Thornapple Valley Baseball League

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Written by: Cheryl Beller
Thursday, May 13, 2010

Really getting "Thornappled" could be dangerous to your health. Although it's not clear whether origins of the name are linked to the potent and poisonous thorn apple plant, the bird-intoxicating hawthorn tree, or the Thornapple River or perhaps all three of them the name is often selected for roads, schools, churches, and businesses in the Ada/Cascade area.

In the History of the City of Grand Rapids, Albert Baxter says early Indian settlers called the Thornapple River "Me-nos-so-gos-o she-kink," which means "the forks." Their settlement was called Thornapple Forks Village and it was nestled on the site where Amway is now located at the confluence of two rivers, the Thornapple and the Grand. Still, the source of "Thornapple" locally may be a noxious thorn apple plant or thorn apple tree, which are both indigenous and prolific in the area.

"Thorn apple in this neck of the woods usually refers to the hawthorn tree, which was used as an ornamental," said Calvin College biologist Randy Van Dragt. Hawthorns are small trees commonly used in landscaping. Most produce an abundance of long, sharp thorns, white flowers that have an unpleasant fragrance, and small berries that are red when ripe. "The hawthorn tree is highly prolific in terms of its species, and treated here with some interest and respect," said Van Dragt.

He said fruit-eating birds are drawn to hawthorn trees because many species keep their fruit throughout the long winter. Birds widely propagate the trees by spreading and dropping seeds. And birds apparently have their own way of getting "thornappled." When hawthorn trees bake in the hot sun, the berries undergo a change. "When they sit in the sun and ferment," said Van Dragt, "they can accumulate enough alcohol to give the birds a good buzz."

Regarding a plant called thorn apple or datura stramonium, the toxic properties have been known for centuries and are literally staggering. This plant, which grows profusely in West Michigan and most of the United States, is a narcotic and can be deadly. The plant is bushy and has large trumpet-shaped white or purple flowers. Opening in the evening, the flowers are pollinated by moths and emit a strong, nauseating odor. The thorn apple grows seed capsules which are at first green and the size of a large walnut. The seed capsules turn brown and are covered with numerous sharp spines, giving the plant its name. The appearance of the plant, flower, and fruit is so peculiar that it is hard to misidentify.

The plant's long, bizarre history includes medicinal uses and many fatalities, according to widely published reports by the National Drug Intelligence Center and others. The plant has been used, abused, and misused by countless civilizations, and the difference between a medicinal and toxic dose is very small. Mentioned by Shakespeare and Virgil, the plant was used in ancient times to poison or incapacitate victims.

Parents may find the plant is attractive to children because of its large flowers and distinctive seed capsules. However, as little as 4 grams of the leaf can be fatal to a child, according to a report issued by the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services.

Ada Township Parks Director Wendy Tatar said the thorn apple plant is prolific in flood plains and wooded areas. "We do have it here at Ada Park," said Tatar. "It's got some pretty dangerous thorns."

British soldiers sent to Jamestown, Va., in 1676 went mad for 11 days after consuming the plant in a salad. This incident is probably the source for the plant's common name, Jimsonweed, a version of James Town weed.

Also known as stinkweed, nicotiana, Figuiero Do Inferno, and a host of other common names, thorn apple has 150 species. The plants contain potent and poisonous alkaloids such as hyosciamine, hyoscine, scopolamine, and atropine.  Atropine is used by opticians to dilate pupils. The plant also acts on the human respiratory system by paralyzing the endings of the pulmonary branches, and has been used for relieving bronchial asthma.

Consequences of ingesting the poison are dimness of sight, dilation of the pupils, giddiness, hallucinations, delirium, mania, convulsions, coma, and possible death. "In the west, they call it loco weed.' Most animals will avoid it," said Van Dragt. "Sometimes, na? animals are very hungry. When that happens, crazy behavior ensues. The animals run like crazy in circles. They just act crazy, wild-eyed, and frothy at the mouth. "

Virtually all of the plant is poisonous, with seeds being the most toxic. A 1998 report from the National Drug Intelligence Center stated recent fatalities blamed on the thorn apple include: the 1995 drowning of a 15-year-old girl in Colorado after she drank tea made from the plant; and the 1995 deaths of two teenage boys in Texas after consuming tea made from the root of the plant in combination with alcohol.

Used with permission of Advance Newspapers

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