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Yerba del Diablo: The Enigmatic Datura

John McCloy

An extrememly detailed look at the history and useage of the slippery ally for shamanic purposes

The name Datura derives from the Sanskrit dhatura, or dutra, and daturas have been variously known throughout the ages as pricklyburr, thorn-apple, jimsonweed, and devil's weed. The most common Mexican name for the various daturas is toloache or some similar pronunciation, derived from the Nahuatl (Aztec) toloatzin meaning "to incline the head," a characteristic of the seed capsules of several Mexican varieties.


The daturas are members of the botanical family Solanaceae which also contains such common foods as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, peppers, and tobacco. Many solanaceous plants contain tropane alkaloids such as scopolamine (hyoscine), atropine, and others. Besides the daturas, the most infamous solanaceous plants are the so-called hexing herbs used in medieval witchcraft. These include Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladona), Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), and Henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), all of which were used both as poisons and in "flying ointments" which reportedly allowed witches to travel to the Sabbat and commune with the horned god. The daturas are herbaceous plants, some perennial and some annual, with fragrant trumpet shaped flowers and (usually) spiny seed pods. They grow most often in disturbed soil and waste areas such as abandoned fields, ditches, trash heaps, and roadsides throughout the Americas, Eurasia, and Africa. Datura's particular habitat presumes a close contact with humans from the start, and some have speculated that the plant's success is entirely dependent on dispersal by man. Though the exact taxonomy of Datura is poorly understood, there are at least fifteen different species (if not more), two originally from Eurasia (D. metel and D. ferox), and about a dozen from the New World. In the Americas, Daturas are most commonly found in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico (D. inoxia, D. wrightii (D. meteloides)) although some have a much wider distribution throughout most of North America (D. stramonium). Genetic studies of D. stramonium have revealed that Daturas have a chromosomal nature that is very susceptible to mutation. They can adapt almost anywhere, so they are prime candidates for morphological variation and advanced speciation.


The taxonomy of Datura has a rather confusing history as most botanists cannot agree on the characteristics of some species or even the exact number. Such is a problem in all taxonomic classification, though Datura seems to be unusually difficult because of its long history of cultivation and selection. There is still some debate as to the Old or New World origins of the genus ­ with some favoring an origin somewhere around India with D. metel, but most favoring a New World origin, since most of the species are present there. The only two Old World species, D. metel and D. ferox, have now been introduced into the New World and grow wild. D. stramonium and D. inoxia, the most common New World species, grow in nearly all of the United States and northern and central Mexico. The rest of the New World species have smaller distributions around the southwestern U.S. and northwest Mexico. The one aquatic species, D. ceratocaula, was known in Mexico as torna loca (maddening weed) and has been identified as the Aztec "sister of ololiuhqui" [NOTE: Safford incorrectly identified ololiuhqui as D. meteloides. It has now been generally accepted that ololiuhqui was the entheogenic morning glory, Turbina corymbosa]. Table 1 summarizes the now accepted taxonomy, as well as the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service number, references for the various names, and some additional data.

