COMMON NAMES: Ama:y’uhc (Mixe, ‘dangerous plant’), Apple Of Peru, Chamico (Quechua), Common Thorn Apple, Concombre Zombi (Caribic, ‘zombie cucumber’), Devil’s Apple, Devil’s Trumpet, Dhatura, El-rita (Morocco), Feng-ch’ieh-erh (Chinese), Gemeiner Stechapfel, Herbe Aux Sorciers (French, ‘sorcery plant’), Hierba del Diablo (‘plant of the devil’), Igelkolben, Jamestown Weed, Jimsonweed, Kieli-sa (Huichol, ‘bad kieli’), Manzana del Diablo (‘apple of the devil’), Nongue, Papa Espinosa (Spanish, ‘thorny potato’), Rurutillo (from the Quechua ruru, ‘fruit’), Semilla de la Virgen (‘seeds of the virgin’), Stink Weed, Stramonium, Tatula (Persian, ‘to prick’), Thang-phrom Dkar-po (Tibetan), Thorn Apple, Wysoccan, Xholo (Zapotec), Yoshu Chosen Asago (Japanese, ‘exotic morning flower’), Zigeunerapfel
Datura stramonium is an annual herb that grows up to four feet tall. It has forked branches and deep green serrated leaves. The flowers are funnel shaped, five-pointed, and face straight up. They are usually white, or white with hints of light purple around the edges. The fruits are egg-shaped and covered in short, pointy thorns. The seeds are kidney-shaped and black (Ratsch 1998, 209).
D. stramonium is found in North, Central, and South America, and the Caribbean, as well as Northern Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Himalayas. D. stramonium is cultivated as a source of pharmaceutical scopolamine, used as an anaesthetic and to prevent nausea. The plants produce considerably more of this alkaloid when exposed to bright lights (Cosson et al. 1966 cited in Ratsch 1998, 208).
TRADITIONAL USES: In 1676, a group of soldiers in Jamestown, Virginia were accidentally served a salad made from D. stramonium leaves. They fell in to a state of delirium and proceeded to exhibit very bizarre behavior. The incident was described by a fellow soldier as follows:
The James-Town Weed (which resembles the Thorny Apple of Peru, and I take to be the plant so call’d) is supposed to be one of the greatest coolers in the world. This being an early plant, was gather’d very young for a boil’d salad, by some of the soldiers sent thither to quell the rebellion of Bacon (1676); and some of them ate plentifully of it, the effect of which was a very pleasant comedy, for they turned natural fools upon it for several days: one would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey, grinning and making mows [grimaces] at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll.
In this frantic condition they were confined, lest they should, in their folly, destroy themselves — though it was observed that all their actions were full of innocence and good nature. Indeed, they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallowed in their own excrements, if they had not been prevented. A thousand such simple tricks they played, and after eleven days returned themselves again, not remembering anything that had passed (Beverley 1705).
As a result of this incident, the plant is commonly known as Jamestown Weed, or Jimsonweed (Arnett 2011).
The Mixo of Oaxaca, Mexico believe that the plant spirit of D. stramonium is an elderly wise woman. When they harvest the seeds of the plant they offer pebbles and branches to her, and pray that she may heal the illness of the individual for whom the seeds are being harvested. The seeds are then consumed ritually in a manner similar to Psilocybe mushrooms. Men take doses of 27 seeds and women take 21. The Mapuche, meanwhile, use a D. stramonium beverage to alleviate mental illness brought on by evil spirits, as well as to discipline and educate misbehaving children (Lipp 1991).
Many North American peoples blend D. stramonium leaves with other herbs and kinnikinnick smoking blends to assist in vision quests. The plant is occasionally added to San Pedro beverages in South America (Ratsch 1998, 211).
Indigenous peoples of Virginia use D. stramonium in an initiatory rite called the Huskanawing Ceremony. In this ceremony, young people take a strong root decoction and are confined for 18-20 days, during which time they ‘unlive their former lives’ and begin adulthood with all memories of childhood completely erased. Some individuals who participate in this ritual are not able to survive (Voogelbreinder 2009, 150). When the 18th century historian Robert Beverley learned of this ritual, his analysis of it was less than favorable. He did, however, note that, according to the Indians, the ritual is used to:
“release the youth from all their childish impressions, and from that strong partiality to persons and things, which is contracted before reason comes to take place. They hope by this proceeding, to root out all the prepossessions and unreasonable prejudices which are fixed in the minds of children. So that, when the young men come to themselves again, their reason may act freely, without being biased by the cheats of custom and education. Thus, also, they become discharged from the remembrance of any ties by blood, and are established in a state of equality and perfect freedom, to order their actions, and dispose of their persons, as they think fit, without any other control than that of the law of nature. By this means also they become qualified, when they have any public office, equally and impartially to administer justice, without having respect either to friend” (Beverley 1705)
In Europe, D. stramonium was an ingredient in the famous witches’ flying ointments, and the seeds were brewed with beers to create potent psychoactive brews. The seeds were burned by gypsies as incense to ward off dark spirits and ghosts and to allow for divination. This has led some scholars to believe that the Oracle of Delphi inhaled D. stramonium seeds in order to enter a divinatory trance state, although many plants have been suggested as the possible incense of the Oracle (Marzell 1922 cited in Ratsch 1998, 211).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: D. stramonium herbage is harvested just after the plant flowers, and is best dried in shade. This herbage may then be smoked alone or in a smoking blend. Indeed, the popular asthma cigarettes of the 18th and 19th centuries contained D. stramonium leaf as a main component. One gram of leaf comprises a therapeutic dosage for asthma when smoked. However, it is very important to take care when consuming this plant in any way. The amount of alkaloids being consumed is difficult to calculate when working with raw plant matter, and taking too much of any Datura can be very dangerous – there are enough toxic alkaloids in 4-5 grams of dried leaf to cause death, and even as little as 0.3 grams can be very toxic (Voogelbreinder 2009, 150).
