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  Sacred Datura
  The News ~ fall 1992

oison Lily, Thornapple, Moon Flower, Devilweed, Belladonna, Jimson Weed, (Datura stramonium)

    ...is a nightshade, like a pepper or a tomato, but different. Datura is from the potato family, SOLANACEAE. We see them all over the river corridor, along roadsides, and in dry washes, corollas shrivelling in the sun. These long, lustrously white, trumpet-like flowers burst out from thick, viney stems and are garnished with large rubbery leaves. Datura likes to live in dry, disturbed areas. The fruit, known as thornapples, are full of seeds that break apart by late July or early August. These seeds, as well as every other part of the datura, are quite toxic.

   Shakespeare alluded to datura, so did Homer. Some say these seeds originally came from the Middle East and were cultured in English greenhouses during the sixteenth century. Datura was brought to North America for medicinal use by colonists who settled in Jamestown. In 1676, these colonists used the weed to poison British soldiers during Bacon’s rebellion. Hence the name, Jamestown weed, or jimson weed.

   Actually, datura is an indigenous plant and has been in this area for hundreds of years. During the Winona Village excavation project in 1940, McGregor, the chief archaeologist, found a “datura seed pod” (thornapple) ceramic bowl in a trash midden. This midden dates to A.D.1075-1120.

  The datura is a nocturnal plant and is tended by several different types of insects: beetles, bees and moths. Beetles are attracted to the white fluorescence of the flowers as well as the large landing pads they offer. Larry Stevens says he has witnessed solitary bees crawl into a datura corolla in early morning and get held inside when it closed from the sun. The Lined Sphinx moth (Hyles liniata) packs a very long proboscis and has been seen appreciating datura nectar as well. However, their snouts are so well adapted to long corollas, they may miss the anthers altogether and never collect any pollen at all. On the east coast of North America and throughout Central America, where datura is more like a tree and grows to be 5-9 feet tall, it is pollinated by bats. On these trees the trumpet-like flowers hang down making nectar drinking easier for bats. The height of the plant is important; bats need to be able to drop into flight and can only land on high roosts.

   The Indians know the dangers of datura. Some say it is not to be touched because it is one of the first plants made by the Gods. Some use its hallucinogenic properties as a ‘right of passage’ for their young men. The Seri call it, “he he camostim” - ‘Plant that causes grimacing’ and “he he carocot” - ‘Plant that makes one crazy.’ The Pimas used datura as a poultice over boils and hemorrhoids (please don’t try this at home). It was rumored to be used by witches, along with henbane and mandrake. They would “...make a salve, apply it to the upper thighs and genitals to induce the sensation of rising into the air or flying on a broom.” Ah, Hahahahaha.

   Along the Mediterranean resides a relative of the datura. This herb has reddish-purply flowers and slimy black fruit. Italian women would use it as a cosmetic to redden their lips and cheeks, and even rub an extract of it into their eyes to dilate their pupils. Hence, the name ‘belladonna’ or ‘beautiful woman’ in Italian (datura is often referred to by this name as well). During the nineteenth century, datura was marketed as “Spanish Herbal Cigarettes.” Many cultures have taken advantage of datura’s antihistamine and bronchio-dilating properties; used as a smoke, it can relieve the symptoms of asthma, but it can kill you too.

   Datura is highly unpredictable. It contains dangerous alkaloids in every part of the plant. Younger plants contain mostly SCOPOLAMINE, as do deadly nightshade and black henbane. The older plants contain HYOSCYAMINE. This alkaloid, a nerve toxin, is guaranteed to make anyone who ingests it feel miserable. .. even the name is painful to pronounce. Hyoscyamine makes up almost 60% of the flowers, the fruit, the seeds, the nectar and smaller percentages in the shoots, the roots and the leaves. Don’t even touch this plant. Depending on what is touched and whether you rub your eye or not afterward, you could affect your vision for 24 to 48 hours. This state of temporary blindness and pupil dilation is called MYDRIASIS. An extract of this same alkaloid in belladonna is what ophthalmologists used to call ‘The Drop’ and put in your eyes during examinations... not any more.

   So, WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS?
   In Medicalese, datura ingestion is called, ANTICHOLINERGIC TOXICITY:

  • Dry mucus membranes - nose and mouth
  • Thirst
  • Difficulty swallowing and speaking
  • Dry, hot flushed skin
  • Mydriasis and Photophobia - difficulty with light
  • Hypertension - elevation of blood pressure
  • Constipation
  • Hyperpyrexia - increased body heat
  • Scarlatiniform rash
  • Tachycardia, taphyphea - excessively rapid heartbeat
  • Urinary retention
  • Decreased muscle coordination
  • Mental status changes, such as agitation, confusion and hallucination
  • Respiratory depression, paralysis and death

   An easy mnemonic is, “hot as a hare, blind as a bat, dry as a bone, red as a beet, and mad as a hatter,” originally used to describe ATROPINE poisoning (another alkaloid and close relative hyoscyamine), from ALICE IN WONDERLAND.

   WHAT IS THE TREATMENT?
   For us, while on the river, there is not a whole lot we can do. Prepare to evacuate.

  • Get the plants out of their system. Syrup of Ipecac, 30mL for adults, 15mL for children under twelve is suggested, (only if ingested within the last several hours). Don’t attempt it if they’re already hallucinating.
  • Keep patient safe in non-threatening, nonstimulating environment
  • Keep lights down; make it as dark as possible
  • Physical restraints may be required
  • Don’t give sedatives; they will exacerbate the problem
  • Get them to a medical facility quickly

   According to the American Family Physician, (Vol. 46, #2) which has given us all this up-to-date medical information;

   “Patients usually recover from the effects of jimson weed toxicity within 48 hours (if properly treated), with few side effects. Fatalities are rare. Amnesia for most events after ingestion of jimson weed are common. Long term sequelae are rare.”

Cynta de Narvaez
with special thanks to Dr. Michael Collier

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