Sacred Datura

Datura wrightii

white flower with spikes on end
Rios trailhead | June 2013

The spectacular flower of sacred datura (or western jimsonweed, toluaca or thorn apple: Datura wrightii), is a Georgia O’Keefe flower. The plant is a member of the nightshade family, which also includes tomatoes, potatoes, petunias and tobacco. Members of this family typically contain organic compounds that range from beneficial to toxic. Compounds in sacred datura are psychedelic, and the plant was important to native Americans in their sacred ceremonies. However, if misused, these same compounds are fatal.


Other Common Names:

western jimson weed, toluaca, toloache, thorn apple

Description 2,11,23,26,59

Sacred datura is a sprawling to ascending perennial herb arising from a large, fleshy storage root. Triangular leaves are less than 4½ inches (11 cm) long with margins that are smooth or coarsely toothed. Leaves are green, given a gray sheen by a covering of short, whitish hairs. Crushed leaves emit an unpleasant odor. In our climate, the plant is evergreen.

The large, fragrant flowers are white, sometimes tinged with lavender. Each flower arises from a fork in the stem. There are five sepals, fused into a narrow, five-lobed tube. Petals are fused together into a flaring trumpet, up to 8 inches (20 cm) long and 6 inches (15 cm) in diameter. Petals form five sharp points arranged symmetrically around the flower margin.  Flowers are bisexual. Five male stamens and a single female pistil emerge from the throat of the flower.

Sacred datura blooms from April to October.1 The fragrant flowers open late in the day and remain open until late morning the following day.

Shortly after flowering, the petals and most of the calyx drop off. The basal portion of the calyx reflexes back along the stem and forms a green crown on top of the fruit. The fruit is a pendulous, flat-topped ball, usually less than 1½ inches (4 cm), covered with long spines, many hooked. The fruit is green when young, brown when mature and resembles a small wild cucumber fruit. Each fruit contains numerous large flattened tan seeds, about ¼ inches (6 mm) long. When dried, the fruit splits open, releasing the seeds.

NOTE: Like many members of the nightshade family, sacred datura contains a variety of alkaloid compounds. In this species, the primary alkaloid is scopolamine.34 All parts of the plant are toxic.


green spiked seed pod

Young fruit | Rios trailhead | September 2013

white flower open on branch

Photo credit: Denise Stillinger | May 2010

white flower with purple edges

Photo credit: Barbara Wallach | April 2010


Sacred datura is native from central California to northern Mexico and in other parts of the southwestern US.7 It occurs below 4000 feet (1200 m), especially in open, sandy or disturbed areas.11,26

In the Reserve, sacred datura is often found along the trails. There are several plants on the south side, east, and west of the Rios trailhead, and also between the Santa Inez and Santa Carina trailheads. As of October 2013, there are no plants along the Nature Center loop.

Classification 2

Sacred datura is a dicot angiosperm in the tobacco family (Solanaceae). Members of this family have five petals that are fused into a tube, at least at the base. There are five stamens.  Many members of this family contain alkaloid compounds which may be toxic or narcotic.

The tobacco family includes many well-known food and ornamental species such as tomato, pepper, potato, petunia, and night-blooming jasmine. The family also includes tobacco and belladonna.44 As of 2018, eight species in this family have been reported from the Reserve48 including the threatened California box thorn (Lycium californicum) (CNPS list 4B) and the invasive tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca).

The genus, Datura, is distinguished by characteristics of the dry, prickly fruit. All members of this genus are toxic. Only one species is found in the Reserve.

Alternate Scientific Names:

Datura meteloides

Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
dried spiked seed pod

Dried fruit | Rios trailhead | September 2013

green leaves

Santa Carina trailhead | October 2013

inside of flower with pollen collectors

Rios trailhead | May 2011


As the name “nightshade” suggests, the flowers of sacred datura open near dusk and close again by midmorning. The large, fragrant white flowers attract night-flying pollinators, but even during the day a variety of insects can be seen in the flowers. A mutually beneficial relationship has evolved between Datura spp. and sphinx (or hawk) moths.57,58 These moths have the longest tongues of any moth, up to 14 inches (35 cm) long, specially designed for extracting nectar from the deep tubular flowers. Their caterpillars, including voracious tomato hornworms, feed on the plant and even derive some secondary toxicity from it. In turn, the adult moths effectively pollinate their Datura hosts.58 Ironically, the alkaloid compounds in Datura spp. probably evolved as predator deterrents.44

The deep taproot allows this plant to utilize subsurface moisture, permitting rapid growth and abundant flower nectar even during the dry summer months.4,11

white flower with circular shape

Rios trailhead | September 2013

green spiked seed pod on branch

Developing fruit | Rios trailhead | June 2010

white flowers in bush

Rios trailhead | August 2009

Human Uses  

Since ancient times, sacred datura and its relatives have been used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes, by holy men and medicine men, by sorcerers and witches.58 The pounded root was an all-purpose cure, good for cuts, bruises and gunshot wounds.34 Gamblers kept a root in their pocket to enable them to foresee the cards and guide their bets.34

Native Americans in southern California also used sacred datura for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. It was the most important medicinal plant of the Chumash.15 The Luiseño used the smoke to relieve the pain of rheumatism and earaches.17 Medicine men of the Chumash, Luiseño, and Kumeyaay* used sacred datura to produce hallucinations during puberty rites.15,17,18 A young Chumash boy was given a liquid from pounded datura root. The resulting dreams revealed a spirit guardian, or “dream helper” to give him guidance in the future.15

In spite of its extreme toxicity, sacred datura is a popular garden plant.24 The International Brugmansia and Datura Society74 is dedicated to the culture and cultivation of Datura and two closely related genera.

A Note: The Human Use section of the Plant Guide attempts to present a brief glimpse of the common or interesting ways our plants have been used by past or present peoples, with an emphasis on our local inhabitants. Each use is accompanied by one or more references, primarily from the available literature. Local indigenous peoples, the tribes of the Kumeyaay*, who used local botanical resources for hundreds of years, and continue to do so, are not well represented in this section, because we are working to incorporate new information. We welcome help filling this gap. If you have any suggestions, please contact us.

 * “San Diego County is the heart of 13 federally recognized Kumeyaay tribes and five that reside in Northern Baja California, Mexico. These numbers do not reflect state-recognized and unrecognized tribal groups who also live in the area today,”  Jacob Alvarado Waipuk. The Kumeyaay have lived in this region for more than 10,000 years.


dried up flower coiled up

Opening flower | Rios trailhead | May 2011

circular white flower

Rios trailhead | May 2011

trail with bush and white flowers

Rios trailhead | August 2009

Interesting Facts  

The common name, western jimsonweed is derived from that of a closely related species, jimsonweed (D. stramineae), which was first collected in Jamestown Virgina, from which it got its name. In 1676, a group of British soldiers mistakenly ate jimsonweed in their salad and hallucinated and acted crazy for 11 days.55 In one version of this story, the jimsonweed was deliberately added by the Jamestown settlers.56

white circular flower

Flower with stamens above, pistil below | Rios trailhead | August 2009

white flower in the sun

Flower with stamens above, pistil below | Rios trailhead | August 2011

close up of tree branch

Opened fruit with seeds | Santa Carina trailhead | October 2013

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