Datura stramonium (jimson weed/Jamestown weed)*
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Painting by Christine Andreae
The Datura’s dangerous reputation intrigued me. It is a witchy-looking plant with a rank smell that thrives in weedy fields and roadsides. It is so attractive to insects that it is hard to find an undamaged leaf. I collected and sketched a number of specimens throughout the summer, and watched the spiky green seed pods ripen to brown and then break open. I was particularly taken with the internal architecture of the seedpod - a tiara-like structure that chambers the tiny, but potent lentil-shaped seeds – so I drew it magnified in graphite beside the watercolor life-sized portrait of the plant in bloom.
The Datura is violently toxic, causes severe hallucinations, and can cause death. The whole plant contains the so-called belladonna alkaloids: atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscamine. Medically, these compounds have been used to treat a variety of diseases from Parkinson’s to vertigo. (Foster and Duke, p. 24) Several case studies have reported benefits in decreasing airway resistance in asthmatic patients although its side effects compromise its usefulness. Because of its extreme toxicity few clinical trials have been conducted and its medicinal use has been limited. However, shamans and native North Americans have long utilized its psychotropic effects as a “spiritual tool” to communicate with the gods. (NSD)
Thomas Jefferson described the plant as an “elegant” Kavorkian-type way to end suffering from incurable diseases like cancer. In a letter dated July 14, 1813, to Dr. Samuel Brown, Jefferson maintained that during the French Revolution, “every man of firmness carried [a preparation of ] it in his pocket to anticipate the guillotine. It brings the sleep of death as quietly as fatique does ordinary sleep, without the least struggle or motion. . . I have never been able to learn what the preparation [of it] is, other than a strong concentration of its lethiferous principle. Could such a medicament be restrained to self-administration, it ought not to be kept a secret. There are ills in life as desperate as intolerable, to which it would be the rational relief. . .”
There is, of course, no way to know whether Lucy Marks used Datura in her doctoring, but she would have known about it and it was readily available.