COMMON NAMES: Bunjdeshtee (Persian), Chosen-asagau (Japanese, ‘Korean morning beauty’), Da Dhu Ra (Tibetan), Datur-a (Mongolian), Datura (Sanskrit), Datura Engletrompet (Danish), Devil’s Trumpet Flower of Ceylon, Dhatra (Santali), Dhattura (Sanskrit), Dhatura (Sanskrit, ‘heterogeneous’), Dhetoora (Hindi), Dhutro (Bengali), Dotter (Dutch), Goozgiah (Persian), Insane Herb, Jous-mathel (Arabic)< Kachubong (Philippines), Kala Dhutura (Hindi, ‘black datura’), Karoo Omatay (Tamil), Kechubong Hitam (‘black datura’), Kechubong Puteh (‘white datura), Kechu-booh (Egyptian), Kechubung (Malayan), Kecubong (Bali), Man-t’o-lo (Chinese), Menj (Arabic/Yemen), Mnanaha (Swahili), Mondzo (Tsonga), Nao-yang-hua (Chinese), Shan-ch’ieh-erh (Chinese), Shiva’s Plant, Tatorah (Arabic), Thangphrom Dkar-po (Tibetan), Thorn Apple, Unmata (Sanskrit, ‘divine inebriation’),
Datura metel is a primarily annual herbaceous plant, though it is occasionally biannual. It grows more than twelve feet in height and develops numerous branches. The soft leaves are a light, matte green color with slightly serrated edges. The plant has smooth, violet or dark purple branches and the funnel-shaped, fragrant flowers are either white, yellow, or violet, depending on variety, and jut upward at an angle (Ratsch 1998, 203).
The flowers open in the evening and emit a rich, luscious fragrance, then begin to wither and droop over the course of the next few days. The plant often produces double or triple flowers that grow within the main bloom, creating filled, layered blossoms. In the tropics, the Indian thorn apple blooms year-round and in Central Europe, it flowers from June to October. The fruit grows upward from the plant, then begins to droop slightly as it matures. It has short, round thorns that resemble bumps. The seeds are kidney bean shaped and a deep yellow-ocher color (Ratsch 1998, 203).
Datura metel likely originated in northern India, and is now found throughout Southeast Asia. It also spread to Africa and Central and South America, as well as the Caribbean through human migration. It is cultivated as a source of the alkaloid scopolamine in tropical regions around the world (Ratsch 1998, 203).
TRADITIONAL USES: Datura metel was first documented in Sanskrit literature. Somewhat later, the Arabic physician Avicenna touted the importance of its medicinal applications and provided the exact appropriate dosage to the Arabs, who categorized the plant as a narcotic (Avery 1959). Ingesting too much Datura metel is very dangerous and can lead to insanity or even death, so great care must be taken with its consumption.
Indian Thorn Apple flowers are often depicted in Hindu Tantric art, usually in connection with incarnations of Shiva. The thorn apple also appears in ancient Tibetan and Mongolian texts, which demonstrates that Datura metel was indigenous to Asia prior to the fifteenth century. It is not known when the Indian Thorn Apple was introduced to Africa. Today, Datura metel remains a psychoactive plant of great enthnopharmacological significance, especially in India, Southeast Asia, and Africa (Siklós 1993).
According to the Vamana Purana, the thorn apple grew from the chest of the Hindu god Shiva, the lord of inebriants. In the Garuda Purana, it is said that Datura flowers were offered to the god Yogashwara (a.k.a. Shiva), on the thirteenth day of the waxing moon in January. In Nepal the plant is considered sacred to Shiva. Thorn apple flowers and fruits are among the most important offering gifts of the Newari tribe of Nepal. At every puja, (offering service or ceremony), Shiva is offered Datura fruits in order to gain his favor (Ratsch 1998, 204).
In Varanasi, Shiva’s sacred city, D. metel fruits and rose flowers are made into sacrificial ceremonial garlands for the lord of inebriation and sold to pilgrims, then left as offering at the entryways to his temples. These Datura chains are devoutly placed around the lingam, the deity’s phallic-shaped image, as fresh flowers are tossed over the top of it (Ratsch 1998, 204).
In northern India, it is widely known that Datura metel can be used for inebriating purposes. Smoking the plant is regarded as pleasurable and not dangerous, whereas eating or drinking it is considered dangerous and is generally avoided. Yogis and sadhus in particular smoke thorn apple seeds and leaves together with Cannabis indica and other herbs such as Aconitum ferox and Nicotiana tabacum (Ratsch 1998, 204).
In Tibet and Mongolia, the thorn apple is used as incense in Vajramabhairava Tantra rituals intended to make the wealthy poor and to drive out certain spirits and energies.The fruits or seeds are also used to induce insanity (Siklós 1995).
In the Philippines, the Ingorot, a Malayan tribe from Luzon, boil the leaves to make an inebriating soup that is eaten communally in a ritual circle. In China, the white blossomed variation of Datura metel, alba, is considered sacred, as it is believed that glistening dew drops rained down from the heavens onto its flowers while the Buddha was giving a sermon. In ancient China, it appears that it was a popular practice to steep the aromatic flowers of D. metel in wine before consumption. Stories say that if someone laughs while the flowers are being packed for use with wine, the wine evokes laughter in all those who drank it. If the flowers are picked while someone dances, all those who drink cannot help but dance (Ratsch 1998, 205).
