The Sacred Datura (Datura spp.)

Sources: Epple, Anne, 1995, A Field Guide to the Plants of Arizona, Falcon Press, pl. 208, p. 219; Russell, Sharman, 2004, "Sex and the Garden", onearth 25:4:26-29; Paul T. Kay, 2005, "Datura", Poster Presentation at the 70th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Salt Lake City, Utah (see link below); various Wikipedia essays.

Datura species (e.g. D. wrightii, known as Sacred Datura, or metaloides, also called "jimsonweed" or "devil's weed"), a perennial herb, is found in all the major deserts of the American Southwest. It grows mostly in sandy washes and along substantial roadsides in our area. Its dark grayish-green, heart-shaped leaves form mounds from which, in summer to fall, sprout striking, 6-inch-long, bright-white flowers tinged with lavender which ripen to become sharp-prickly seed-pods.A plant of great beauty, datura is a member of the Nightshade family (Solanaceae), and all parts of it are toxic. Every resident of or visitor to our desert should be wary of the Russian-roulette-like danger of consuming any of it. (See further discussion below.)

Each large, trumpet-shaped, fused-5-petalled, luminous blossom of the Datura plant blooms for only one summer night, and must therefore work fast to attract its pollinators. The flower opens early -- at twilight -- and releases a strong lemon-like scent. Sphinx Moths (or Hawk Moths), of which there are some 43 species in our area, are its major nocturnal pollinators, but various other insects also arrive the following morning to enjoy the pollen at the heart of the flower, one of which may be seen working away at the bottom of the banner photo at the top of the page, and see below in this flower of September 2008: (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

The Hawk Moth Manduca sexta consumes the flower's nectar, then lays its eggs on the plant. The larvae then consume the leaves down to their nubs, but the Datura plant also has large, tuberous roots which store nutrients against these assaults.

Below: a clear view of Datura leaves, April 2005:

Below left, view in September 2002 of incipient seed-pods after the flowers have closed; below right, one of the still-green, prickly seed clusters, August 2008: (Click on each image to enlarge it.)


When it dries, this seedpod eventually breaks open, releasing the seeds to fall on the ground.

(For more images of the plant, Click here)

Uses: This is A Very Dangerous Plant!

Most parts of the Datura plant contain atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine, alkaloid poisons having "anticholinergic" effects, i.e. they cross the blood-brain barrier and inhibit acetylcholine (the main neurotransmitter used by the parasympathetic nervous system). These three drugs relax muscles and glands regulated by this sytem, and thus find uses in anaesthesia and as antispasmodics. For example, scopolamine has been used in minute doses as sleeping medicine, but if overdosed can produce "delirium, delusions, paralysis, stupor and death". Symptoms likely to be produced by these drugs include urinary retention, dry mouth, throat, and skin, blurred vision, headache and nausea, dizziness, flushing, fever, euphoria, hallucinations, and short-term memory loss. Little wonder, then, that intoxication with Datura (which contains all three of these chemicals) typically produces "effects similar to that of an anticholinergic delirium": "complete inability to differentiate reality from fantasy (frank delirium, as contrasted to hallucination); hyperthermia; tachycardia [rapid heart beats]; agitation, including bizarre, inexplicable, and possibly violent behavior; and severe mydriasis (hyper-dilation of the eye pupil, due to inibition of acetylcholine function), with resultant painful photophobia that can last several days. Pronounced amnesia is another commonly-reported effect." (These materials are drawn from several Wikipedia essays.) According to the drug information site Erowid (see that link), no other substance has received as many "Train Wreck" severely-negative experience reports as has Datura, the writers noting that "the overwhelming majority of those who describe to us their use of Datura (and to a lesser extent, Belladonna, Brugmansia and Brunfelsia) find their experiences extremely mentally and physically unpleasant and not infrequently physically dangerous."

Archaeological Connections in the North American Southwest

Despite (and perhaps even in part by virtue of) these obvious dangers, many Native American groups (including the O'Odham of our area) during pre-Colonial times sometimes used sacred datura as a hallucinogen (and perhaps for other purposes as well), steeping the leaves into a tea or chewing seeds or roots, but they were well aware of how dangerous this particular vehicle of vision quest was, and their myths typically associate it with death.

For example, the independent-researcher-anthropologist Paul T. Kay has for years considered the iconogaphy of pre-Columbian Pueblo ("Anasazi") people of the American Southwest, and has made a brilliant identification of what he calls a "Datura Polemic" in certain patterns of their ceramic and mural art, based initially on his and others' work at Pottery Mound, New Mexico but then expanding into wider regional comparisons. Kay sees in certain kinds of Anasazi art a culture of shamanism associated with the ingestion of parts of this plant, and with imageries of death. Below, what he calls "Datura Man", an image of a human being with the body of a Datura pod, painted on a ceramic bowl. Note the red imagery associated with the head, which might allude to some of the distinctive symptoms associated with Datura intoxication (hyperthermia/flushing, agitation, etc.]. Note also the open mouth with teeth visibly prominent, an icon of death in many cultures including those of the American Southwest. (Thanks to Mr. Kay for sending us the pottery images shown below.)

One of the most interesting things Kay has found is a widespread symbolism associating the Night Flying Hawkmoth (Manducca and related spp), both with the Datura plant (which this moth pollinates by night) and with other important symbolic complexes among Pueblo and other historic Native Americans. Images that other researchers have thought were "butterflies" or other insects (for example, on archaeological Kiva wall murals as well as on pottery and elsewhere) more typically depict these moths, he suggests, and a repeated icon others have identified as a Mexican-linked "Plumed Serpent" he sees as representations of the instar (a larval stage of development) of this Datura pollinator. For a single example of this moth symbolism, see this Pueblo IV ceramic below. First note the spiraling proboscis shown along the lip of the bowl, a noteworthy feature of the Hawkmoth (and much represented in Pueblo art, including depictions of it on otherwise quite humanoid figures):

Below is a much higher-resolution image of the Hawkmoth on this same pot: (click on the image to enlarge it)

Then compare the image above with the following photo in the University of Arizona's Bioscience website Moths of Southeastern Arizona, depicting the Hawkmoth Manduca rustica (and here note also the three yellow bars running along the abdomen). All of these patterns suggest, he argues, an ancient southwestern shamanism closely associated with extremes, including violence and death.

For much more on this subject of ancient deadly shamanism, see Paul's remarkable website, Paul T. Kay on Datura-related Art.