D. stramonium said to be one of the active ingredients in Caribbean zombie poisons. Wade Davis discovered that these potions are generally made up of various toxic ingredients, including puffer fish venom (which paralyzes the victim, causing it to appear as if they have died) and Datura stramonium, which creates the hypnotic, confused, semi-aggressive behavior that we all still associate with zombies. The victim becomes paralyzed, his family buries him, and he is then revived and given daily doses of Datura, which keep him in a state of confused obedience. Davis’ work has been criticized, but there certainly some element of truth in this tale (Lefler n.d.).
In Morocco, D. stramonium seeds are used in psychoactive incenses. 40 seeds are placed on hot coals and the vapors are inhaled to create visionary states of consciousness. Six flowers are said to be added to coffee to create a stimulating inebriant (Voogelbreinder 2009, 150).
MEDICINAL USE: Aztec medicinal texts mention that D. stramonium must never be consumed, but that it may be applied externally for gout. To this day, the Yucatec Maya roast D. stramonium leaves on hot clay plates and apply them to rheumatic joints. The Huastec of Mexico also prepare a topical ointment with D. stramonium leaves, lime, and chili peppers. In Peru and Chile, D. stramonium leaf tea is used to heal stomach pain and digestive trouble (Pulido S. & Serralta P. 1993 cited in Ratsch 1998, 212).
In India, D. stramonium fruit juice is massaged into the scalp to ease dandruff, and the roots are used in Southeast Asia to resolve insanity and to help those who have been bitten by wild animals. The leaves are smoked to relieve asthma symptoms (Voogelbreinder 2009, 150).
The plant has been used as an aphrodisiac and asthma treatment all over the world. Cigarettes containing the leaves of D. stramonium were often smoked by individuals suffering from asthma in many parts of Europe and America as recently as the twentieth century. Interestingly, many people who smoked these cigarettes reported ‘undesired’ side-effects, which included ‘dreams with sexual overtones’ (Dieckhofer et al. 1971, 432). The famous author Marcel Proust, for example, was known for his love of asthma cigarettes, which perhaps explains some of his rumoured bizarre behavior, as well as his copious stream-of-consciousness writing style.
It is of interest to note that up until the end of World War II, smoking was considered a wonderful way to directly apply medicine to ailing lungs, and was not considered harmful or dangerous. It was thanks to England’s occupation of India that the secret of inhaling Datura stramonium smoke to treat asthma became known. The treatment became so popular that many people took to growing the plant in gardens, and it was recommended highly by all the most renowned doctors. The treatment works because D. stramonium is an anti-spasmodic, preventing the painful spasm of the asthma attack. It is unclear if asthma cigarettes are beneficial for long term asthma treatment (Jackson 2010). Nevertheless, the benefits of smoking certain herbs in treating the lungs cannot be overlooked, and the use of many plants, including Datura, as smoked medicines or fumigants by cultures all over the world points to the importance of reconsidering our mental constructs surrounding the act of smoking.
In homeopathy, D. stramonium is used to treat coughs, asthma, neuralgia, and anxiety. It is said to be particularly helpful for individuals suffering from emotional or cognitive dysfunction (Boericke 1992 cited in Ratsch 1998, 212).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: The entire D. stramonium plant contains tropane alkaloids, although alkaloid content varies greatly from plant to plant. The main alkaloids found in D. stramonium are hyoscyamine and l-scopolamine. The effects of D. stramonium consumption are similar to those of other species of Datura, and include dry mouth, pupil dilation, difficulty in swallowing, confusion, hallucinations, and restlessness. The effects come on in between thirty minutes and four hours of consumption and may last for days (Roth et al. 1994 cited in Ratsch 1998, 213).
D. stramonium grows like a weed in the Canary Islands and other parts of the Caribbean, and many foolish young tourists seeking a unique psychedelic experience make the mistake of eating parts of the plant. Of course, this leads to unpleasant effects in most, including feverish delirium, nausea, confusion, headaches, and bizarre behavior. Reports of individuals collecting and eating their own feces for days, for example, have surfaced. Interestingly, though, a few individuals have reported being transported back in time to communicate with the indigenous inhabitants of the islands, who, in many places, have been extinct for hundreds of years. Nevertheless, very few positive experiences are reported, and since D. stramonium consumption can easily prove fatal, it is essential that we not consume this plant under any circumstances (Ratsch 1998, 213).
Similar reports occasionally come forth regarding foolish teenagers eating Datura stramonium and other species of Datura and Brugmansia to ‘get high’. As we see in the video clip below, such actions lead to hospitalization, and unnecessary panic in the community in question. The irresponsible use of powerful teacher plants such as this one is damaging to the reputation of communities that utilize entheogens and medical herbs.
Arnett, Amy M. “Erowid Datura Vaults : Jimson Weed Poisoning.” Erowid. Web. 17 May 2011. <http://www.erowid.org/plants/datura/datura_info5.shtml>.
Dieckhofer, K., T.H. Vogel, and J. Meyer-Lindenberg. “Datura Stramonium.” Der Nervenarzt 42, no. 8 (1971): 431–437.S
Lipp, F. The Mixe of Oaxaca: Religion, Ritual, and Healing. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.