Brugmansia, Solandra, and Crazy Kieri

In addition to the aforementioned hexing herbs, there are two other genuses which are important to the examination of the daturas. Genus Brugmansia, the tree daturas of South America, were once considered to be part of the genus Datura. Now, however, most botanists postulate that the trees are all cultigens, deliberately planted and bred by man. There are many varieties and species names, though some acknowledge only four distinct species with the rest being varieties or hybrids since many Brugmansia trees cross-breed very easily. Brugmansia trees are used extensively in South American shamanism as intoxicants and medicines, and trees are individually "owned" or cared for by specific shamans. The trees are probably selectively bred for high tropane alkaloid content (notably higher than in Datura) similarly to the way modern florists hybridize Brugmansia for color and fragrance. These beautiful trees such as B. aurea (angel's trumpet) are often raised as ornamentals in the United States for their very large fragrant trumpet-shaped flowers. Genus Solandra, which also produces tropane alkaloids and flowers very similar to those of Datura, plays an interesting role in the mythology of the Huichol people of northern Mexico who are renowned for their peyote pilgrimages. The Huichol speak of a mythic battle between the hero Kauyumarie, who is represented by both deer and peyote, and Kieri-xra, the False or Crazy Kieri. The god Kieri has two aspects: the Good Kieri is represented by the Solandra species and the Crazy Kieri is represented by D. inoxia. Whereas the Crazy Kieri plant is said to be used only by evil sorcerers, the Good Kieri is highly revered through offerings and prayers, but rarely ingested. There are several possible explanations for this splitting of Kieri into two aspects. First of all, the range of D. inoxia lies outside the sacred geography of the Huichol and for this reason is perhaps mistrusted. Also, there is a similar dichotomy of "true" peyote (Lophophora williamsii) and "false" peyote (Ariocarpus retusus) described by the Huichol. Although the nearby Tarahumara recognize many effective hikuri or divine cacti, some are to be avoided because they cause insanity and some are used primarily by sorcerers for evil ends. On the other hand, the choice of Solandra over D. inoxia could be purely aesthetic. Solandra flowers are more brilliantly colored and are sometimes known to change color strikingly over several days, thus possibly indicating more inherent power to the plant than the plain white-flowered D. inoxia.

Historical Distribution

There is archaeological evidence in the form of botanical remains and petroglyphs that Datura has been in use in the American southwest since at least 4000 years ago ­ often being associated with other hallucinogenic plants including peyote, Texas mountain laurel (mescal beans; Sophora secundiflora), and Mexican buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa). The southwestern area of Texas around the Pecos River contains numerous pictographs dating from 2200 to 950 B.C. which depict many shaman figures, over half of which are holding Datura staffs. In addition, spiked ceramic vessels which are believed by some to represent Datura seed pods have been found in the Anasazi and Hohokam areas of the southwest as well as in Mesoamerica in El Salvador, Guatemala, and many parts of Mexico including Oaxaca, the Yucatan peninsula, and the central highlands. Iconographic depictions of Datura come from the early Olmec civilization (c. 2500 B.C.) on the Gulf coast of Mexico, and the Maya site of Copan in Honduras (c. 750 A.D.). In addition, Datura was mentioned in association with sorcery in pre-11th century Vedic texts and was a mainstay in early Ayurvedic, Chinese, and Arabic herbals. The most widespread use of Daturas today is undoubtedly among the southwestern Native Americans including the Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, and others, and in northern Mexico among the Huichol, Tarahumara, and Yaqui ­ where Datura is used as an access to the spirit world and as a medicine. Elsewhere in the Americas, the Algonquinís of Michigan have employed a infusion of D. stramonium for divination, and Hatian voodoo witch doctors have been reported to include Datura in their zombie potions. Several African groups in Tanzanyika and Mozambique still use Datura in initiation and puberty rituals, and in India the seeds of D. metel are sometimes added to the Cannabis based bhang drink for added intoxication.


"The first effect of Datura is that it slows time down and disorients your perception. My sober friend politely told me that at sunset I mentioned how beautiful the dawn sky was. Of course, I didn't remember. My sense of time throughout the day was shot. As I kept thinking that minutes were actually hours. This effect was so subtle that I did not notice it at all. It had changed time inside my head while I was still feeling sober. Datura, sets you into a totally new reality, and in my case, I had no idea when I actually made the slip. I thought I had only tripped for about two hours tops, but my friend enlightened me to the fact that it was actually about ten hours total. Those two hours were the total comprised time that my mind was wandering back through the folds of normal reality, in patches. This is when I was able to remember."

Uses of Datura

There are several traditional contexts of use of Datura species as medicines, poisons, or intoxicants. Datura has been used medicinally as an anesthetic for setting bones, for treating bruises and wounds, skin ulcers, hemorrhoids, dizziness and rheumatism, and asthma. Many of these uses have been corroborated as effective by modern science based on the presence of certain tropane alkaloids, notably scopolamine and atropine. Datura has been used by sorcerers to cause illness or death or to cast a spell of love through manipulation of the spirit world. A shaman who has the power to cure implicitly also has the power to kill ­ the fine line mediating this power is intent. Far from being limited to shamans and sorcerers, Datura is often used by many members of certain societies in puberty initiation rituals and as an aid to acquiring a dream helper/guardian. In these contexts the powerful effects of the plant are often aided by other means of attaining altered states of consciousness such as fasting or special diets, abstaining from sex, performing sweat lodges, dancing, and drumming or rattling in order to achieve a liminal state of hypersuggestibility crucial for the reprogramming of an initiation ritual. Datura is also used in divination of lost objects and as a general means of acquiring personal power.


