collage of sacred datura and brugmansia flowers

This Flower Was Once Called the Scariest in the World—But Why? An Exploration of Sacred Datura.

Meet the plant that produces one of the most powerful and controversial botanical compounds.

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DoubleBlind Mag

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Published on
Updated April 13, 2024

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Ethnobotanist Glenn Shepard, PhD, was doing research in Peru when he began having intestinal problems and got a fever. Then the dreams started. They were anxious and vivid. He tossed and turned and tossed and turned. He told DoubleBlind that a local shaman he’d met there analyzed his dreams and recommended a strong treatment: a hallucinogenic plant called brugmansia. Instead of escaping his visions, Shepard went directly into them.  

“They’re very careful; it’s very powerful,” he says, of datura and brugmansia. It can put you in an altered state for days. He remembers walking around in a dream state under the shaman’s supervision, having visions he barely remembers; the plant has amnesiac effects. At one point, he hallucinated a man and woman who taught him all about the creation of the universe and humanity’s relationship with God. But the moment he asked them if they were real, they disintegrated. Strangely, five years later, he met two people who looked just like them in real life; they were the parents of his spiritual teacher. 

READ: How the Shipibo Came to Be the Most Common Group Serving Ayahuasca to Foreigners

Dr. James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center, would go as far as to say that he would not recommend these substances to anyone under any circumstances.

After using brugmansia, Shepard says his illness went away. Shepard attributes his relief to brugmansia’s atropine and scopolamine alkaloids, which slow down intestinal movements. Scopolamine is used as a prescription medication for nausea and motion sickness. But, it also has a dark reputation—people with malicious intent sometimes use the drug to facilitate serious harm and crime, including robbery and assault.

In Peru and other parts of South America, brugmansia is used for many medical, psychological, and spiritual purposes, including reducing childbirth pain and healing broken bones. Its relative, the datura plant, is more common in the United States and plays a major role in Indigenous traditions such as coming-of-age rituals. Despite cultural use, these plants are not to be trifled with. The plants are difficult to dose, and consuming them can be fatal. The plants themselves are also sometimes used in crime, making their effects important to be aware of if you encounter them in ceremony. Medical practitioners do not recommend their use. They can cause contact poisoning upon touch. So, handling them requires great care and protective clothing.

Content warning: The section below mentions sexual violence.

Risks of Datura Flower and Brugmansia Plants

In terms of psychoactive substances, datura and brugmansia are just about as dangerous as it gets. Shepard knew somebody who experienced psychosis for weeks after drinking datura stramonium (Jimsonweed), and he has known of people being under the influence of brugmansia for up to 56 days. If you’re going to ingest one of these substances, you need an experienced guide to look after you so that you don’t hurt yourself, says Shepard. 

Brugmansia flowers
Brugmansia flowers | via Flickr

Even Indigenous communities that make use of brugmansia typically only recommend using it three or four times in a lifetime, according to Shepard. “They say it’s very dangerous,” says Shepard. “They don’t say it’s addictive, but people who take it too much get into trouble because it’s a mischievous spirit. It can take people over.” Because brugmansia contains “very toxic” substances like scopolamine and atropine, it puts you at risk for “life-threatening reactions and unpredictable effects like delirium, hallucinations, severe physical discomfort, and the risk of overdose, leading to coma or death,” says Anton Gomez-Escolar, psychopharmacologist and psychedelics expert at Drogopedia.   

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James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center, would go as far as to say that he would not recommend these substances to anyone under any circumstances—especially datura, as it’s very difficult to dose. “The majority of where you get it from is the seeds, and they’re difficult to get the extract out of,” he says. “They suck on the seeds, or they mix up and chew the seeds, so dosing is difficult. … I would uniformly advocate against its use.” Sometimes people smoke the plant, yet dosing is unreliable. Gomez-Escolar recommends avoiding datura and brugmansia entirely, but those who do partake should have a sober person watching them at all times and seek medical attention immediately if they notice any signs of overdose, such as “confusion, difficulty breathing, fast heart rate, and convulsions,” he says. “Always start with very low doses, avoid mixing with other substances, and ensure that you know how to quickly access emergency medical services in your area.”

Safety Note

Scopolamine compounds can make you abnormally susceptible to coercion, making it very difficult to escape situations of harm. People may also experience memory loss. They are active through the skin as well as orally. It’s also important to know that being treated with datura or brugmansia poultices during medicine ceremonies may also place you in a highly vulnerable state. As such, if you’ve chosen to work with datura, it’s vital to work with trusted and reputable practitioners and have plans for a sober safety buddy to check in regularly. Scopolamine can also look like a white powder, similar to cocaine. Easy access to emergency services can be life-saving.

