Name, species and cultivation: The genus name datura comes from Hindi dhatūrā, meaning a ‘plant’. Records of this name date back to 1662. Nathaniel Hawthorne refers to one type in The Scarlet Letter as Apple-Peru. In Mexico the common name is Toloache.
The size of plant, leaf and flower can vary strongly, depending on location. Growing in a half-shady, damp place it can grow a magnificent flowering bush, whilst, the same species may not become larger than one foot and bearing only tiny flowers and leaves when growing in full sun and on desolate land. Common Thorn-Apple is an annual, but most other datura species are perennial. They prefer warm, sunny or half-shady places and soil that will keep the roots dry, as they are susceptible to fungi. Because of this organic enrichers such as compost and manure should be used moderately.
The following datura species are discussed below:
- D. stramonium
- D. metel
- D. innoxia
Common Thorn-Apple (Datura stramonium)
Name: The genus name is derived from dhatura, an ancient Hindu word for a plant. Stramonium may derive from Greek strychnos στρύχνος “nightshade” and maniakos μανιακός “mad”.
In the United States the plant is called jimson weed, or Jamestown weed. Name stems from the town of Jamestown, Virginia, where British soldiers were drugged with it while attempting to suppress Bacon’s Rebellion. They are reported to have spent eleven days generally appearing to have gone insane.
Other Names: Concombre Zombi, Devil’s Trumpet, Devil’s Weed, Thorn Apple, tolguacha, Stinkweed, Locoweed, Datura, Pricklyburr, Devil’s Cucumber, Hell’s Bells, Jamestown Weed, Jimson Weed, Moonflower, in South Africa malpitte and Mad Seeds, in Southamerica Chamico – from chamakani – “the diviner”.
Origin and Distribution: Kaspian Sea, Mexico, North American east coastal region, Eurasia and brought to Mexico by colonists; oriental species brought to Europe by gypsies.
Today widespread over the Canarian Islands, Himalaya (Nepal, purple variant), Central and South America (D. stramonium ferox); also growing in the wild in Germany and Switzerland. In some places considered a wasteland weed. The seed is thought to be carried by birds and spread in their droppings. It can lie dormant underground for years and germinate when the soil is disturbed.
Uses: In Mexico similar to the use of Datura innoxia, where considered its ‘younger sister’. The Mixe in Oaxaca believe the plant to be housed by a spirit called ta:gamih, “the grandmother”. She is called upon to heal and divine. In ritual the males use 3×9=27 seeds and women use 3×7=21 seeds. In Mexico the catholic church believes the plant to have been created by the devil.
Mayas of Yucatan use the mehen xtoh-k’uh, “kleines Wesen in Richtung der Götter”, in the same way as Datura innoxia. It has a long tradition of use in prophecies and oracles (similar to Brugmansia sanguinea).
Aboriginal Americans in North America, such as the Algonquin and Luiseño, have used this plant in sacred ceremonies.
In Europe associated with witch ointments and hex rituals. Seeds used as narcotic ingredient in beer. Gypsies used it it ritually to banish and attract ghosts and are said to have known the thorn apple very well. In the night of the 30th of November gypsies would place the seeds of thorn apple outdoors and in the next day throw them into a fire. If the seeds cracked loudly, then the winter would be hard and dry. For divination they would place 9-21 seeds upon marked animal skin and beat upon it so that the seeds would move and, depending on the position of the seeds (on or between the marked lines) a sick person would be cured or not.
Aztecs used thorn apple, which they called mixitl, medicinally:
“Mixitl is not ingestible; it paralyses, shuts the eyes, constricts the throat, supresses the voice, makes thirsty, paralyses the genitals, splits the tongue. He who drank it has his eyes closed forever or open forever because it makes stiff and numb. Wine can ease the effect.”
According to one recipe 1 part thorn apple and 8 parts tobacco are smoked against asthmatic spasms or 5 – 15 drops of the Tincture Seminum Stramonii are applied in cases of Nyphomania and Satyriasis.
Elisabeth Blackwell (1747) notes, “the leafs are cooling against burns and inflamations and the seed is relaxatory and narcotic“. If applied to the skin it eases pain.
In voodoo thorn-apple is a main ingredient in zombie powders (see the case of Clairvius Narcisse).
Devil’s Trumpet (Datura metel)
D. metel is also called Devil’s Trumpet, Hindu Datura and Horn of Plenty. In Hinduism it is sacred to Lord Shiva, who is believed to be smoking Datura. People still provide the small green fruit of Datura during festivals and special days as offerings in Shiva temples. It also plays a major roll in tantric rituals.
Different variants exist: originally white, yellow and purple flowering varieties, as well as the black-stemed cultivar D. metel ‘Fastuosa’, which has become naturalized in Israel and which is also known as Blackcurrant Swirl, Cornucopaea, Double Blackcurrant Swirl, Double Purple, Black and Purple Hindu.