"It felt like an adrenaline rush that was out of control, and there was a headache that felt like my brain was a bunch of medusa snakes fighting with each other, the tissue was sensitive, and when they even stretched or moved, it hurt. I was compelled to walk around in small circles, as though to contradict the way my head was spinning. It was really dizzy, with nausea threatening, headache, disorientation, it felt like a tobacco overdose. The fear was so overwhelming that it squelched almost all internal dialogue, but there was a subtler dialog which was also really terrifying."


The chemistry of Datura and other solanacaeous plants is primarily composed of active tropane alkaloids including scopolamine (hyoscine), atropine, aposcopolamine (apohyocine), hyoscamine, apoatropine, tropine, meteloidine, and over twenty others. Tropane alkaloids are muscarinic antagonists that block neurotransmission across muscarinic cholinergic receptors. Characteristics of muscarinic antagonism, depending on dosage, include dry mouth and skin, flushing or rashes, hypertension, tachycardia, bronchodilation, blurred vision, dizziness or vertigo, sedation, and amnesia. Modern western medicine has taken cues from traditional uses and the known effects of tropane alkaloids using scopolamine for motion sickness, as a bronchodilator for asthma relief, and in many cold medicines to dry out the mucous membranes. Alkaloid content is known to vary significantly among species, within a species depending on season or time of day, and even within a particular plant. Often roots, stems, leaves, flowers, and seeds have differing suites of alkaloids in differing concentrations. For this reason, preparation for medicinal versus divinatory use is often accomplished using different species or different parts of the plant. Traditional preparations include adding roots, leaves, or seeds to a fermented drink; drinking an infusion of the leaves or other parts; smoking the leaves; chewing the fruit; or preparing an unguent of the ground seeds or leaves to spread on the body. Preparation methods often depended on whether the plant will be used for curing, divining, or accessing personal power such as bodily flight.

Typical Effects

Stimulation and/or anxiety. Extreme Nausea. Dilated pupils. Blurred or fixed-focus vision. Rapid Heartbeat. Extreme disorientation. Loss of memory. Loss of Time. Delirium. Profound sensitivity to light and noise. Seamless crossover into a vividly realistic dream state. Extreme uncoordination and loss of body control. Extreme audio, visual, and tactile hallucinations. Apparent astral travel to familiar places. Interaction with friends, relatives, and other random people who aren't physically present. Extreme drying and irritation of the mouth, throat, eyes, urinary tract, and other mucous membranes. Potential for uncontrollably emotional or violent activity. Inability to recall anything ­ even that you are under the effects of a drug ­ for quite some time.


"I found myself in a city that I did not recognize. I did not remember where I came from , where to go, what to do, who I was, let alone what I was doing there at this time of night, nor did I have any clue how to get "home" as far as there was still a conception of what home might be. There was complete retrograde amnesia: no access to any knowledge at all. In the mean time I had encounters with people I knew, that were able to do a disappearing act. Just by standing behind a light pole they could make themselves invisible. (This must be the "witches sabbath" hallucination which seems recurrent in this type of delirium: the very very real hallucination of speaking with people). Also I was constantly hallucinating that I was smoking a cigarette, which would suddenly disappear leaving me searching the street, thinking that I dropped it. I must have walked the same street 50 times back and forth wanting to get somewhere, forgetting were I was going or were I was. A small statue of a child alongside the road started laughing and laughing harder and harder every time I passed. It must have been a ridiculous sight to see this delirious idiot walk by for the 40th time, even for a statue."

