Our Window on Nature

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Deadly Datura

Filed under: Flowers — Lowell Christie -- September 11, 2007 @ 11:35 am

Sacred DaturaOne of the Southwest’s most attractive plants, the Sacred Datura, is also one of its most deadly. Every now and then newspapers carry the grisly story of someone who, after experimenting with a species of Datura, wanders for days through desert delusions until brought down by the searing heat. While seeking heavenly visions, the user ignored the possibility that he might be creating his own physical hell. For along with the hallucinogens, this plant packs a payload capable of ending the search.

Otherwise known as thorn apple and Indian apple, the Sacred Datura is closely related to jimsonweed and is part of the nightshade clan, a worldwide plant family encompassing both reputable and notorious members. The most famous of these are tomatoes, eggplants, hot and sweet peppers, and potatoes. Of course, these plants were also considered poisonous in the past. Datura favors the less beloved branch of the nightshade family, the one implicated in murder, witchcraft, seductions, and orgies.

The Sacred Datura, native to the American Southwest, tends to be a low, shrubby plant with large leaves. Showy plants even when not in flower, they are easy to spot as they sprawl along the edges of desert washes, riverbeds, and roadsides. Although you wouldn’t necessarily want to handle the plants (for some people, this causes contact dermatitis), datura leaves are interesting to view. Their gray color and furry surface protect them from the ravages of the sun.

But it is during the summer that this plant takes center stage. Hot, sunny days bring blossoms of many kinds to the desert, yet few match those of the Sacred Datura for size.

The flowers open at dusk and wither by noon the following day. Observers can actually watch the buds unwind. Moving at the same speed as the minute hand on your watch, the petals unfold into huge, white trumpets measuring six to eight inches long.

All that fragrance isn’t for your benefit, of course, but to lure pollinators from afar. Only those with very long proboscises can reach deep enough to enjoy the nectar of this flower. Hawk or sphinx moths (of the Sphingidae family) accomplish this easily. Large as hummingbirds but active only at night, they land on the flower and stretch their four-inch tongues down to lap up the brew. And it is certainly a potent potion.

University of Texas scientists Verne and Karen Grant propose that the narcotic effect of datura nectar is intended for its pollinators. Their studies indicate that hawk moths visit datura blossoms for food, but that they also get high. Some moths begin to hover over unopened flowers in the late afternoon, waiting for the drug counter to open so they can get their next “fix.”

Several interesting stories are told concerning the datura, such as the one credited with producing the nickname “jimsonweed.” In 1676, British soldiers were stationed at Jamestown, Virginia. When they lacked the fresh fruit and vegetables needed to prevent scurvy, 17th century mess cooks were apt to gather local vegetation. A variety of datura grows in that region, and it reached the cooking pot. Writing in History and Present State of Virginia, Robert Beverly noted that it took the soldiers 11 days before they “return’d to themselves again.” The name “Jamestown weed” gradually evolved into ‘Jimsonweed,” and it is now used almost generically for all members of the datura tribe.

Datura, it is claimed, can make you as “hot as a hare, blind as a bat, red as a beet, dry as a bone, and mad as a wet hen.” Yet it does have medical uses. Alkaloids such as those in datura are part of various prescriptions, such as those used to induce sleep, prevent motion sickness, and to ease the breathing of asthma and hay fever victims. The danger is in self-medication fresh from the plant.

In ancient times, Indian shamans used preparations of datura for everything from nasal congestion to snakebites, from sore throats to cuts and bruises. The plant’s hallucinogenic properties were a part of puberty rites as well as of burying ceremonies. (Datura was used to ease the passage of wives and servants who were buried alive with their dead husbands and masters.)

Many plants, both wild and domesticated, carry potential hazards with them. Common sense requires that we recognize the hazards and enjoy the benefits. We don’t chew on dracena leaves nor those of oleander; we don’t put rhubarb leaves into pie. And when we walk in the desert, we don’t eat the Sacred Datura. We are content to enjoy its beauty and leave the summertime hallucinations to the moths.


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