Fragrant blooms follow the rising moon
intoxicating dancing dream,
leaving behind the whispered secrets
deep within her roots.
Warning: Educational purposes only. Never consume, or any in other way become intoxicated by, Datura (or any other toxic plant).
If I tried to describe every way in which this sacred plant has interacted with humanity I would be writing a book! Even with the relatively small fraction of use I do cover, many are only mentioned in passing, mainly for the sake of brevity.
I. Welcome to the family (Solanaceae family).
Moonflowers are within the genus Datura, family Solanaceae. Many members of the Nightshade (Solanaceae) family have toxic, medicinal, magical, and psychoactive properties. In this family are potato, tomato, eggplant, peppers, tobacco, petunias, belladonna, mandrake, henbane, solandra, and many others. All are beautiful, yet Datura has its own enchantment. Tree Datura, known as Angel’s Trumpets, are specifically classified as Brugmansia. They are similar in nature and appearance to Datura, but are tropical day blooming trees. The two tend to overlap in historical use, as they share the same active chemical components. There are nine official Datura shrubs and seven accepted types of tree Datura (Brugmansia), the most well known being D. stramonium, D. metel, D. wrightii, D. inoxia, B. arborea, B. aurea, and B. sanguinea.
These plant spirits have been communicating with humanity for thousands of years. Datura grows nearly everywhere in the world, except for the coldest, most barren regions. Where it grows in abundance there is sure to be folklore surrounding it, and people who have utilized it. It grows readily in abandoned or disturbed areas, and in warm climates it is extremely hardy and tenacious, yet downy and inviting at the same time.
Datura, and many of its relatives have some combination of atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine. In Datura the primary alkaloid is scopolamine. These chemicals induce an intoxication followed by delirious hallucinations which occur during the transition state between consciousness and sleep. This plant has many lessons, most of which can be taught without ever consuming even a tiny amount. Some believe just carrying a small branch on your person is enough to gain its abilities. Growing and interacting with Datura is always a little magical, especially the first bloom on a summer night. The scent is unlike anything else, and a personal favorite. A sweet, warm, intoxicating, and mythic fragrance.
II. Psychic Flight & Transformation.
Magical uses almost always include divinatory properties. However, Datura tends to be associated with darker or baneful magic, probably because of how dangerous and unpredictable it is. It has long been thought that one could acquire enhanced gifts, wisdom, and strength from the plant. It is known to grant the feeling of flight, or the ability to transform the curandero (shaman), or at least his or her spirit, into a bird or other animal, sometimes a wolf or a coyote.
A famous account of this is given by Carlos Castaneda, in which he describes how a Yaqui Shaman, Don Juan Matus, teaches him to make a flying ointment from Datura root and boar fat. After applying the ointment he has a vision of himself as a bird, soaring over the land. Datura has a strong association in many cultures with wind and in general the air element, but also the water element as well. As part of a rain ceremony Zuni priests go into the desert at night and sprinkle a small amount of dried Datura root powder into their eyes and mouth. Doing this they are able to communicate with the Avian world, thus allowing the birds to listen to their songs and prayers and bring rain.
Among European traditions one might find either a Datura species, or another of the Solanaceae family as a primary ingredient in the traditional witch's flying ointment. Datura and their relatives (Nightshade, Mandrake, Henbane, Tobacco, etc.) have long been associated with sensations of flight. Similar to the Shaman turning into a bird after taking Datura. A typical flying ointment might contain some mixture of the following ingredients: Aconite, fat/oil, soot, Belladonna, Cinquefoil, Hemp, Hellebore, Hemlock, Mandrake, Opium Poppy, Datura, Tobacco, Parsley, Mugwort, Foxglove, and possibly many other things. The idea is that witches then used their besom (broom) to anoint their genitals (mucus membranes) with the delirium inducing ointment.