Dosage and Duration of Effects

Datura intoxication can last from a few hours to many days depending on dosage and method of ingestion. The heaviest forms of ingestion include eating the seeds or drinking a tea brewed from the leaves, stems and/or seeds of the plant. Ten seeds is often enough for baseline to mild effects, but when ingesting *any* amount of Datura in a tea or other preparation, you should be prepared to be under the effects of the plant for at least 12 to 24 hours if not longer. The Datura "hangover" usually consists of blurred vision, moments of disorientation, and moments of stimulation or profound energy. Residual effects have been known to last from three days to a week. There have been some instances of blurred vision, dizziness and disorientation lasting for many months after Datura ingestion. And, of course, there have been numerous instances of death by ingestion of Datura, usually due to heart or respiratory failure. Other methods of Datura ingestion include smoking the leaves and flowers, snorting a powder made from the crushed seeds, or rubbing a paste made from the pounded plant materials on the body. Smoking a Datura preparation will cause a rapid and uncomfortable body stimulation and drying of the mouth and throat that will last from thirty minutes to a few hours. Snorting a powdered preparation will cause more intense bodily irritation and delirium lasting for many hours. Using a Datura preparation as an ointment is potentially very dangerous because of the inability to accurately measure dosage and absorption rate. This is the "Flying Ointment" method used in traditional shamanism and witchcraft, and it is very powerful, with the delirium sometimes lasting for weeks. It should only be attempted by veteran users who are familiar with the plant.

Although there have been extremely mixed results with smoking and snorting (ranging from mild headache to full-on delirium), all forms of Datura ingestion are potentially hazardous, and one should never experiment with Datura lightly. Start with low doses and be prepared to be intoxicated and disoriented for quite a while. A safe environment and a sober guide should be mandatory, as well as having a large supply of water readily available.

The Ally

Accounts of the entity associated with Datura species are fascinating yet somewhat disconcerting. In the Huichol view, Crazy Kieri is a powerful yet not necessarily malevolent entity, a trickster, and a jealous ally. Perhaps the most notorious account of Datura use comes from Carlos Castaneda in his chronicled apprenticeship to the Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan. Whether Castaneda's accounts are taken to be pure fiction or, as Castaneda states himself "both ethnography and allegory" is left for the reader to judge. According to Don Juan, an ally (Spanish alliado) is neither a guardian nor a spirit, but an aid to be tamed or acquired. The ally has rules which must be handed down in an apprenticeship and followed impeccably in ordinary and non-ordinary realities. If approached correctly, the ally will take one out of the boundaries of ones-self and give one power.

Don Juan describes Datura's ally as womanlike, and the myths of the now-extinct Chumash of south central California describe Datura as the powerful old woman Momoy who gave birth to the trickster and sorcerer Coyote from her sweat. The yerba del diablo is possessive, violent and unpredictable, and has a deleterious affect on the character of its followers. The Chumash ascribe similar characteristics to Datura:

"Repeated use of Datura brought on pronounced changes in character, the user became more and more antisocial. Those with great shamanistic power acquired through years of Datura drinking frequently lived apart from other people"

For this profound sacrifice, however, Datura traded the man of strong and violent nature easily accessible superfluous power, a characteristic that was often enticing to those who wished to rapidly acquire power such as divination and bodily flight. According to the Chumash:

"[Datura] enabled a man to see beyond surface appearances into the true nature of things, to see 'the other world' beyond 'this world'....But if a man had not prepared himself, then he perceived only illusion — exaggerated reflections of his own fears and weaknesses."

Before beginning to learn the secrets of the Datura, a shaman or sorcerer must cultivate his own plant through the entire life cycle from root to seed. Don Juan stressed that no one should know the location of Castaneda's plants, because such knowledge could render Castaneda's life in danger should another sorcerer kill or manipulate his plants. Similarly, in the Yucatan where D. stramonium is abundant and D. inoxia is rare, the latter tends to be found only in secret gardens of herbalists as it is preferred for medicinal preparations.


