Just as moonflower seeds have begun to spread, so has concern over the plant’s toxicity after it recently sent a Nebraska teen to the emergency room.
Moonflowers are tall, viny plants with large, distinct white or purple flowers that bloom at night. Its bright trumpet-shaped blossoms make it popular in gardens, but it can become a rapidly spreading pest when it grows along roadways and in fields.
Moonflower seeds can cause hallucinations when ingested, which makes it a draw for teenagers looking for a cheap and easy high, said Dr. Ron Kirschner, medical director for the Nebraska Regional Poison Center and assistant professor in the department of emergency medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
“They’re abused by teenagers because they’re readily available, they’re legal and they’re cheap,” Kirschner said of moonflowers.
Like its relatives within the Datura genus – including the jimson weed and thorn apple – the moonflower is packed with an anticholinergic substance that blocks neurotransmitters within the nervous system. This can lead to blurred vision, disorientation, hallucinations, rapid heartbeat, dry mouth and skin, and potentially death.
A dose of only a few of the plant’s seeds is enough to induce such symptoms, Kirschner said.
A 16-year-old boy from Gering intentionally ate the seeds recently, said Jason Rogers, a captain with the Gering Police Department. Rogers said police originally thought the teen was drunk because he “was completely incoherent,” but they later “realized he had taken some kind of hallucinogen.” Rogers said the boy’s actions resembled those of someone who’d taken LSD.
Because the seeds are not a controlled substance, drug charges are not applicable, Rogers said. However, the boy’s violent behavior – brought on by eating the seeds – has led to charges for assaulting an officer.
Such unusual behavior is common after ingesting the moonflower, UNMC’s Kirschner said, adding that people under its influence often obsessively pick at clothing, act violently and disrobe in public.
“If I’m called, and there’s someone taking off their clothes in a public place, I’m thinking that person has taken something anticholinergic,” Kirschner said.
If someone eats the seeds – the most potent part of the plant – the effects may last for days while the toxins are absorbed, he said.
Rogers said the case in Gering was the first he’d heard of in the area, where he said moonflowers grow wild along the roads.
Katie Flood, public information officer for the Lincoln Police Department, said she was unaware of any cases of moonflower abuse near Lincoln.
In Nebraska, eating the plant may be a new trippy twist. But teens in other states have learned about the flower’s high – and its low – the hard way. Fourteen teenagers in Ohio were hospitalized in 2002 after ingesting the plant, reportedly prompting the Akron and Cleveland police departments to ban it. Eight teens in Michigan were hospitalized for moonflower intoxication in 2008, according to news reports.
Kirschner recommended that friends stay alert and be aware of the warning signs of moonflower abuse. He said, unlike LSD or ecstasy, the moonflower causes dry mouth and skin; whereas other hallucinogens cause excessive perspiration.
“If you see someone who is delirious and confused, suspect this sort of thing,” he said.
By Teresa Lostroh
September 17, 2009