No definitive recipe seems to exist, bits and pieces of old accounts are all that survived. Reginald Scat's ‘The Discoverie Of Witchcraft’ from 1584 describes some recipes including one that calls for Deadly Nightshade, among other more unusual ingredients, such as the blood of a flitter mouse. Most of the oldest recipes I have read tend to be second hand (someone documenting what a supposed witch had told them). However, any flying ointment that would be effective should be used with extreme caution, and in tiny amounts. Applying too much and then falling unconscious has proven deadly in the past.
III. Mythology & Preparation.
Many myths surround Datura, including some that say Lord Shiva favors the thorn-apple. According to the Vamana Purana, the thorn apple grew from the chest of the Hindu god Shiva, the lord of inebriants. Datura was first mentioned in the ancient Vedic scriptures as ‘Shivashekhera,’ showing the connection to Shiva was made very early. Shiva accepts offerings of Datura flowers even today. Datura flowers are depicted in Hindu Tantric art, and in many cultures a small dose or smoked Datura is considered an aphrodisiac. Datura is also used in Navajo frenzy witchcraft, where one transforms into a Datura animal spirit for either love, power, or both. Datura is associated most with four magical properties: passion, power, prophecy, and protection. It has also been called 'love will', as it is favored in persuasive love magic.
The medicinal and magical properties of Datura were well known by the Chumash people. In their tradition, Datura was known as Momoy, a wise old Grandmother. Drinking the water she washed her hands in would bring visions of ones future and a spiritual guide. However, she warned her children not to drink too much, or they would meet a terrible fate. Also, strict fasting and other preparations were needed to ensure the journey would be a good one. If someone were to consume Datura without following the guidelines and without proper respect, the spirit was thought to be very hostile. Perhaps you would feel great courage, but also be made so foolish as to run off a cliff or drown in a small pool of water. Of the specifications, sex was strictly prohibited, as was meat and grease. One should be using great self-control, and not indulging during the time of preparation.
Generally, tobacco was allowed to be smoked, as Momoy herself was said to eat nothing but tobacco. Nicotiana rustica (Solanaceae) is also an important plant spirit, and some believe was given to humanity as an aide in communication with the supernatural realm. Certainly, tobacco is often used in conjunction with other magical and visionary ceremonies across the world.Among some traditions Coyote is the Datura giver, who came into existence from Momoy's sweat. Some say Coyote is not only the trickster, but perhaps also the first witch/shaman. The rock art of the Lower Pecos indicated that shaman would use Datura to seemingly transform back into coyotes, or other animals. Many spiky Datura seed pods are depicted in the art, and thousands of seeds have been found in ceremonial areas.
A shaman might also use Datura to diagnosis an illness, or induce a vision of future events. The shaman would prepare him or herself in order to harvest a portion of the sacred plant's root, which would always be done with a prayer. The Datura giver would have to be very knowledgeable about the dose, meaning he or she would need to assess the type of Datura, the soil, age, season, rainfall, moon phase, what parts and amounts to harvest, and finally how to prepare the brew. Datura has three active chemicals (scopolamine, hyoscyamine, and atropine), so all these factors go into determining the best time to harvest a plant with the right chemical concentrations. Harvesting a plant too young, or otherwise unready, may result in too much hyoscyamine or atropine, and not enough scopolamine. This mistake could make for a particularly frightening journey fraught with terrible visions. It might also result in an over dose, which was said to turn you into a devil, if not kill you.
VI. Rites of Passage.
Historically, Datura would be prepared by a shaman, curandero, other villager elder or wise person. Consuming it is well known to cause incurable madness or death if taken without proper guidance. Datura was used in several cultures as a rite of passage from childhood into adulthood. Often Datura was given to youths upon entering puberty. These events would typically last days or in some cases even weeks. Sensations of death and memory loss can occur with Solanaceae use, making the spiritual journey also literal. The childhood was actually meant to die and the youth to be reborn in a mature form. Many times it would be given in groups, especially with females who reacted less violently. The youths would be leaving their childhood behind and connecting with a spirit guide that would show them their adult path.