Toloache, Mexican Thorn-Apple (Datura innoxia)
The scientific name is often cited as D. innoxia. From Latin innoxia/inoxia, meaning without prickles, harmless. In this species the fruit does have prickles but the plant itself may be less toxic than other species of Datura. The Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii) may be a sub-species or variant of D. innoxia. Both are typically covered with fine hair, hence they are also known as ‘downy’ thorn-apple.
Synonyme: Datura meteloides Dunal
Names: Downy Thorn-Apple, Indian-Apple, Moonflower, Sacred Datura, nacazcul, toloatzin, tolguache or el toloache
Toloatzin from toloa, to bow one’s head, and -tzin, honorific/diminutive.
Also called “la yerba del diablo” in Castaneda’s writings, and in Navajo religion this plant is emblematic of the Changing Woman, a goddess who can take the form of a maiden, a mature woman, or a crone (similar to the three phases of the moon).
Origin and Distribution: Native to Central and South America, and introduced in Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe.
The plant is now considered an invasive species in several locations. For example, because of the similarity of its life cycle to that of cotton, it is a pest in cotton fields. It is also a potential seed contaminant.
Seeds have hibernation capabilities, and can last for years in the soil. The perennial rhizomes can be kept from freezing and planted in the spring of the following year.
Medicinal Uses: Aztecs used toloatzin long before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, as anodyne in poultices placed on wounds.
Ritual Uses: Aztecs warned against madness and “various and vain imaginings”, yet many native Americans have used the plant as an entheogen for hallucinations and rites of passage. Chumash people of California used this handsome datura as part of the vision quest of adolescence; they drank a tea of the plant to open themselves to an animal spirit who taught the seeker a song or a dance and who would guide the person throughout the rest of their life. Later both men and women drank datura tea on their own, often to strengthen their bond with their spirit helper (famulus), to communicate with the dead or divine the future.
Toxicity: Datura plants contain dangerous levels of tropane alkaloids (atropine, hyoscyamine and scopolamine) and may be fatal if ingested by humans or other animals, including livestock and pets. In some places it is prohibited to buy, sell or cultivate Datura plants. There are also several reports in the medical literature of deaths from Datura stramonium and Datura ferox intoxication. In some parts of Europe and India, Datura has been a popular poison for suicide and murder. From 1950–1965, the State Chemical Laboratories in Agra, India investigated 2,778 deaths caused by ingesting Datura.
The dose of tropane alkaloides varries greatly from plant to plant as well as within the plant. E.g. consumption of a single leaf might already cause severe symptoms.
Symptoms of poisoning include a flushed skin, headaches, hallucinations, convulsions, and subsequently coma. Opposed to mere hallucinations a complete inability to differentiate reality from fantasy (anticholinergic delirium), hyperthermia, tachycardia, bizarre and possibly violent behavior, severe mydriasis with resultant painful photophobia that can last several days. Pronounced amnesia is another commonly reported effect.
Symptoms resolve, usually from 24–36 hours after ingestion. No other psychoactive substance has received as many “train wreck” (i.e., severe negative experience) reports as has datura. The overwhelming majority find their experiences mentally and physically extremely unpleasant and often physically dangerous.
Specific Scopolamine effect: during the delir a person panics and attempts to run for shelter. Scopolamine causes him to lose sight, due to which the person might become involved in an accident and end up at hospital. Scopolamine induces respiratory depression at a hallucinogenic dose. The combination of anesthesia (in the hospital) and datura is usually fatal due to combined respiratory depression. Seizures and fevers as high as 43 C (110°F) have been reported.
Treatment: Gastric lavage (stomache pumping) and administration of activated charcoal; Benzodiazepines to curb the patient’s agitation, and otherwise supportive care with oxygen, hydration, and symptomatic treatment. Antidote: Physostigmine
Medicinal Properties: Datura is one of 50 main herbs in Traditional Chinese Medicine, where it is called yáng jīn huā. Anticholinergic, deliriant, the legitimate medical applications of Scopolamine are in the treatment of nausea and motion sickness, intestinal cramping, ophthalmic dysfunctions and drug addiction. Further it is general depressant and adjunct to narcotic painkillers. It has also shown effects in memory research (Alzheimer’s treatment). Dried flowers rolled into a cigar and smoked were used to relieve asthma and wheezing like symptoms.
Sources and Further Reading:
Enzyklopädie der psychoaktiven Pflanzen, by Christian Rätsch
Dangerous Beauty at The Medieval Garden Enclosed
Datura Classification Guide at Erowid.org
Datura – From Reasearch Subject to Powerful Hallucinogenic, by Kirsten Bonde at Ethnobotanical Leaflets