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Sacred Datura

Updated: Jan 29, 2023

In the canyons of Comb Ridge, this plant was flowering in abundance, reminding me of shared campfire stories from years past relating adventures in toxicology.

Sacred Datura (aka Jimson weed) at the base of a canyon wall in Comb Ridge, Bears Ears National Monument. Photo: © Donald J. Rommes

A couple of decades ago, I was camping in the remote Escalante backcountry with a friend who was very experienced in the outdoors. He was, in fact, an instructor at an outdoor survival school

After a couple sips from my flask of whiskey, he told me that when out camping alone in the high desert one summer, he decided to try a variation of a Native American ritual he had heard of. He made an infusion from the seeds and roots of the sacred datura plant and drank it.

He remembers having difficulty focusing and seeing unusual things but could't remember details. His next memory was of becoming aware of himself on a riverbank. He was naked and his skin was scratched in numerous places, but he couldn't recall how he got there or what had happened. He thought it was a cool experience. I was horrified (what if he had rolled into the river in that condition and drowned?)

Of course, I had no way of telling if the story was true, or if he added another potent biological to his infusion, but his experience was enough to make me eternally wary of that plant and to learn more about it Here's what I learned.

Sacred datura (Datura wrightii) is a poisonous, flowering, plant species of the family Solanaceae, which makes it a relative of the tomato, potato, and eggplant. Other common names for sacred datura include: Jimson weed, thorn apple, and moon flower. It is native to the Southwestern United States where the plant was sometimes used as a hallucinogen due to its psychoactive anticholinergic alkaloids - primarily scopolamine.

During summer, sacred datura produces dozens of large, fragrant, white, trumpet-shaped flowers. that open in the early evening, and usually close by noon of the following day. Sacred datura flowers are pollinated by sphinx or hawk moths—which are nocturnal..

All parts of the plant are poisonous and all plant parts (except the flowers) have a very repellent smell and are extremely bitter. This makes deliberate ingestion very unlikely, even by small children. Deliberate consumption is most often by adolescents (or outdoor survival instructors) looking for a mind-altering experience which, sadly, can occasionally cause permanent organ image or death.

The poisonous effects of Datura are related to the anticholinergic actions of atropine and hyoscyamine, as well as scopolamine. Symptoms of toxicity usually occur within 30 to 60 minutes after ingestion and include agitation, hallucinations, dry mucous membranes, thirst, dilated pupils, blurred vision, and difficulty speaking and swallowing. Subsequent effects may include tachycardia, urinary retention, and ileus. Rarely, late symptoms may include fever, respiratory arrest, and seizures. The mnemonic for anticholinergic symptoms—“blind as a bat, dry as a bone, red as a beet, mad as a hatter, and hot as a hare”—applies well to sacred datura poisoning.

Jimson Weed, 1936, by Georgia O'Keeffe.

Of course, a plant with hallucinogenic properties was well known to the Native Americans who incorporated it into their rituals and Rites of Passage. They also used it to alter consciousness while performing painful procedures—like setting bones.

The plant also found its way into art—especially into the allegorical botanical subjects in the paintings go Georgia O'Keeffe.


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