Dangerous leaves and urban myths
Hits 12597 | Created 2007-05-17 | Modified 2007-05-17The Thornapple is a wonderfully woody and robust plant. It has long, bark covered branches and palm-sized hairy green leaves. Its flower is a huge, impressive white trumpet that seems to involve a great deal of effort on the plant's part to grow. It is, in short, a beautiful plant. We grew it in our home along with various other odd plants but it had a special place in our hearts. If I tell you that its Latin name is datura stramonium then some of you may understand why. Commonly known as Datura, the plant can produce some of the most psychoactive effects known to man. Some of the other names the plant goes by are: Mad apple, apple of Peru, devil's apple, devil's trumpet, devil's weed, stink weed, jimson weed, jamestown-weed, malpitte, moonflower and witch's thimble.
The generic name, Datura, is from the Hindi word dhatura, which is derived from Sanskrit.
Now, you know that when a plant has so many names, it must be interesting.
Now, I must confess that when we first got our Datura plants we didn't know much about them at all. I had heard the name from reading various books about psychotropic substances some time back, but I didn't recall much information. We inherited the plant in a glass jar as a rooted cutting when we moved into a new house, nurtured it, grew it and created several more plants from subsequent cuttings. These we gave to friends who thought it would be cool to own a Datura plant.
I called the plant a Thornapple at the beginning of this article, and this is the name that the plant commonly has in England, where it was introduced by an enthusiastic botanist early in the sixteenth century. Before long it was being grown as an ornamental plant in various private gardens, all around the country. The plant managed to make an escape and in these modern times makes a living growing on old refuse sites around the country, though mainly in the warmer south.
I mentioned to my housemate that I had read somewhere that the plant had psychotropic properties and he suggested drying and smoking the leaves to see if we could get a gentle high. I agreed, as, in those days, I was a rash young man.
Later, I would discover the terrible truth about Datura; for example, that the native indians who used the plant for shamanistic purposes say that ingestion of the flowers causes madness. (This is the first of the Datura urban myths of course). At the time though, due to the magical ease with which the plant would root and grow, we were tending to our potentially madness inducing plants with loving, respectful care, cutting selected leaves and drying them in a warm cupboard.
Rolled in a cigarette paper and smoked, the flavour of the leaves was pleasant and it made your eyes tingle and vision slightly fuzzy - this was a very desirable quality in our minds.
We smoked the weed daily for a week or two before we noticed the first side effects.
Words would begin to vanish from our minds and we would find ourselves searching for them like frustrated old people. We began to stutter in the middle of sentences - 'the urm, um, the, um, oh what's the word?' We forget what we were supposed to be doing with our days (though this admittedly was not entirely new to us).
After a few weeks, I did, however, remember to visit the to the local library to consult some bio-chemical reference books. The results of my research were fairly shocking: The chemicals contained in the leaves of Datura, they dryly told me, can cause retrogressive brain cell destruction.
I read on. The main chemicals found in the plant were atropine, scopolamine, hyoscine, hyoscyamine and tropicamide. In all, it was very similar in effects to belladonna, or Deadly Nightshade. This accounted for the strange ocular sensations, as some of the chemicals in these plants were used to dilate the pupils of the eye.
The list of chemical effects made impressive reading: Veins are enlarged and blood flow increases (as does the heart rate), causing dizziness. The mucous membranes dry up - mouth, eyes, anus and vagina, becoming rather dry. Also, uncomfortable body heat, confusion, memory loss, performing senseless and repetitive activities (like polar bears at the zoo), dimness of sight, dilation of the pupil, giddiness, delirium, constipation, mania, agitation, drowsiness, sensitivity to light, uncontrolled talking and laughing, hallucinations, illusions, extreme violence and destructive urges.
I photocopied the pages and returned home to halt the Datura smoking craze.
The brain disintegration story and side-effect list scared a large amount of respect into us for Datura. We began to tell people the story of the lost words, and began to collect Datura stories told to us in return.
One particular story was told to us just days after we had chopped up the roots of one plant and simmered them and some leaves in water for an hour before straining them and making tea. We sat around and waited for any effect, but, after a few hours went to bed, disappointed. When we mentioned this to a friend, he told us this:
A guy drank some root juice drink at his friend's house and waited anxiously for his mind to turn, chatting to his friends. After three hours had passed with no effects he decided to go home and said his goodbyes. In a street near his home he saw a man on top of a car, going crazy, smashing the car up with his fists and feet, shouting. A little scared, our friend walked to the next street and took the long way home. When he arrived he simply went to bed.
And the urban myth punchline? Yes, the next morning he woke to find his own hands bruised, battered and covered in blood.
A lucky escape for us, I think.