Datura innoxia: Downy thorn-apple

Family: Solanaceae
Common name: Downy thorn-apple, Pricklyburr, Moonflower, Recurved thorn-apple, Indian-apple, Nacazcul, Toloatzin, Toloaxihuitl, Tolguache, Toloache, Sacred datura

Downy thorn-apples are difficult to miss even if they grow in the wild, because of their beautiful white trumpet-like flowers and green thorny fruits. They grow to a height of 1-1.5 meters with large green leaves having a wavy, slightly-toothed margin.

The plant is heavily branched and looks like well-rounded bushes. Datura roots are tuberous and shallow. Their leaves and stems are covered with small grayish hair, giving the entire plant a dirty greyish-green color.

Flowers are beautiful, white, trumpet-shaped, about 15-20 cms long, initially pointing upwards but later inclined towards the sides when they mature.

Downy thorn-apple flowers look very similar to those of Brugmansia or Angel’s trumpet, but Angel’s trumpet flowers point downwards, hanging down like bells from the plant. Flowers of Downy thorn-apple are erect, mostly inclined upwards or sideways on the plant.

They have a pleasant fragrance at night, though all other parts of the plant smell bad when crushed. These beautiful flowers attract small birds, bees, and insects that pollinate them. After pollination, the plant produces small, rounded, green fruits with thorns all around them, though these thorns have soft tips and are not very prickly.

The fruits contain brown seeds that are 4-5 mm long, embedded inside the white flesh. Once they are mature, the fruits split open irregularly to release the seeds. Prickly fruits can also get attached to animal fur and be carried long distances, helping the plant spread to new areas.

All parts of the Downy thorn-apple plant are toxic, containing high levels of tropane alkaloids that can cause delirium, hallucinations, heart rhythm disorders, intolerance to light, amnesia, and even death. There have been many reported cases of intentional consumption of Datura seeds as drugs, causing serious side effects.

They have been used for the treatment of cuts, wounds, pain relief, insanity, diarrhea, skin diseases, insect and dog bites in traditional herbal medicine, though specialized knowledge is required to calculate doses for consumption.

Due to its toxicity, Downy thorn-apples are rarely grown as ornamental plants in gardens. They are almost always seen in the wild near hillsides, wastelands, empty plots, or roadsides. Cattle do not eat them and therefore it’s easy for the plants to grow and take over large areas of land.

Hence they are considered invasive weeds in most parts of the world. They can be controlled by hand-plucking the plants before they flower, or by spraying strong herbicides. Seeds are capable of lying dormant in the soil for many years until ideal conditions arise for their germination.

Propagation is through seeds.