The daturas are a group of plants that have had intimate association with man from time immemorial. They have been used as poisons, medicines, and ritual intoxicants. Few choose to repeat a recreational experience as it is often long, frightening, and completely unpredictable followed by a great deal of amnesia coupled with a sense of touching a very powerful but dark force. Any experimentation with Datura is dangerous and should be undertaken with the utmost of caution under appropriate supervision. Dosage recommendations cannot be made since alkaloid content varies so much between species and parts of the plant, but in general seeds are the most potent and leaves the least potent. If you must experiment with Datura, monitor your dosages carefully and start small until the desired effects have been achieved. You have been warned.

Works Cited

Applegate, R.B., 1975. The Datura Cult Among the Chumash. Journal of California Anthropology 2(1):6-17.

Baker, J.R., 1994. The Old Woman and Her Gifts: Pharmacological Bases of the Chumash Use of Datura. Curare 17:253-276.

Blakeslee, A.F. 1931. Extra chromosomes, a source of variation in the Jimson weed. Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, 1930. 431-450. Smithsonian Publication 3077. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Boyd, C.E. and J.P. Dering, 1996. Medicinal and hallucinogenic plants identified in the sediments and pictographs of the Lower Pecos, Texas Archaic. Antiquity 0:256-275.

Bye, R., 1979. Hallucinogenic plants of the Tarahumara. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 1:23-48.

Bye, R., R. Mata, and J. Pimentel, 1991. Botany, Ethnobotany, and Chemistry of Datura lanosa (Solanaceae) in Mexico. Anales del Instituto de Biologia de la Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Ser. Bot. 61(1):21-42.

Castaneda, C, 1968. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. New York: Ballantine Books.

Davis, Wade, 1985. The Serpent and the Rainbow. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1988

Passage of Darkness: the Ethnobiology of the Hatian Zombie. University of North Carolina Press.

de Smet, P. and N. M. Hellmuth, 1986. A Multidisciplinary Approach to Ritual Enema Scenes on Ancient Maya Pottery. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 16:213-262.

Fash, Barbara, 1997. Personal communication

Furst, P.T., 1971. Ariocarpus retusus, the 'False' Peyote of the Huichol tradition. Economic Botany 25:182-187. 1989. The Life and Death of the Crazy Kieri: Natural and Cultural History of a Huichol Myth. Journal of Latin American Lore 15(2):155-177.

Harner, M. J., 1973. The Role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft. In Hallucinogens and Shamanism, M.J. Harner (ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. Pp 125-150.

Johnston, T.F., 1972. Datura fastuosa: Its Use in Tsonga Girls' Initiation. Economic Botany 26(4):340-351.

Joralemon, P.D., 1976. The Olmec Dragon: A Study in Pre-Columbian Iconography. In Origins of Religious Art and Iconography in Preclassic Mesoamerica, H.B. Nicholson (ed). Latin American Studies Series 31. Los Angeles: UCLA Latin America Center.

Knab, T., 1977. Notes Concerning Use of Solandra among the Huichol. Economic Botany 31:80-86.

Litzinger, W.J., 1981. Ceramic evidence for prehistoric Datura use in North America. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 4:57-74. 1994 Yucateco and Lacondon Maya knowledge of Datura (Solanaceae). Journal of Ethnopharmacology 42:133-134.

Martinez, M., 1966. Las Solandras de Mexico, con un especie nueva. Anales del Instituto de Biologia de la Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, tomo 27:97-106.

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Safford, W.E., 1922. Daturas of the Old World and New: an account of their narcotic properties and their use in oracular and initiatory ceremonies. Annual report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, 1920: 537-567. Smithsonian Publication 2644. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Schultes, R.E. and A. Hofmann, 1992. Plants of the Gods: their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press.

Schultes, R.E. and R.F. Raffauf, 1990. The Healing Forest: Medicinal and Toxic Plants of the Northwest Amazonia. Historical, Ethno- & Economic Botany Series Volume 2. Portland, OR: Dioscorides Press.

Siklos, B., 1993. Datura Rituals in the Vajramahabhairava-Tantra. Curare 16:71-76.

Vitale, A.A., A. Acher, and A.B. Pomilio, 1995. Alkaloids of Datura ferox from Argentina. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 49:81-89.

Tags : psychedelic
Rating : Teen - Drugs
Posted on: 2001-04-30 00:00:00