Surprise! It was Jimson weed

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 15, 2008

By Deb Walker
Master Gardener Volunteer
There is just something intriguing about discovering something unknown growing in your own backyard.
Ever since I’ve admitted to being a wildflower identification addict, my friends and neighbors usually ask me to come over and help figure out if the “something strange” in their yard is worth saving or if it needs to be pulled before anyone breaks out in some sort of rash.
So, when an odd little plant managed to grow about a foot tall in my own garden, I decided to give the little guy space to develop; at least until I could classify it, uproot it, and bestow the space to a worthwhile veggie.
It didn’t take me long to realize that the sprout was outgrowing the tiny area I had assigned for it. In fact, it was developing beautiful little white flowers that were oddly not attractive to our hummingbirds, but did attract the occasional tomato worm. They opened at dusk and didn’t really smell very good.
By the time it was 5 feet tall, I was deliriously happy with my gardening skills, and noticed numerous spiked seed pods, which reminded me of those awful sweet gum balls that my dad used to clean up from his lawn in the fall.
With its continued growth, I decided to take another look in the wildflower books, instead of the gardening books. It was then that I realized that I had given the prized space in my garden to what is referred to as “loco weed.”
Technically, the plant is from the Nightshade family called Jimson weed, Jamestown weed, Devil’s Trumpet, Moon Flower or Thorn Apple, which can be extremely poisonous to animals and humans. It contains toxic alkaloids, similar to that of belladonna, which causes severe hallucinogenic effects.
The name comes from a case of human poisoning in 1676 in Jamestown, Va., when apparently, it looked good enough to eat, and the plant was boiled for a salad. The soldiers suffered delirium and hallucinations for 11 days.
All parts of the plant are toxic. Animals rarely eat the weed because of its unpleasant odor and taste; but if the seeds are harvested with other feed, or if hungry animals do eat it on a sparse pasture, the plant can cause severe poisoning. Farmers are cautioned to rid fields of this plant before harvesting.
So, it turns out that what I was so proudly growing with much ado, was actually a weed that should not be anywhere near animals or children, or adults, for that matter. I know better than to grow castor bean plants, even if I admire the large leaves, because the seeds are deadly poisonous. I guess I need to add another plant to my hit list.Oh, well. I guess beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. You’ll notice some new tomato plants in my garden. There’s lots of space, now.
Deb Walker is a Master Gardener Volunteer with the Cooperative Extension Service in Rowan County.