One of the plant’s primary compounds, scopolamine, is used as a prescription medicine to prevent nausea and vomiting in surgery. It’s also found in prescription motion sickness patches. But high doses are a different story—it’s sometimes called “devil’s breath,” and it’s earned a malicious reputation because scopolamine also produces amnesiac effects. It can inspire a state of mental confusion that may leave people vulnerable to suggestion and coercion. In June of 2023, the US Embassy in Colombia issued a warning about robberies enabled by scopolamine, locally called “burundanga.” There have also been reports of people using brugmansia to commit rape by incapacitating victims. 

If using brugmansia by choice, it’s vital to do so in a safe, trusted, reputable, and supportive environment. It’s also vital to do so with full awareness of the potential health and safety risks: Taking too much can be fatal. If using datura or brugmansia was not your choice or you were misled about what you actually consumed, know that it is not your fault. There are places to go for help.

Shine Collective offers support for survivors of psychedelic harm. Although, it’s worth mentioning that datura and brugmansia are technically not psychedelics, but deliriants. The Fireside Project Psychedelic Support Line is available during and after psychedelic experiences, with peer volunteers who can talk to you about challenging trips. In the United States, RAINN is the national sexual assault hotline (800.656.HOPE [4673]). Local abuse and sexual assault support groups can also be a lifeline, as can connecting with a trauma-informed therapist.

Datura and brugmansia can also cause “a significant decrease in respiratory rate” and “change the vascular and cardiac activity—and, in some cases, doses can be fatal,” says Giordano. In the novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson wrote of a character who temporarily went blind after ingesting Jimsonweed. This character is thought to be based on Thompson himself, and the experience he describes could actually happen in real life. “What people will find is that it so potently distorts their vision that they can end up becoming functionally blind, and that can last for days,” says Giordano.

In addition, using these plants can pose a risk to the local ecosystem. One botanist, who preferred we not share their name, says they have witnessed “tragic consequences of individuals experimenting with datura,” adding that “native flora play a significant role in the delicate balance of ecosystems, and their indiscriminate collection can have far-reaching consequences.”

Sacred Datura and Brugmansia Plants: A Botanical Overview

Kew identifies 14 datura species around the world. The most common is being Datura inoxia, which grows in the southwestern US, Mexico, Central America, Colombia, as well as the islands off the Gulf of Mexico. Other species include the North American Datura stramonium (known as Jimsonweed) and Datura wrightii (known as sacred datura). Datura metel flowers were introduced in India, where they’re sometimes offered to the god Shiva due to a Hindu belief that they sprouted from his chest. Datura plants have flowers that are shaped like the end of a trumpet and range in color from white to pink or purple.

Brugmansia is a separate genus of plant species, according to Shepard. Brugmansia plants grow in South America, and because people cultivate it not from seeds but from cuttings of other brugmansia plants. He indicates that the “wild ones are dangerous” because their potency is more unpredictable. Brugmansia plants, like datura plants, have trumpet-like flowers, though the brugmansia flowers are longer and more varied in shape, color, and form.

sacred datura flowers
Wild datura wrightii | Adobe Stock

Datura and brugmansia can be ingested, smoked, made into drinks, or applied to the skin. Both contain the atropine alkaloid, which is sometimes used in hospitals as a pre-surgical relaxant and can also induce hallucinations, says Giordano. They are “deliriants,” as they create a sense of being awake in a dream.

“It’s like dreaming with your eyes wide open,” says Shepard. “Datura [and brugmansia put] you into a dream state, and you’re walking around with your eyes open, and what you’re seeing is in front of you. And you’re also seeing other things that aren’t there in the physical world, but they’re there in the spiritual world.”

The Atropa Belladonna Plant

READ: Exploring the Cultural and Healing Traditions of the Huni Kuin

Atropa belladonna
Atropa belladonna | via Flickr

Another plant called Atropa belladonna contains some of the same alkaloids as datura and brugmansia plants—namely, atropine, scopolamine, and hyoscyamine. In the Middle Ages, female shamans in Europe, sometimes considered witches, would put ointment made of Atropa belladonna on a stick to apply it to their vaginas, which may have spawned the trope of witches carrying broomsticks, says Shepard. Although, the word “shaman” is a term that relates specifically to Indigenous medicine practitioners in Siberia, although it’s now been appropriated and used to describe herbal medicine practitioners in popular culture. 

The name Atropa belladonna also stems from another use: Italian women would put drops of it in their eyes to make their pupils look big and alluring. Shepard speculates that this may be what’s behind the mysterious expression of the Mona Lisa.

Datura Trip Reports

Despite the dangers of datura, some people feel called toward it and choose to take the risk. Writer and somatic sex educator Britta Love had dreamed of working with datura for years before buying a Datura innoxia seedling and planting it in her Brooklyn garden.

Love experienced one bad trip when she took ketamine and then consumed datura. (Something which she has done previously, although it is not recommended.) “As I became intoxicated, I sensed that I would not have a good experience,” she remembers. “I started writing a heartfelt apology letter to datura, in colored marker in the shape of the spiral like her flower, explaining that my childlike enthusiasm had gotten the better of me. I feel I was very lucky, as after I did that, things calmed down. … I now have an embodied understanding that pursuing intoxication with datura without extreme care, intention, and respect can lead to some very unpleasant and dangerous experiences.”

