Cyprus Mail

Plant of the week: Poisonous plant long associated with prophesy

Name: Thorn Apple (Datura Stramonium)

Otherwise known as: Jimson Weed; Loco Weed

Habitat: The plant is an annual sometime perennial member of the Solanaceae family, growing to about 2m in waste ground. A native of the Americas, it can now be found throughout Europe and Asia. It is found in open spaces in Cyprus and can be identified by its brilliant, white trumpet flowers that form the round, spiky, green seed pod which contains hundreds of brown, kidney-shaped seeds. The fleshy leaves are grey-green and give off an unpleasant odour.

What does it do: Datura has been long associated with prophesy; it is thought that the Delphic Oracle consumed datura seeds before prophesying, and it was responsible for the ‘speaking in tongues’ phenomena. The Inca priests administered it to sacrificial victims as well as using it as an aid to prophesy.

Third century BC physician Theophrastus wrote ‘If five seeds are given to a patient he becomes excited and thinks himself a fine fellow. Ten seeds leads to delusion; thirty, to permanent insanity, and forty, to death.’

Datura contains tropane alkaloids such as hyoscine, hyoscyamine and atropine. Those who have undergone surgery will have been given hyoscine in pre-med – it sedates the central nervous system and induces what is known as twilight sleep. Scopalomine, a derivative of hyoscine, claimed to be a favourite of the Gestapo, was known as the ‘truth drug’ and administered to obtain confessions.

The plant featured in witchcraft ceremonies, it was mixed with pig fat and rubbed into the groin and armpits and was thought to enable witches to fly. This was undoubtably due to its powerful hallucinatory properties.

In Cyprus and the Mediterranean, the leaf was dried and rolled into cylindrical form and given to asthma sufferers to smoke.

Herbalists still use low-dose remedies to treat asthma, whooping cough, gastro-intestinal, bronchial and urinary problems.

In Asia the plant has a long history in the treatment of mental conditions, which is slightly surprising when one knows what heavy doses can lead to. The Chinese have used it in traditional medicine to treat rabies. Chewing the flowers will relieve toothache.

Recently datura has come to prominence by giving relief to Parkinson’s sufferers, it is said to decrease the tremors and restore some level of speech.

Datura is a highly poisonous plant and should only be taken under strict medical supervision, the contra-indications are numerous.

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