Sunday, January 23, 2011

Creature (...plant) Feature: Datura.

Zombies are everywhere these days. Possibly due to the whole "2012" thing, the zombie has become one of the most popular movie monsters of the modern era. They are generally characterized as being hard to kill (for good), having an infectious bite, and, most importantly, craving human brains.

Usually, some sort of virus is to blame for a zombie apocalypse, although there are a few other possibilities. The most popular virus is the Solanum Virus, a fictional virus made by Max Brooks that a million people still think is real. There are a number of reasons to call it BS, the first being that, if zombies take over, it'll more likely be due to a prion or parasite than a virus (because when was the last time you felt like eating brains from a flu or cold? Mad cow seems a TINY bit more likely to cause zombies; beware the burgers).

Clearly poison.

 Truth is stranger than fiction, in this case.  The Solanum Virus is named after the family containing the plant genus Datura, a type of plant used in zombie creation rites on the island of Haiti. Yes, zombies are Caribbean monsters, and yes, Disney is taking advantage of this fact.

Datura poison was part of a zombie-making concoction in Wade Davis's documentary, The Serpent and the Rainbow. Like many authors, he complained about numerous inaccuracies when his book was made into a movie. He was not a nerd behind a computer - he was an ethnobotanist, someone who studies how people interact with plants.  Get it right.

Come to think of it, this DOES look kinda creepy.

Despite some severe scientific criticisms, Davis insisted that a Haitian man named Clairvius Narcisse was turned into a living zombie via two separate, deadly powders that induced a deathlike state. The first included tetrodotoxin, the poison that makes fugu risky; the second, datura, among other dissociative drugs. By using these drugs, a Haitian sorcerer called a bokor could get a 'living corpse' to do their bidding. People subjected to these drugs only thought they were dead; after being bombarded with this poison cocktail, they were buried and reeducated into zombiehood. One can only presume that the training consisted of "go fetch me a double tall mocha latte," among other mind-numbing orders.

Would you like brains with that?

Datura plants are closely related to nightshade and a number of other major agricultural crops, such as  tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants. All of the above are at least slightly poisonous if picked at the wrong time. Datura is also very widely cultivated, giving no hints as to where it actually came from. The name is Hindi, meaning, rather generically, "plant." Such a demure name belies exactly what Datura can do.

Every single plant in the genus Datura has toxins powerful enough to send one to the hospital. Datura is the suicide poison of choice for over 2,000 people...and that's just in India. Its ability to kill is only the tip of the iceberg; other symptoms include delirium, the inability to distinguish fantasy from reality, an increased heart rate, photophobia (a fear of light), hyperthermia, and, much of the time, amnesia. Before you buy some, ask the seller if he remembers what happened last night. He likely will not.

Nobody really knows whether Davis's Datura and fugu combo works or not. Datura has a mighty fine history of driving people crazy; a particular variety called "Jimson Weed" (or "Jamestown Weed" if you are wondering where to find it) was used to drug British soldiers during Bacon's Rebellion. It drove them batshit insane. Careful what your boss gives you at your next physical; we cannot think of a corporation around that would not want a zombie slave. Watch out.

Tomorrow: Just what the hell is a prion, anyways? 


  1. Very good... your closing para gives me ideas ;)
    On a more serious note, I've been around Dhatura plants since childhood, but the real education has only started in these past few hours. Seeing how its plans differ in Atropine content by a ratio of 1:5, even differing in levels in the leaves, I'll keep on the side of caution, and either not do it at all or try some in light amounts.

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    1. Any large flowered Angel Trumpet with flowers hanging downward is a Brugmansia not a Datura. If they hang downward and have much smaller often more tubular shape and are deep blue, purple or red they are Iochroma. Datura, Brugmansia, Iochroma are all related and in the Deadly Nightshade family. They carry a similar family of Belladonna Alkaloid toxins. 'Correct' dosing for' desired' effect(s) is very hard to determine. Toxin levels and possibly ratio ratios can very significantly by plant type, tissue type, season and growing conditions.

      Sub-LEATHAL doses can give vivid, essentially near death experience hallicinations. This or marginally higher level doses can 'gift' muscle paralysis, beginning from the extremities then creeping upwards towards the core body. IF the core is reached with sufficient toxin levels, a one's heart muscle can relax. Thus,this is not recommended = game over! IF this happens AND you're lucky that there are future lives, try to learn this time and don't repeat this mistake!

      Many people wearing contacts or glasses have already had the pleasure of experiencing some of the effects of these toxins, as one eye drop given to them temporarily paralyzing their eye iris!

      In the late 1800's, some individuals believed that women with large open pupils looked sexy. And so belladonna eye drops were sold. Home belladonna eyedrop use included an unexpected death or two by toxin overdose. There's a more recent report of a greenhouse worker watering Brugmansia in a greenhouse. One day they sprayed a plant's leaves and saw a water droplet run down a leaf and land in their eye. It took a couple days for their pupil to contract back to normal! A sobering experience about these powerful plants. Luckily there was no other side effects that time.

      Finally, ever hear of horses going crazy from "Loco Weed"? The theme was popular in early Hollywood western movies. This was based on experiences of real horses grazing on "Jimson Weed", which is a Datura. If the galloping panicking horse could be tied up and not fall over a cliff or run into a wall during during their hallucinations, they had a better chance of living. If they ate too much, the cowboy walked home horseless anyway.

      The point is that for any animal including humans belladonna alkaloid induced hallicinations can be far from enjoyable and are potentially dangerous. There are frequent reports as hellish, demonically dangerous, or for instance spiders bitting, monsters chasing, and/or zombies tearing off my flesh. One's belladonna toxin influenced mind knows best how to badly scare themselves, when trying to rationalize what might be bringing their death near.

      I'm very happy to have had no personal experience with any of this. Literature research is sufficient for me.