Nature Notes | In West Texas’ Toxic Plants, Menace and Beauty Meet

Photograph by Skäpperöd. With its luminous trumpet-shaped flowers, Datura stramonium – commonly known as jimsonweed, devil's trumpet or angel's trumpet – is a beautiful West Texas plant. Every part of the plant contains high levels of compounds called anticholinergics – which are potentially fatal.
Photograph by Skäpperöd. With its luminous trumpet-shaped flowers, Datura stramonium – commonly known as jimsonweed, devil's trumpet or angel's trumpet – is a beautiful West Texas plant. Every part of the plant contains high levels of compounds called anticholinergics – which are potentially fatal.

In West Texas’ Toxic Plants, Menace and Beauty Meet

By Andrew Stuart

In West Texas’ Toxic Plants, Menace and Beauty Meet

If you begin your day with coffee, or end it with a cocktail, you know that plants can pack a punch. Plants have been medicine throughout human history, and even today, many medications are derived from plant compounds.

Yet power always includes danger. There are plants in West Texas that can cause sickness, and even death. We can appreciate these plants – even as we exercise caution.

Dr. Sarah Watkins is a professor at El Paso’s Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, and a toxicologist with the West Texas Regional Poison Center.

“Luckily for us there aren’t too many poisonous plants we have to worry about in our area,” Watkins said.

As an ER physician here, Watkins doesn’t worry about poisonings from hemlock or the deadly mushrooms found in more humid parts of the country. But there is one particularly dangerous desert plant.

It’s an eye-catcher.

“It goes by a lot of common names,” Watkins said, “jimsonweed weed, devil’s trumpet, the thorn apple. It has a pretty, white, trumpet-shaped flower. But it contains toxins that can cause what’s called anticholinergic toxicity.”

Datura stramonium can grow to 5 feet tall. Its flowers are lovely, varying in color from white and cream-colored to violet. The toxins – which include atropine and scopolamine – are found in dangerous levels in all parts of the plant.

In very small doses, anticholinergics can be useful – they’re used to treat insomnia, respiratory and GI disorders and more. Benadryl is an example. Yet while small amounts cause drowsiness, large doses, like those from ingesting datura, have a very different effect.

“You actually get agitated and confused,” Watkins said, “almost a hyperactive type of a state. It can make your heart race. It can give you fevers, dry skin and mouth. It can cause hallucinations as well. Sometimes these people have seizures. You get a very different type of toxicity, which can even be fatal if untreated. ”

Beginning in the 1960s, there were increased incidences of people consuming datura because of its psychoactive properties. It’s an experiment “most people regret,” Watkins said. She said anyone who ingests the plant should be brought to a hospital immediately.

Then there’s Texas mountain laurel. Native to the Edwards Plateau and Chihuahuan Desert, it too is a beautiful plant, used today as an ornamental. It has fragrant purple flowers, and red seeds – sometimes called “mescalbeans,” though the plant bears no relation to an agave.

If these red “beans” are chewed and swallowed, the effects can be fatal.

The cause is surprising: high concentrations of a nicotine-like compound.

“When a person smokes a cigarette, they only get a small amount of nicotine, and if they start feeling poorly, they stop,” Watkins said. “But in an overdose – nicotine is really, really dangerous. Texas mountain laurel has something similar to nicotine, called cytisine. That can cause seizures and heart problems, and unfortunately that can be fatal as well.”

In the case of both datura and mountain laurel, it’s clear that our region’s Indigenous people knew these plants – and their power. Datura is depicted in rock art. And from caves near the Pecos River, there’s evidence mountain laurel seeds were being used for decorative and medicinal purposes more than 6,000 years ago. Yet Native cultures had a time-honed understanding of these plants. For people outside those traditions, messing with the plants is worse than foolish.

Datura and Texas mountain laurel are natives. But there’s a risk from a non-native, but common, ornamental plant: oleander.

Oleander contains lethal toxins called cardiac glycosides. These compounds are used to treat heart failure – but can also endanger the heart, and disturb electrolyte balance.

A small amount, Watkins said, is not likely to pose a threat.

“We always say, ‘The dose makes the poison,’” she said. “If a kid, for example, just chewed on a leaf and then spat it back out, that’s not something we would worry about. But if someone intentionally ate a lot of the plant, that’s when we would start to worry more.”

When it comes to fungi, our locals aren’t life-threatening. But they’re generally not edible, either.

“Most of the mushrooms you find around West Texas are going to cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea – no fun at all,” Watkins said. “So I wouldn’t recommend foraging for mushrooms.”

Toxic plants are a reminder that Nature is fascinating, beautiful – and deadly serious.

The poison center’s 24/7 hotline is 1-800-222-1222.

Nature Notes is supported by the Shield-Ayres Foundation and produced by Marfa Public Radio with the Sibley Nature Center. The program can be heard each Tuesday and Thursday, at 7:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m., Central time, on KRTS Marfa, 93.5 FM, and KXWT Odessa/Midland, 91.3 FM. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.