Garden Detective

Garden Detective: Mystery plant a deadly member of nightshade family

This odd-looking plant sprouted in a Folsom flower bed. It’s a sacred thornapple, a member of the Datura genus, and very poisonous.
This odd-looking plant sprouted in a Folsom flower bed. It’s a sacred thornapple, a member of the Datura genus, and very poisonous.

After 15 years here, we have a “mystery plant” that appeared in our backyard planter this year. It is very fast growing and has very prickly, round thorny growths and small white flowers. Can you help us identify this intruder? At first, we thought it was a weed.

E.K. Ball, Folsom

According to UC master gardener Annie Kempees, the intruder in your garden is a poisonous – and noxious – annual weed known as sacred thornapple or Chinese thornapple. Its botanical name is Datura, and it is a member of the nightshade family. Numerous plants in the genus of Datura look similar.

The entire plant is toxic; people and livestock have been poisoned by ingesting its seeds, flowers and/or leaves. Though fresh plant material has an unpleasant scent and an unpalatable flavor, a mere 4 to 5 grams of any part of the plant can kill a child. Human symptoms include euphoria, fever, delirium, irregular heartbeat and seizures.

Horses appear to be the most susceptible to its toxic effects. Dried foliage present in poor-quality hay or feed contaminated with a large number of ground seeds are a recipe for disaster.

To assist with your future in identifying this annual weed, bring up its botanical name on the Internet and obtain color photos of the seeds, the plant as a seedling and as a young plant, as well as photos of the flowers and fruit, and finally a mature plant. If, next year, you find one is growing in your garden, don gloves, dig up the whole plant (roots included), wrap it in newspaper and put it in your trash can.

All weeds and potentially poisonous plants must always be safely disposed of; never compost them.

GARDEN QUESTIONS?

Questions are answered by master gardeners at the UC Cooperative Extension services in Sacramento and Placer counties. Send questions to Garden Detective, P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852. Send email to h&g@sacbee.com. Please put “Garden Detective” in the subject field and include your postal address. To contact UC Extension directly, call:

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Sutter, Yuba: (530) 822-7515; 9 a.m.-noon Mondays and Tuesdays and 1-4 p.m. Thursdays

Yolo: (530) 666-8737;

9-11 a.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, or leave a message and calls will be returned

More online

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