Collecting the folklore and uses of plants


Thorn-apple, Datura stramonium is usually said to be native to  North or Central America, though Allen & Hatfield  suggest that ‘it seems in fact to have been introduced from the East and reputedly owes much of its European dispersal to gypsies’ [1].  It seems to be agreed that thorn-apple was introduced for medicinal use,  and it now occurs in Britain as a casual on disturbed ground, preferring well manured soils.  Names given to the plant in Britain include angel’s trumpet, devil’s apple, devil’s trumpet, jinsonweed and stinkweed.

As thorn-apple is poisonous, rather uncommon in Britain and can pop up unexpectedly, scary articles about it sometimes feature in the local newspapers.

On 15 September 2006, the Bridport & Lyme Regis News reported that ‘a flock of chickens in West Dorset got an unexpected – and unwelcome – bonus in their food in the shape of the uncommon deadly thorn-apple, also known as the devil’s apple or stinkweed because of its noxious smell’.  The owner of the chicken, at Shaves Cross, said ‘We have just got to pull it up with gloves and burn it’.

Exactly four years later, on 15 September 2010, a Bromley, Kent, paper told how an 81-year-old gardener  in Biggin Hill was ‘shocked by devil’s trumpet growing in his garden’.  It was reported that the plant ‘can kill people’, and the gardener wanted to ‘warn residents [that] similar plants, which are also dangerous to animals, could be growing in the area … he will be contacting Bromley council to arrange for the plant to be removed’.

According to Allen & Hatfield almost all of the records of thorn-apple being used in folk medicine come from East Anglia.  In Norfolk in about 1920 an ointment made by boiling its juice in pork fat was used to treat burns and scalds, a use which they noted had been recorded by John Gerard from Colchester, Essex, in 1597.  Also in Essex the soporific fumes given off by the plant’s juice with vinegar added were used as a painkiller.  As  in some other counties dried thorn-apple leaves, or seeds, were smoked to relieve asthma.

Similarly in the Channel Islands thorn-apple ‘was grown, and the leaves and stems dried and smoked like tobacco was a well-used remedy for asthma'[2].  Allen & Hatfield note that this practice was introduced to the British Isles early in the nineteenth century.

Towards the end of the century, in the 1880s, the Bombay Gazette carried advertisements for Datura  inhalations – ‘prepared in all the usual forms for smoking and also as pastilles and powder for burning on a plate or censer’ for the treatment of asthma and difficult breathing’.

Writing of Ireland, Peter Wyse Jackson  records that in 1772 thorn-apple was used to make ointments for burns, although several people in Naas, Co. Kildare, who had eaten the leaves, thinking them to be spinach, ‘fell into madness … for a few days, and then recovered’ [3].

1. Allen, D. E. & Hatfield, G. 2004, Medicinal Plants in Folk Tradition, p. 199.

2.  Bonnard, B. 1993.  Channel Island Plant Lore, p.28.

3. Wyse Jackson, P. 2014.  Ireland’s Generous Nature, p. 282.

Image:  margin of arable field, Bisham, Berkshire,  October 2019