I., Wasfi I.A., Adam S.E.I. 1981. Toxicity of Datura stramonium to sheep and goats. Vet. Hum. Toxicol. 23 (4), 242-246
Nelson P.D, Mercer H.D., Essig W., Minyard J.P. 1982 Jimsonweed seed toxicity in cattle. Vet. Hum. Toxicol. 24: 321-325

Fig. 1. Jimsonweed seedling. (Courtesy: K. Bradley)
Jimsonweed seedling

Fig. 2. Jimsonweed mature plants. (Courtesy: K. Bradley)
Jimsonweed mature plants

Fig. 3. Jimsonweed fruit section. (Courtesy: K. Bradley)
Jimsonweed fruit plants