A plant that is typically uncommon in the area has sprung up in a high
traffic residential area and is creating problems for some Lockport
Property owners on Lincoln Avenue who had to deal with road
reconstruction over the past few months saw jimsonweed, which can become
a bushy plant that is difficult to control, spring up in big numbers in
the soil that had been transplanted on their land following the
construction. The jimsonweed had become so abundant and such an eyesore
that the city and town mowed down the weeds and will be applying
herbicide in the coming weeks.
If this is the biggest problem that jimsonweed is causing local
residents and governments, we can count ourselves as lucky. The problems
could be far worse, even deadly, as we shall discuss.
Finding and identifying jimsonweed
Jimsonweed is deadly in injested. But that doesn't stop people from doing
so. (PHOTO COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA)
Jimsonweed starts to make its appearance on the Niagara Frontier in
late-August and it will grow quite well, and rather quickly, becoming a
large, bushy weed by mid-October when they can max out at 4 feet in
height and width. It frequents fields, barnyards, and places that
naturalists classify as waste areas (brownfields, rail beds, newly
turned soils, etc).
It is a unique, unmistakable plant that immediately catches your
attention. It has a stout, deep green, sometimes purplish stem, with
numerous irregularly-lobed leaves that can be up to 8 inches long. The
flowers are fairly large and trumpet shaped (that trumpet is often
folded shut). Some plants will sport white flowers while others will
have violet ones. Throughout the late-summer and fall, the jimsonweed
will hold large, spiky seedpods that will gradually open and expose
dozens of black seeds the size of BBs.
It is those numerous, hardy seeds that can cause jimsonweed to take over
an area once the first plant appears. If you don’t kill the initial
plant before the seed pods ripen, those seeds will make their appearance
next year and what was one plant will be a dozen of them within a few
inches or a few feet of the mother plant. Within a few years, an area
can be choked by the plants. That is something that the Lincoln Avenue
residents should be aware of – they and the local road crews may be
stopping the plants now, but they can be assured that they’ll be dealing
with jimsonweed again in 2016.
I would consider jimsonweed to be fairly uncommon in Niagara County.
I’ve personally encountered it in only a few places before – once in a
brushy area in the town of Lockport and then outside of my office window
in North Tonawanda where it was introduced via bird droppings
underneath my bird feeder.
Officials don’t know the cause of the outbreak, if you will, on Lincoln
Avenue, but I know for sure where it started. While driving through the
town I used to marvel at how a Lincoln Avenue resident used to grow
numerous jimsonweeds like it was a garden plant. No doubt, seeds from
those plants proliferated in the soil and once that soil was disturbed,
piled elsewhere and then returned to the neighborhood, everyone got a
few seeds in their dirt.
Unfortunately, that person probably didn’t know he was playing with fire.
Jimsonweed is a deadly hallucinogen
Jimsonweed is one of the most vicious naturally-occurring hallucinogens
in North America. Not only will it create powerful, uncomfortable
hallucinations, its consumption can also lead to death, which is why
even drug users won’t even touch the stuff – while cocaine and meth
might kill them gradually, jimsonweed can kill them with relative
immediacy. Unfortunately, that has not stopped teens from experimenting
The best thing to do with Jimsonweed is to kill it. (PHOTO COURTESTY
UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND)
Here in the United States, where it is not a controlled substance, there
are approximately 900 jimsonweed poisonings every year. I remember
hearing of one group of teenagers who toyed with it in Arizona a few
years ago. One boy thought his body was covered with spiders while his
friend thought he lost all of his limbs. They remained in such a state
for a few days and stayed in hospital for a week and were lucky that
their doctors were able to keep them alive.
In Canada, they have had a rash of situations in recent years. Look as these disturbing reports, all from Ontario:
- In 2000, a St. Catharines teen died from eating Jimsonweed leaves
- In 2005, more than a dozen Toronto high school students were hospitalized after eating the seeds
- In 2007, 3 boys, aged 14 to 17, in Hamilton went into incoherent, unresponsive states that lasted for days
- Then, last fall, despite all of that recent history, a handful of
Ottawa teens were hospitalized after nibbling on the plants on a dare
Anyone who survived the weed is lucky. It can kill because it blocks
major neurotransmitters in the brain which lead to a loss of voluntary
and involuntary functions. Symptoms of jimsonweed poisoning include
inability to urinate, double vision, slurred speech, heartbeat
abnormalities, increased body temperature, difficulty breathing,
convulsions, and coma. It’s not a pretty death as the body painfully
shuts down piece by piece.
Little children have been known to die from it after innocently picking
at the seed pods and eating the seeds. Cattle, sheep and goats will also
die from eating the plants.
That’s why it is strongly suggested you kill the plant when you see it.
And, you should wear gloves when doing so – some people are susceptible
to the plant juices and will get a rash when handling it.
The history of jimsonweed
Jimsonweed got its name as a mutilation of the name “Jamestown Weed.” In
1676 a detachment of British troops was dispatched to Jamestown,
Virginia to handle its residents. Near the settlement, the soldiers ran
out of their rations so they boiled jimsonweed, thinking it was edible.
Had they not boiled it, they surely would have died. Instead, they went
absolutely nuts for a week and a half. In a historical report prepared
in 1705, it was said that it 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; and 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 they should, in their
folly, destroy themselves — though it was observed that all their
actions were full of innocence and good nature. Indeed they were not
very cleanly; for they would have wallowed in their own excrements, if
they had not been prevented. A thousand such simple tricks they played,
and after 11 days returned themselves again, not remembering anything
that had passed."
Jimsonweed has a long history of medical uses and abuses. Among them,
the Algonquin Indians used it as the primary ingredient to wysoccan,
which was a hallucinogenic blend that boys took on the path to manhood.
They were forced to ingest it, then spent 20 days being violently
deranged, coming out of it so ruined that they even forgot their
Other societies, when making ritualistic killings for their Gods, gave
jimsonweed to the person to be sacrificed. I guess it made it easier to
kill someone who was insane.
Jimsonweed was also a critical component of European witchcraft and
spell casting. It may have even led to the belief that witches fly,
because inhaling jimsonweed smoke caused many people to have the
sensation of flight.
While I find jimsonweed to be an incredibly interesting plant, a real
conversation starter, it’s in the best interest of all that it be
destroyed. The residents and government officials in Lockport are doing
right to get rid of it. It’s dangerous. Someone or some animal could
purposely or accidentally ingest it, resulting in frightening
hallucinations, a body in the process of shutting down and death.
+Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the 14 September 2015 East Niagara Post