Psychedelic plants used as powerful medicine.
Spooky tales of witches and specters abound during this month of October, especially in New England, which is ripe with ancient graveyards and haunted houses. Tales of witches and unearthly happenings can often be traced to psychedelic plants, or entheogens, that grow all around us.
You may have walked past a morning glory vine wrapped around a mailbox or admired a thorn apple seed pod growing amongst the weeds. These plants have been used throughout history by many different cultures to connect with the divine. In many cultures around the globe they are treated as sacred plants with powerful medicinal properties.
Today our knowledge of plant phytochemicals and their effects on the body allow us to scientifically explain what used to be perceived as an encounter with the divine. However, even with our increased knowledge, these plants still exude a beauty and a power that is indeed magical.
Here are a few of the hexing herbs I have worked with that grow around us in Connecticut. Read on and then be on the lookout for them when you are outside! When you see them, contemplate their presence there and how they can bring a bit more of the divine into your daily life.
Crazy Thorn Apple
I was walking from the University if Bridgeport, where I went to Naturopathic medical school, through Seaside Park, and out to the Fayerweather Island Lighthouse. Once I crossed over the stone pier that leads to the lighthouse, in front of me I saw a colony of Datura stramonium plants. The plants resembled a community of alien life forms growing in extreme conditions of dry sandy soil and relentless wind.
Datura gets its nickname “Crazy Thorn Apple” from its spiky large seed pods that form after the upright trumpet flowers fade. And it is called ‘crazy’ because the plant can cause hallucinations, jerking chorea movements and violent outbursts.
A beautiful Zuni Indian legend tells how Datura came to grow on Earth after the Divine Ones banished a brother and sister from this world. In Mexico the plant is widely used as medicine, as a sacred hallucinogen, and in magico-religious rites. Datura also grows in the Himalayan mountains and is a sacred plant in Nepal and India. A Chinese Taoist legend says Datura is one of the circumpolar stars and that envoys to earth from this star carry a flower of the plant in their hand. Hmmm… maybe this is why the plants resemble an alien life form! There are also references to its sacred use in Africa and in eastern America with the Algonquin tribes, and there are medicinal writings about Datura stemming as far back to Greek physician Dioscorides and Arabian doctor Avicenna.
The phytoconstituents of Datura are the alkaloids hyoscyamine and scopolamine. Scopalamine is used as an analgesic and to deter motion sickness. Hyoscyamine can be used for post-operative nausea and vomiting.
Modern day naturopathic medicine uses the whole Datura plant as a potentized remedy for a homeopathic cure. What this means is the plant is extracted into alcohol and then diluted and succussed for multiple cycles. It can be used to treat patients suffering from PTSD characterized by visual halluciations, stammering, rage, mania and intense fears.
Trumpets of the Angels
Closely related to Datura is Brugmansia, also known as Trumpets of the Angels. They have a similar leaf shape with wavy edges and trumpet shaped flowers. One way to differentiate between them is Brugmansia trumpets grow facing downwards and Datura trumpets grow upwards.
Brugmansia is native to South America and is an annual plant in warm climates and high altitudes. Here in Connecticut it is an annual plant unless it is overwintered indoors. I often see it growing in large pots. It has beautiful, intoxicating trumpet flowers which can cause violent hallucinations. Just like Datura, it is from the solanaceous family and contains the tropane alkaloids scopolamine and hyoscyamine.
Traditionally, Brugmansia and Datura are used to induce hallucinations during which the subject would be guided or admonished by their ancestors. This experience was used for divination, to marked progression to adulthood, or to find the cure for a malady. All traditions note that the “sweet perfumed flowers” hold an evil spirit that emerges to possess the individual.
Today the seeds, crushed leaves and flowers are still used medicinally and taken as tea or smoked. It is still used to induce hallucinations and to relieve arthritic pains.
If you grow this plant and overwinter it indoors, be careful to ventilate the room as there have been stories of people becoming intoxicated by the fumes and hallucinating. These hallucinations will be coupled with violence, foaming at the mouth and a comatose like state so beware! Brugmansia’s beauty hides its threat as one of the most dangerous hexing herbs.
I used to have a neighbor who was a witch, and every summer she grew a big, beautiful moonflower, which is one variety of Morning Glory, in a large barrel. Nicknamed a “Vine of the Serpent”, did you know that Morning Glory seeds were used in pre-Hispanic Mexico to communicate with evil deities? Morning Glory gets its nickname from its long thick stems that reach out and twine about itself and around anything in its path to grow bigger and bigger. Check out my monstrous Morning Glory plant that grew like crazy this year! (It is the HUGE vine to the right just behind the little gardener).
Traditional medicine uses the plant to relive flatulence, cure syphilis, and remove chills. And like all psychedelic plants, it was also used as a hallucinatory agent for magic and medicine.
The seeds were ground up and eaten or drank by priests to induce a delirium and talk with their gods. The seeds induce a delirium which produces “a thousand visions and satanic hallucinations”. Early writings about the use of the plant refer to doctor’s advising patients to drink the plant in a secluded room during which time the patient would receive a divination revealing what he needed to know to heal. The intoxication is characterized by lassitude, euphoria, drowsiness and then a narcotic walking sleep which lasts around 3 hours.
Morning Glory’s phytochemicals are lysergic acid alkaloids, which are also found in Ergot (Claviceps purpurea), which is blamed for the mania that caused women to be deemed witches in Salem, Massachusetts. Lysergic acid has a similar molecular structure to the active principles in Psilocybe and the semi-synthetic LSD, although morning glory is about 100 times less potent than LSD.
These psychedelic plants hold a sacred spot in medicine’s history. They may grow as weeds or ornamental plants around us today, but their powerful energy still resides within them. Next time you see a Morning Glory wrapping around a fence vine or smell a Datura flower, take a few minutes to really see the plant and ponder its ability to induce mania and toxic hallucinations. Perhaps the plant may impart a bit of its wisdom to you.
As a Naturopathic Doctor, I am well trained in botanical medicine, which is using plants as medicine. Naturopathic medicine combines the historical stories and anecdotes of a plant's behavior and energy together with modern scientific analysis. It is a powerful, effective and beautiful mode of treatment. I believe that when working with plants, you get the life force, or vitalism, of a health ally working with you and for you.
There is much more that could be written about these psychedelic plants. I recommend checking out the book Plants of the Gods, referenced below.
Source used: Schultes, R. and Hofmann, A., 1987. Plants Of The Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. New York: A. van der Marck Editions.