With beautifully ornate and fragrant flowers, Datura refers to a group of attractive, but deadly plants. Like monkshood, they are a popular garden plant that is cultivated for its appearance, however both monkshood and datura harbor deadly potential…
Datura is related to deadly nightshade and it’s also a member of the nightshade (Solanaceae) family. There are around 8 species of datura, plus a number of different varieties grown by different cultivators who try to create certain flower shapes or colors. You may know datura by a number of other names, including jimsonweeds, thorn apples, devil’s snare, or devil’s trumpets.
What Are The Active Compounds in Datura?
Every species of datura is poisonous, with the whole plant containing toxic and psychoactive compounds known as scopolamine, hyoscyamine, and atropine. Even tiny doses of these compounds can cause hallucinations, but in higher doses, they can be deadly. And it’s a fine line between what is considered a safe or fatal dose. The seeds and flower heads have the highest amount of these compounds.
Some people seek datura to use as a recreational drug, but what they don’t realize is that toxin levels vary depending on the plant’s location and age. A plant they assumed safe a few months ago, could turn out to be deadly the next time.
Datura Poisoning Symptoms
Because of the psychoactive compounds, scopolamine and atropine, datura can cause pupil dilation, hallucinations, and delirium. However, a higher dose will then go on to cause more severe and life-threatening symptoms as it begins to affect the nervous system. Patients suffer from dry mouth, paralysis, paranoia, and the effects can last up to a week. Treatment is possible if an individual has ingested a fatal amount, but they must be treated very quickly.
What is the Medicinal Potential of Datura?
Respected for its spiritual purposes within a number of cultures, datura was also considered a medicinal herb. Some cultures used it as a form of anesthesia to reduce patient awareness during painful treatments or surgeries. Others used datura to heal wounds, fever, and inflammations, and it would also be applied to the skin and even ingested. Studies have concluded datura contains a high amount of antioxidants, but medicinal use is generally not advised.
Cultural Symbolism of Datura
Datura has been known as a hallucinogenic and toxic plant for centuries, and has had varied usage in different cultures…
- Because of its poisonous and hallucinogenic potential, datura was once associated with witchcraft. Like deadly nightshade it was thought to be an ingredient added to a witches brew that allowed them to ‘fly’.
- Within India, a religious cult group, known as ‘thuggee’, supposedly used datura to carry out a series of robberies and murders.
- Datura was used within spiritual ceremonies by early native American groups. Due to its toxicity, any concoction had to be carefully prepared by a member of the community with expert medicinal knowledge. In some areas of Mexico datura is still prepared today for spiritual practices.
- Its hallucinogenic abilities are well known today and often young people attempt to smoke or ingest datura to try and experience a ‘trip’. Sadly many people have died, or suffered permeant life changing damage, after attempting to use datura recreationally.
What Does Datura Look Like?
Reaching heights of roughly 1 meter, datura plants are usually annual but some species are perennial. The most recognizable features are the cone-shaped flowers and large, green spiked fruits. When the seeds ripen the fruit dries out and splits, causing the seeds to be catapulted away.
Datura plants are often mistaken for plants in the Brugmansia genus, however, datura does not have a woody stem.
Where Does Datura Grow?
Native to North America, datura is common in Mexico and in southern states in the US. It prefers warm, dry climates, but can grow in cooler temperate areas also. It has been naturalized in Europe and other continents as well. It can establish quickly in areas of waste ground or disturbed grassland, particularly in farmed fields.
Datura plants hold a fascinating history with links to Native American cultures. They are a group of plants that should be respected, not only for their beauty but their deadly potential.