The Sacred ‘Visionary’ Plants – Angels or Devils?

Through summer, these are some of our most beautiful perennials and shrubs yet their common names may seem a contradiction – the devil’s weed, zombie cucumber, hell’s bells, herb of the sorcerer, thorn-apple and, the one we perhaps know best of all, angel’s trumpet. Quite a varied collection!

Firstly, let’s define the difference between brugmansias and daturas, both of which belong to the solanaceae family. Brugmansias grow into large shrubs and trees and have brown woody stems when mature. Their flowers hang down in that typical shape we know as angel’s trumpet. Daturas almost always have green stems, though there is an exotic looking black-stemmed variety too. Their flowers are carried horizontally or upwards facing and they develop spiny rounded seedcases, rather like chestnut husks, which explode dramatically to disperse seeds. Their flowers are often double and ruffled like swirls of cream or a dramatic lilac and purple combination. Datura meteloides, syn. inoxia, is single white, large and eye-catching. The daturas are sometimes called devil’s trumpet.

All parts of brugmansias and daturas are extremely toxic and this is how their rather macabre names have developed. The chemicals they possess are hallucinogenic; in rich soils they may have little potency, but in poor soils, as with most herbs, the chemicals are very concentrated. So, whilst one plant may only give you a ‘high’, another may kill.

They span all warm and tropical regions of the world - their exact origin is unknown but their greatest numbers occur in Mexico, Central and South America. The Aztecs, with their immense and intricate knowledge of plants, used datura inoxia as a painkiller. Some members of the plant family were considered so special that only their priests could use them to “converse” with their Gods. Likewise their shamans, or doctors, used the plant for ‘astral travel’, initiation rites and healing ceremonies. To this day, crushed seeds are added in small quantities to a local corn beer throughout South America.

Zombification which is still practised, especially in Haiti, is said to be reached by administering a potent extract of puffer fish and datura. The victim, stupefied and unable to respond to any sort of stimulus, is declared dead and buried, but with an air tube. A few days later, the coffin is retrieved and more datura is administered. The victim is thus ‘brought back to life’ but retained in a hypnotic trance from that day onwards with regular doses of datura – a zombie.

No less sinister, the drug was often used in brothels as a potent aphrodisiac to induce depraved acts of sexuality. And people have murdered and committed great acts of violence whilst under the influence of the plant. A few years back, datura tea became quite ‘modish’ until an unfortunate German student cut off his tongue and penis whilst in a heavily induced state – a sombre warning!

Yet, as with many potent plants, it has a gentler side when properly administered. Until 1968, in Northern Europe, datura cigarettes were prescribed to asthma sufferers as they had a relaxant effect on the respiratory muscles and reduced mucus passing through the lungs – an ideal and natural remedy, only withdrawn because of abuse.

Propagation is easy from cuttings of brugmansias and from seeds of daturas. Daturas tend to prefer more sun and to be kept on the dry side, whereas brugmansias, with their bigger leaves, like lots of water and fertiliser. Brugmansias, in particular, are best pruned hard at the end of each year to promote compact shrubby growth with lots of flowers.

The night time scent, especially, is bewitching – young Greeks, in ancient times, were often discovered lying under brugmansia plants inhaling the very intoxicating perfume – so do take care where you plant and never too close to a bedroom window!

NB: Remember that ALL parts of the plant are extremely toxic and are not to be ‘experimented’ with. Any hallucinatory effect has been described as rather nasty rather than pleasurable and extremely unpredictable and dangerous.

Lorraine Cavanagh has lived in Spain for 22 years; a mother, grandmother and hispanista, her passions are plants, the environment, food and drink, and travelling within Spain. She owns a small plant nursery, Viveros Florena, near Cómpeta, is a landscape gardener and a writer. She also has a weekly spot on OCI radio. Her book Lorraine Cavanagh’s Mediterranean Garden Plants has been nicknamed ‘the bible’ and it is generally available throughout Spain, flexi-cover €24 and hardback €31.

See also “There are No Flies ….. only Foreigners!” a social history of Andalucia and light hearted look at life in Spain.
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