Safety Note

Ketamine overdose can be directly fatal in high doses and indirectly fatal even in lower doses due to severe injury and potential drowning. It is not recommended to mix ketamine with other substances without medical supervision. It can be difficult to move your body after using this medicine, thus safety and surroundings should always be considered before use.  Always remain mindful and preference the lowest possible dose when engaging with ketamine outside of a provider’s care. It’s not recommended to use ketamine by yourself.

Ariane Labyrinth, a meditation and dance teacher in Los Angeles, found a datura plant in her courtyard one day and instantly felt called toward it. “The flash that I got was to put [the bud] in water on my altar and meditate with it,” she says. “It just melted into the water, and the water created a very viscous kind of fluid, and I knew I was supposed to just drink that. I didn’t drink much because it’s a very dangerous plant. I went very slowly because the threshold from where you hallucinate to where you die can be very short.” Labyrinth said she essentially microdosed with the plant.

sacred datura seed pod
Sacred datura seed pod | Adobe Stock

One night, she smoked weed with the datura, which led to auditory and visual hallucinations. “I heard some chimes,” she remembers. “I saw petals blowing in the wind that turned into rain that turned into an opening in energetic space-time that turned into a glimpse of a different reality that I lived for a moment before I pulled my consciousness back and was like, woah!” She hasn’t used it in a while because she noticed herself becoming forgetful after taking it regularly. “It will completely erase your mind of random information sometimes,” she says.

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“Toé is sacred. You can’t take it for no good reason. You need to know why you want to take it and for what reason.”

Brugmansia Experiences: Shamanic Healings and Talking Banana Trees

Ilven Metaki Tipe, a member of the Tayakome Native Community in Peru’s Manú National Park, went to a shaman years ago with her sister, who had epilepsy. Her sister was to take Brugmansia suaveolens, known as toé, to help with her illness, and Metaki Tipe took a small dose with her. She remembers feeling dizzy for a few hours during the process and then feeling clean and “good as new” afterward. She did not experience visions, but she knows people who have. Her sister’s illness did improve, and she now “lives happily,” although she also got medical treatment.

Alan Scheurman used to work with a healer in Peru who added toé to ayahuasca brews. “Those effects were incredibly strong,” he remembers. “The mouth gets very dry, and it’s difficult to speak until you fully leave for another dimension. I encountered a sort of time travel on several occasions, where I was convinced I was reliving past experiences. On other occasions, I had long conversations with old friends and acquaintances who had come to visit me in the Amazon — to discover later that I was, in fact, talking to a banana tree.”

brugmansia suaveolens flowers
Brugmansia suaveolens | via Wikimedia Commons

Scheurman also did a toé “dieta,” which means he remained in isolation for 15 days while drinking the plant. He describes this period as “a long journey through several hells, temptations, and shadow until I could see the light at the end of the tunnel again.” 

“Toé is not for everyone; it shouldn’t be messed with and jumped into,” he adds. “You have to be very responsible already in the eyes of your maestros before they give it to you—at least in the case of my teachers. I’ve seen people jump into it and lose their shit, running naked for days through the village, terrorizing people (and themselves). … If you just want an experience, specifically with toé, it will give you one, but you probably won’t like it.” 

Anyone looking to benefit from brugmansia should first develop an understanding of the spiritual traditions around it and ask whoever grew it for permission, says Metaki Tipe. “You can’t take it without asking, or it could be very dangerous,” she explains. “There are people who take it for experimentation and have some negative reactions. I believe that to value the plant and know it in depth is to know the customs and culture of a community. Toé is sacred. You can’t take it for no good reason. You need to know why you want to take it and for what reason.”

Were these datura trip reports helpful? Deepen your learning here.

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Clarification

After feedback, this article was updated on 2/21/24 further to clarify the risks of datura and brugmansia plants. Both plants are highly dangerous. Medical doctors and harm reduction experts warn against engaging with these plants. However, it’s important to be aware of the risks if you are around these plants. If you think you’re experiencing poisoning from these plants, please contact emergency services or call your local poison control. The US poison control hotline is 800-222-1222.

Disclaimer

This article is intended for educational purposes and should not be used in place of medical advice. DoubleBlind does not advocate participating in illicit activities. Always consult your local drug laws before engaging with any illicit substance. Violating the law can have serious personal and financial repercussions.

In the event of an emergency, please dial local emergency services. For mental health services related to substance abuse in the U.S., please dial the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline at +1 (800) 662-4357.

DoubleBlind Magazine does not encourage or condone any illegal activities, including but not limited to the use of illegal substances. We do not provide mental health, clinical, or medical services. We are not a substitute for medical, psychological, or psychiatric diagnosis, treatment, or advice. If you are in a crisis or if you or any other person may be in danger or experiencing a mental health emergency, immediately call 911 or your local emergency resources. If you are considering suicide, please call 988 to connect with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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