The layout of Lafayette Street where it meets Prince Street was reconstructed recently, so that it now includes a short median. For human purposes, the median is engineered to separate the bicycle lane from the main flow of traffic, and to mark the beginning of the off-curb parking spaces. For the purposes of other living things, it also happens to offer a concrete-bounded patch of open dirt.
Over the summer, the patch of dirt was filled with large, flourishing leaves, of two different types—one rounded, one jagged-edged. Most days it's possible to skip that stretch of median by jaywalking above it, but when the signals and the oncoming traffic didn't comply and I found myself down at that corner, the leaves would catch my eye as they waved in the breeze.
Nothing in the relevant field guide, Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, quite seemed to fit them, although for a while I convinced myself that the rounded one was paulownia. The would-be paulownia never really grew out into tree form, though, and eventually it put out seed pods that were nothing like anything that had ever grown on a paulownia.
The other one began adding its own field marks. There were tubular pale flowers, fairly large and narrow, and there were sinister spiny green swellings at the crotch of the stems.
It was definitely not in the book. I'd shown phone-camera photos of the vegetation to a couple of people at a gathering who said they'd studied botany, and they couldn't puzzle it out. Finally my mother, a backyard naturalist, suggested the rounded one might be velvetleaf (Abutilon theophrasti), which was not in the book. The seed pods were right.
The other, she thought, might be Jimsonweed.
That was what it was, absolutely. Every feature aligned.
Stop and notice the world around you, that's the sort of thing you're supposed to do to live more fully and consciously. Sometimes there's a bald eagle that flies over the Hudson in the distance, up by the West 60s where I live. Sometimes a bird of prey comes closer than that. Jimsonweed, Datura stramonium, is filled with toxic alkaloids capable of causing prolonged hallucinations or, in not much higher dosage, death.
In 1903, the New York Times reprinted a story from the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the "malodorous plant," and how it "is now regarded by some practitioners as valuable in cases of neuralgia and rheumatism; also in mania and epilepsy." Down at the corner of Lafayette and Prince, in the summer, the odor did not distinguish itself from the background.
No small part of the Virginia newspaper piece was devoted to ruminations on the fact that "Jimson" is a corruption of "Jamestown." It did not, however, dwell on the piece of Jamestown history that seems otherwise indispensable to Jimsonweed discussions: that British troops suppressing Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 had made a "boil'd Salad" of the plant and "turn'd natural Fools upon it for several Days." (Though they were "full of Innocence and good Nature...they would have wallow'd in their own Excrements, if they had not been prevented.")
The source of that foolishness was some combination of chemicals including atropine, scopolamine, and hysocyamine. Occasionally, in contemporary times, there are reports of enthusiasms among teenagers for consuming the weed, though the DEA notes that it is "usually a one-time-only experimentation, due to the adverse and largely unpleasant effects." In 1994, according to the Centers for Disease Control, four young people in El Paso "consumed tea brewed from a mixture of roots from a Jimson weed plant and alcoholic beverages, then fell asleep on the ground in the desert"; two of them, aged 16 and 17, were found dead the next day.
Like any properly notorious entity, Jimsonweed operates under, or is said to operate under, a comical number of aliases. Beyond the innocuously descriptive "moonflower" (the tubular flowers open by night) and "thorn apple," various sources identify it as "devil's apple," "devil's snare," "devil's weed," "devil's trumpet" (and "angel's trumpet"), "mad apple," and "locoweed," among many others.
And as usual when the credit is being given to Satan, the plant's true collaborator would appear to be the human race. Datura stramonium is—like the house sparrow or the Norway rat or the bedbug—one of the great success stories of the human-shaped ecosphere. It became distributed worldwide so rapidly and effectively that its origins are confused, like a voyage of Columbus, between India and the Americas. According to the book Weed Biology and Climate Change, it grows larger, and its alkaloids grow more concentrated, as the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increase.
"Because of Jimsonweed's toxic properties, the custom of destroying the plant should be practiced on every farm," Cornell's agricultural college advises. But farms are only one piece of the human world, or of the world that sprawls alongside the human world. The Jimsonweed at Lafayette and Prince stood tall and unmolested through the weeks, in mutual indifference with the pedestrians. Its pods ripened and broke open, spilling the chemically bountiful seeds onto the sidewalk.
[Photos by Tom Scocca; top image by Jim Cooke and Walther Müller]