Toxic or invasive "moonflowers"?

Asked September 1, 2015, 11:28 PM EDT

We brought " moonflower" seeds from mom's garden in Iowa. Reseeding perennials that bloom 3-4 inch white fragrant flowers at nightfalll and shrivel by morning. We grew them in Northern NV where hippies kept trespassing to get these plants to brew hallucinogenic tea, then we moved here and everyone says they're a noxious weed. From what I've read/browsed most kinds of these plants are not the tea making variety (stupid to try it anyway). Are they safe for animals and kids? Are they weeds or decorations?

Walla Walla County Washington wildflowers and native plants plant toxicity flowers: annuals and herbaceous perennials

4 Responses

First and foremost, to be able to answer this, one must know the scientific name of the plant species that are commonly referred to as 'moonflowers'. Sometimes common names refer to multiple species which can make this question challenging to answer. In this case, I will make the assumption that 'moonflower' refers to the species known as Datura alba. It is rather important that the client confirm this before accepting this response.

Next, the references that I checked including a textbook on "Poisonous Plants of the United States and Canada" by J. M. Kingsbury (1964) states that there are more than a dozen plants in the Datura genus of plants and while he did not list this particular species, he does says that species in this genus have been known as poisonous plants since ancient times. In addition to humans, ostrich, chickens, horses, sheep, hogs and mules (quick search added dogs and cats to this list) have ingested fresh leaves or tissues of this plant and have displays symptoms of poisoning including mortality. It is important to note that must poisonings are due to feed contamination and that livestock find these plant tissues to be evil smelling and will only eat it if forced to. Supporting documentation found at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datura

Finally, I have to quote a passage directly from this Kingsbury reference "This plant is unusual in that human poisonings are more commonly reported in recent literature than are animals poisonings. The large, showy flowers and spiny capsules especially intrigue children and lead to poisonings" from ingestion of nectar or seeds. The paragraph further goes on the mention that "tea" and decoctions deliberately used for hallucinogenic effects are dangerous and account for many cases of poisonings.

Finally, our conclusion is to say "absolutely no" to tea, "no" to seeds, and to Datura in home gardens and landscapes--especially if you have any reservations or concerns about potential pet and/or children toxicity.

"First and foremost, to be able to answer this, one must know the scientific name of the plant species that are commonly referred to as 'moonflowers'. … I will make the assumption that 'moonflower' refers to the species known as Datura alba. It is rather important that the client confirm this before accepting this response."
I agree it's important to accurately identify the plant, more specifically than "moonflowers". That is what we call them, because that is what my wife's mother calls them where we got the seeds, on her farm in Iowa. None of us are qualified to properly identify a plant with many similar species; that's why I asked for expert help.

Using an iPhone app called "myGardenAnswers", I took a picture of the flower with leaves in the background, submitted it to the app, and selected what looked like the best matching images from its database of similar ones (using face recognition software applied to plant images). It then directed me to the Extension.org expert inquiry form, hence to you.

So, I assume plants are identified by physical features that can be seen in photos, but the app provided several non-expert matches of what look and sound (by description) like the same plant called "moonflowers", "datura inoxia", angel trumpets, and "desert thorn apples".

The Wikipedia entry you mentioned does not include "datura alba", but I checked all the species branching from that article and the one that matches best from photos and descriptions is "datura inoxia". You didn't say why your assumption is "datura alba", but I suggest you edit the Wikipedia article to add it. Anyway, without knowing your reasons for that identification, I don't know how I can "…confirm this before accepting this response"…

I ran my closeup photo through some editing filters to enhance it because it was a nighttime shot and I'm no photographer. At least you can see the correct colors of the flower and leaves, and the shape of the leaves. The plant is 3-4 feet tall, leaves range from tiny to 4-inches, flowers are 6-7 inches long by 3-4 inches wide, and seed pods are golf-ball sized covered by short spines. Stems and leaves are slightly fuzzy. File attached.

I strongly agree with all your warnings about toxicity! I will be moving these plants to locations where small children and pets cannot get to them. Since they attract a lot of bees, I will put them near the vegetable garden, but not so close as to be confused for food.

Thanks muchly for your help and info. If you can go a bit further to give me a more precise expert identification I'd appreciate it, and definitely lend yourself to the Wikipedia entry.

Thanks for allowing me an opportunity to more clearly address this question. Datura 'Alba' was how the reference to the plant I have seen advertised as moonflower. The quotations indicate that this was a cultivar not a species- my mistake! The species is Datura metel. My response was specific to the Datura genus not a species, because I was not sure of the species. The best source to seek a species identification would be the source of the seed.

So now that my mistake is out there, let's continue with the discussion. According to Wikipedia, "Datura inoxia is quite similar to Datura metel to the point of being confused with it in early scientific literature." Furthermore, "Datura inoxia differs from D. stramonium, D. metel & D.fastuosa in having about 7 to 10 secondary veins on either side of the midrib of the leaf which anastomose by arches at about 1 to 3 mm. from the margin." Well only after looking up that medical term "anastomose", can I say that this description does match up well with the leaves that were in the second picture that you sent. So you are right, this moonflower does appear to be Datura inoxia, not Datura metel 'Alba'. Still the discussion about the toxicity of all plants in this genus applies.

The one part of your question that I neglected to address was weather this is a weed or a decoration. This plant does have weedy characteristics, but according to the Walla Walla County Noxious Weed Board, Datura species are not considered to be noxious weeds that need to be eradicated or control in your county nor are they listed as noxious weeds in the state of Washington.

I hope this response better addresses your question.

Thanks even more! Yes, this fills in all the missing pieces for me. I will definitely be using this service in the future whenever I get stumped by a plant or pest question:) …I don't see a tip jar on this web page…