Great variation existed among tribes. Some would have Datura use occur with a season or at individual choice year round. Other groups might limit its use to once in a lifetime, unless by a spiritual leader. Datura was thought to have many supernatural uses, including the ability to speak with the dead. In some cultures Datura is thought to grow over portals to the realm of the ancestors. In general, atropine, hyoscyamine, and scopolamine have all been associated with communication from dead ancestors.
Datura taken as a medical cure, which it was also often employed, was not thought to cause supernatural powers. When used to treat an illness, or as an aphrodisiac, only small doses would be given. Datura taken with the specific intent to communicate with the spirit was the only way to get magical access. Datura was known to grant great courage and strength, but also protection from danger. For these reasons Datura also had uses in hunting ceremonies to ensure success. Maybe the greatest gift granted was the ability to see beyond the surface of things, and see them as they really are.
V. Divine Beings.
A Zuni legend says that long ago, a brother and sister who lived in the underworld found their way up to the light. The brother and sister would take long walks on the earth, wearing Datura flowers in their hair. They learned many things during their walks, and had many adventures. One day they met the Divine Ones, the twin sons of the Sun father. They talked too much about their adventures, about how they had learned to make people see ghosts, and make them sleep, and how they could even make others find lost or stolen objects, or find the thief. The Divine ones decided that these children knew far too much, and something had to be done with them. They caused the brother and sister to disappear from the earth forever; but where they sank back into the underworld sprang up the beautiful white flowers they had worn on their heads. The gods called the flowers by the name of the boy, A’neglakya, and the flowers had many children to be found throughout the land.
Among the many plants in the Aztec garden that Hernando Cortes encountered was Datura, known for the ability to relieve pain and cause sleep. One of the Aztec names for Datura was Toloatzin, meaning inclined head. Datura flowers are depicted in various Aztec art works and codices, sometimes shown in a ceremonial bowl to be consumed. This sacred plant (and several others) was a important element in ceremonies and communication with the gods. An Aztec magic formulary from the colonial period invokes the plant spirit of Datura with the following prayer: “I call to you, my mother, she who is of the beautiful water! Who is the god, or who has the power to break and consume my magic? Come here, sister of the green woman Ololiuqui, of she by means of which I go and leave the green pain, the brown pain, so that it hides itself. Go and destroy with your hands the entrails of the possessed, so that you test his power and he falls in shame.” -(Jacinto de la Serna Documentos Ineditos para la Historia de Espawe).
In the Peruvian Andes priests at the Temple of the Sun believe that Datura allows them to communicate with the spirits of their ancestors, allowing them to gain wisdom from beyond the grave. This is why they know the thorn-apple as Huacacachu, the grave plant. Sacred Datura may even have been known to the ancient Egyptians, as it is depicted in the stele art "Lady Tuth-Shena". Streaming from the sun disc on Horus's head are five rows of what appear to Datura flowers, which have a distinct trumpet shape, and also five points. These flowers are being received by Tuth-Shena, in this epic depiction of how the gods speak through plants.
IV. Poison or Medicine?
The alkaloid hyoscine in Datura has also been identified as a remedy for organophosphate, nerve gas, and puffer fish exposure. This is another reason why Datura has been used by some darker Voodoo practitioners in Haiti as a ‘Zombie’ poison, when combined with puffer fish toxin. The puffer fish toxin gives the appearance and full effect that a person has died (Being that it is capable of doing just that). A small amount combined with the antidote, Datura, would make it appear as though a person has died, and then returned in a ‘Zombie’ dream-like stupor. Along with the power of suggestion, this is one of the more sinister uses of Datura, and not one which I favor.
The effects of Datura toxicity have been described as: "Blind as a bat, mad as a hatter, red as a beet, hot as a hare, dry as a bone, the bowel and bladder lose their tone, and the heart runs alone." Once a person reaches this stage he or she would also be completely delirious and unable to distinguish reality from a waking dream. This is an extremely dangerous state, where hyperthermia (extreme over heating), heart attack, or other serious health complications could occur. However, most deaths happen as a result of the delirious person stumbling unwittingly into danger (oncoming traffic, drowning, etc).