In Africa, Datura metel is used for criminal activities and in initiations. The seeds are used to poison victims so that they can be robbed. Seeds are added to the locally brewed beer to potentiate its effects (Ratsch 1998, 205).
In Tsongaland, which stretches from Mozambique to the Transvaal, a variant of Datura metel known as fastuosa is utilized as an entheogenic ritual drug in the initiation of girls as they pass into womanhood. The girls are painted with red ocher (a symbol of menstrual blood). One after the other, they are made to lie down in the fetal position on a mat made from palm fronds while others dance around them holding onto their hips. Special songs are sung. Afterwards, the girls are tied to a tree while others beat the tree with sticks until the white sap – which symbolizes sperm – starts to flow from its bark (Johnston 1972).
The next stage is a water ritual, through which the initiates are cleansed, as a symbol of casting aside childhood. Before ingesting the thorn apple, the girls are required to stretch an animal skin over a vessel of water. Older women perforate the skin with sticks and stir the water. Following this symbolic defloration, a “school mother” covered entirely in Datura leaves, toad skins, and dog teeth bursts out from behind the bushes. She approaches the girls, spits on them, and tells them repeatedly that they will soon hear the voice of the fertility god (Johnston 1972).
The thorn apple drink, made by boiling the herbage in water and rumored to contain powdered human bones and/or human fat, is then carried around in a ceremonial seashell by the school mother and given to each girl to drink from. They experience visions that are shaped and influenced by ritual music and the singing of the school mother. The path into womanhood is channeled through the ceremonial phase by the shaving off of the pubic hair pre-initiation, and by the placement of clay cubes with pieces of straw protruding from them in between each girl’s legs. These symbolize the fact that when their pubic hair grows back in, it will belong to a woman, not a girl. At the end of the initiation, the girls are freed from their ceremonial restraints and coverings, dressed in new clothes adorned with ornaments, and they dance and sing, now ready for marriage. The related species Datura wrightii is used to pass boys into manhood (Johnston 1972).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: To create an inebriating beverage, equal parts Datura metel seeds and leaves and hemp flowers are added to wine. In Asia the leaves are often soaked in wine. In Darjeeling, the seeds are used to fortify barley alcohol. They are also added to betel quids and smoked along with cannabis. In East India women feed datura leaves to a specific species of beetle for a period of time and collect the excrement. They then mix this into the food of an unfaithful husband (Ratsch 1998, 203).
In southeast Asia the seeds are often mixed in with food or other herbs to create aphrodisiacs. In the Philippines, unfurled flowers are dipped in boiling water, then dried in the sun. These flowers are crumbled, rolled into a cigarette, and smoked to create effects similar to marijuana. In Malaysia, fifty seeds is considered a psychotropic dosage. One hundred seeds is considered dangerous and toxic. In India, 125 seeds have been reported lethal (Gimlette 1981 cited in Ratsch 1998, 204).
MEDICINAL USES: There is evidence that Datura metel seeds have been used in ancient Indian medicine, modern Indian folk medicine, and Ayurvedic medical practices. The most common medicinal uses for Datura in these systems are for skin conditions, anxiety disorders, and respiratory ailments, along with a litany of other conditions. The seeds are also sometimes used as a substitute for opium (Ratsch 1998, 206).
In Java the seeds are inserted into cavities or chewed to relieve dental pain. The plant is also used to treat skin diseases, colds, and anxiety in TCM. The plant is used to treat asthma in all regions of the world, either as a smoke or an incense (Ratsch 1998, 206-207).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: All varieties of Datura metel contain psychotropic tropane alkaloids. D. metel contains the highest scopolamine content of the Datura genus. The entire plant also contains various withanolides (Lindequist 1992 cited in Ratsch 1998, 206).
The effects of D. metel vary by dosage and consumption method. When smoked in a blend with tobacco and clove oil, the effects are reported to be cheering, followed by a sleep with active dreams. In Tsongaland, the seeds are consumed and then music is used to control the psychotropic effects, which include auditory hallucinations and powerful visions (Johnston 1975).
Overdose usually results in delirium lasting for days, after which little is recalled. Criminals sometimes poison their victims with Datura metel seeds in order to sedate their victims and make them pliable to suggestion. In southeast Asia, licorice is recommended in cases of D. metel overdose (Ratsch 1998, 206).
Avery, A.G. “Historical Review.” In Blakeslee – the Genus Datura, 3–15. New York: Ronald Press, 1959.
Johnston, T. “Power and Prestige Through Music in Tsongaland.” Human Relations 27, no. 3 (1975): 235–246.
—. “Datura Fastuosa: Its Use in Tsonga Girls’ Initiation.” Economic Botany 26 (1972): 340–351.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Siklós, B. “Datura Rituals in the Vajramahabhairava-Tantra.” Curare, no. 16 (1993): 1–76.
———. “Flora and Fauna in the Vajramahabhairava-Tantra.” In Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness, 3:243–266. Berlin: VWB, 1995.