By Glenn I. Teves, County Extension Agent, UH College of Tropical Agriculture
The recent deaths of horses, mules and cattle on the island believed to be caused by consuming poisonous plants mixed in hay brings attention to the many poisonous plants we have on the island. The most obvious suspect is one of the deadly nightshades, Jimson Weed or Datura stramonium, seen throughout Ho`olehua. It is known by many names, including Stink Weed, Devil’s Apple, Thorn Apple, and Moonflower. This plant resembles the Apple of Peru, Nycandra physalodes, a common weed in Ho`olehua, and one in which animals eat without any negative effects. It has a similar flower and leaf shape, which could cause animals to eat Jimson Weed by mistake.
A member of the tomato family, or Solanaceae, the poisonous nightshades caused edible members of this family, especially tomatoes, to be viewed for generations with apprehension because people thought they were poisonous. Jimson weed or Jamestown Weed has a reputation that goes back centuries. Its scientific name, stramonium, means ‘mad nightshade’ due to its reputation for making people delirious or mad.
Its common name originated from Jamestown, Virginia where, in 1676, the British were sent to crush a rebellion, called the Bacon’s Rebellion. The British made a boiled salad from the Jimson Weed leaves, and were delirious for 11 days. When they came to their senses, they couldn’t remember a thing. Many people have died from consuming parts of this plant, because it contains at least three potent alkaloids known to cause confusion, delirium, hyperthermia, and dilated pupils. The antidote for this poisonous plant is physostigmine.
In the dog-days of summer, when food is in short supply due to drought, animals will be pressured to eat things they don’t normally consume. This is when they will experiment with poisonous plants. This is common with goats, which won’t eat Lantana until they have little choice. This plant causes hindered vision, making it even harder to find quality forage.
Some native Americans consider nightshade a sacred plant, including the Algonquin and Luiseno. Other common members of this family include popolo, or Solanum nodiflorum, used in Hawaiian medicine and also kikania, or Solanum aculeatissimum, whose orange balls are used in the making of lei. It is considered the unofficial lei of Kalaupapa since it grows there in abundance. Other edible members of the Solanaceae family include eggplant, bellpeppers, tree tomato, Irish potatoes, poha berries, and chili peppers.