There are many historical medicinal uses for Datura. While I do not recommend it be used internally today, its capacity for healing should not be over looked. Medicinal doses would all have been minimal to avoid side effects and danger. Formally all parts of the plant were considered anodyne, antispasmodic, hallucinogenic, hypnotic and narcotic. It has been used as a pain killer and also in the treatment of insanity, child birth, fevers with catarrh, diarrhea and skin diseases. Scopolamine is a powerful anticholinergic medicine. Scopolamine has many effects in the body including decreasing the secretion of fluids, slowing the stomach and intestines, and dilation of the pupils. Scopolamine is used in modern medicine to relieve nausea, vomiting, and dizziness associated with motion sickness. Scopolamine may also be used in the treatment of parkinsonism, spastic muscle states, irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis, and other conditions.
Externally, it is used as a poultice or wash in the treatment of fistulas, hemorrhoids, abscesses, wounds and severe pain. The leaves have been successfully smoked as an anti-spasmodic in the treatment for asthma. The seeds are used in Tibetan medicine as analgesic, anti-helmintic and anti-inflammatory. The leaves and branches are effective against many common bacteria and fungi. They are used in the treatment of stomach and intestinal pain due to worm infestation, toothache and fever from inflammations. The juice of the fruit is applied to the scalp to treat dandruff. No topical or bathing applications should be used for any extended period to due to over-dose risks from skin absorption.
In ancient times Belladonna and Datura (due to the Atropine and Scopolamine content) were employed as an antidote for Amantia Muscaria poisoning, as the effects are opposing. New research indicates that in some cases, depending on the type of Amantia, or if another mushroom is eaten by mistake, the effects can actually be potentiated and therefore significantly more dangerous. So while Datura can be a possible antidote for some types of poisoning, medical advice is needed before it can be used safely and confidently.
The plant contains several tropane alkaloids, the most active of which is scopolamine. This is a potent cholinergic-blocking deliriant, which has been used to calm schizoid patients in the past. One Datura specimen showed the following scopolamine content: leaves contain 0.52% scopolamine, the calices 1.08%, the stems 0.3%, the roots 0.39%, the fruits 0.77%, the capsules 0.33%, the seeds 0.44% and the whole plant 0.52 – 0.62%. The alkaloid content varies greatly from plant to plant, and has an important impact on the effects experienced, and the danger of toxic over dose.
IIV. She of Many Names.
Known by many names, Angel’s Trumpet, Moonflower, Downy Thorn-Apple, Thorny Apple of Peru, and more than I could possibly list, but here is a sample (especially as most groups had unique names for each datura species). The Zuni call her A'neglakya and u'teaw ko'hanna ("white flower"), the Mazatec A-neg-la-kia, the Dine (Navajo people) called her chamico, chanikah, ch'oxojilghef ("crazy making"). The Tarahumara call her Dekuba, telez-ku, and tikuwari. The Hopi call her Tsimonmana (in connection with her pollinator, the Hawk moth).
The Seri say it is devil's weed, hehe camostim ("plant that creates grimaces"), hehe carocot (“plant that makes crazy“). The Spanish called her hierba del diablo, Indian apple, Jamestown weed, Jimson weed, toloache. The Pima called her katundami, and the Huichol called her kieli, Kiéri, nacazcul.
The Zapotec said she was nocuana-pato. The Mayan called her nohochxtohk'uh ("large plant in the direction of the gods"). To the Tewa she is rauchaofel, rikuri, sape enwoe be. To the Garigia she is rhe solanum manicum, stechapfel, tepate, tecuyaui. The Aztecs knew her as toloatzin, tolochi, tolohuaxihuitl (“inclined head“), toluache. The Hindus called her Dhatura, Ummatta, and the Sanskrit D'hastura.
PIMA O’ODAM POEM
Sacred Datura leaves, sacred Datura leaves,
eating your greens intoxicates me,
making me stagger, dizzily leap.
Datura blossoms, Datura blossoms,
drinking your nectar intoxicates me,
making me stagger, dizzily leap.