On the elusive history of thorn-apple in the Old World (Datura spp
[~ 8 minutes]
Listening to: Delerium feat. Michael Logen, Days Turn into Nights
I walked out of the botanic garden with my legs on fire and my heart overflowing with excitement.
I’d gotten her. At last.
Flirty white skirt fairly glowing in the darkness, I’d caught my ghost by moonlight —or, rather, LED-light.
After a month of chasing shadows we had finally met, Datura and I.
Before the hunt: how I met the thorn-apples
I had been hunting magic plants of late. Collecting their stories, then re-spinning them with an extra twist. I’d first gathered tales of plants used against the evil eye, then moved on to those legendary plants connected with witchcraft, the nightshades. Mandrake, deadly nightshade, henbane… and, finally, the last one standing: the thorn-apples* I knew, Datura stramonium and D. metel.
*one of many names, among which devil’s trumpets, devil’s weed, or jimsonweed.
Our story had begun years before I ever set eyes on her, during a university course on plant diversity. I still remember the professor’s sheepish warning concerning D. stramonium, a piece of advice evidently linked to his own experiences with her: do not smoke, ever.
If you do a quick search on the internet you’ll find accounts of many people who did not heed my professor’s advice; as he warned, the results are usually not pretty.
Smoke was never my thing though, so my interest in her was entirely platonic (as with most poisonous plants I learn about). I found her… intriguing.
Dangerous plants usually are sphinx-like enigmas; their appearance will seldom hint at their dark powers over life and death.
I’ve always loved being in the know about seemingly innocent yet poisonous plants. Walking around the neighbourhood and pointing out, look, this one’s got poisonous leaves that were used to get rid of lice, and vermin. That one over there now, eating a single seed will kill a child; three will suffice for an adult.
Thorn-apples weren’t grown in gardens around here, but their taller sisters —the Brugmansias— were. I would walk by their pendulous flowers swaying in the breeze, and smile conspiratorially at their flashy beauty. Your owners have no idea of what you are capable of, but I know your little secret.
I believed I knew Datura’s little secrets, too. While writing my first book on the cultural connections between plants and people, she’d appeared several times as one of the traditional ingredients in witches’ ointments*.
*You know, those fabled noxious ointments made with fat and a cocktail of hallucinogenic plants, among which mandrake, henbane and deadly nightshade.
While studying for my Medicinal Botany exams in the orto botanico, I’d see the thorny capsules —those of D. stramonium upright, those of D. metel pendulous and fierce— and smile at them, and at the tourists innocently walking past their patch, paying them no attention whatsoever. Ah, if you only knew what I know… I’d chuckle to myself.
I’d never done in-depth research about her, true; but I fancied myself a minor savant on poisonous plant tales, and everything I’d read about her appeared pretty straightforward and clear.
Then, it was time to hunt down her story. Piece of cake, right?
But as I shifted my attention and reached out to grasp the seemingly solid plant on the periphery of my knowledge —she vanished.
No Datura in Eurasia before Columbus, genetics dixit
First, it was her origins.
You see, the genus Datura has several* species, and the two I knew had traditionally been considered indigenous to the Old World. However, genetic analysis has revealed that the origin of every single one of them is… American.
*Twelve, to be more precise.
This meant D. metel and D. stramonium couldn’t have been growing in Eurasia before the Columbian exchange.
So… no thorn-apples in medieval witches’ brews.
I was crushed—and, oddly enough, galvanised into finding out more. This was a totally unexpected twist of events. And, as I sort of enjoy being contrary and ferreting out things on my own, I set out to ascertain that there had been no Datura findings in Eurasia before 1492…
The hunt was on.
Trying to photograph Datura by daylight is like trying to see the stars at noon
The universe sometimes has a wonderful sense of synchronicity. As I was beginning my furious research into Datura, my walks around the botanic garden revealed an exciting surprise: my ghost flowers were about to bloom!
So I carefully planned an extended visit to the orto, a whole morning of shooting pictures of tiny mandrakes, roses, cotton tufts, sage blossoms and hawthorn berries… but no thorn-apple flowers.
I sat next to their patch, waiting. The white trumpets remained stubbornly, maddeningly closed. Furled since my arrival at 9 AM, and three hours later they still hadn’t awakened. Another half an hour crawled by before I finally gave up.
A week later I tried again, in vain. They remained closed like slender fists under the cloudy afternoon light.
I was beginning to doubt whether I’d be able to photograph her at all, when I discovered by chance why I couldn’t find her flowers open.
While driving back to our apartment on an Saturday evening, we happened to pass by a tiny garden where, some time ago, I’d noticed metel plants growing. They were in full bloom.
I might’ve banged my head against the car window had I not been so damn happy to realise that they were nocturnal flowers. Of course.
Had I known back then that one of their common English names is moonflower, I might’ve saved myself a great deal of frustration (and I wouldn’t have felt like such an idiot).
Datura in Botticelli’s paintings?
I felt somewhat better when finding out that she does it often, this flirty dance that leaves us humans looking like fools, expecting to find her in one place only to have her disappear when observed up close.
As I hunted down information on her geographic adventures, I came across one such case of Datura deceit concerning a (pre-Columbian!) Renaissance painting: Botticelli’s Mars and Venus.
In 2010, an article came out announcing that a 15th century painting might be hiding an hallucinogenic drug in plain sight: Datura stramonium.
Ever seen the painting? Here it is:
The satyr on the bottom right corner, is he holding something…? Yes! A fruit, perhaps?
And isn’t it similar to… oh, my. Could the satyr be holding a capsule of jimsonweed?
If we pay attention to nothing but the capsule’s looks, I guess it could be… just as it could be a green walnut, or a small cucumber, or any number of plants (eg. the hilarious squirting cucumber, Ecballium elaterium).
The painted fruit’s identification with thorn-apple, I’m afraid, is far from self-evident, so I filed the story away as another ghost flower sighting: tantalising, but ultimately without substance.
Datura capsules in European prehistory?
The next sighting I stumbled upon looked much more promising: a paper mentioning findings of D. stramonium capsules in a Bronze Age excavation in Andorra.
Could it be true…?
I tracked down the original article, found the email address of one of its co-authors and wrote him an email.
He replied promptly and courteously; he hadn’t been in charge of the macro-botanic remains, and the colleague who’d classified them wasn’t active in archaeobotany anymore, in no small part due to controversial (miss)identifications in his works.
As far as he knew (and with the odd exception of a single paper mentioning thorn-apple), there were no Datura archaeological findings before Columbus in Europe.
And there went another ghost.
Datura in India: an intriguing mystery…
I kept looking though, and drifted east until I ran smack into a paper whose main thesis couldn’t be dismissed as easily:
“We draw on old Arabic and Indic texts and southern Indian iconographic representations to show that there is conclusive evidence for the pre-Columbian presence of at least one species of Datura in the Old World.”
Sooner or later, it had to be India, where the name Datura was born (originally dhattura), where I’d known my ghost flower to be holy, a sacred plant to the god Shiva.
I suddenly found myself spending hours browsing internet pictures of ancient Chola bronzes of Shiva Nataraja, trying to see whether I could see Datura-like trumpet flowers in the sculptures’ head-dress. The most impressive case I’ve come across is the magnificent c. 11th century Thiruvalangadu Nataraja statue, where a three-tiered trumpet flower blooms atop the dancing god’s head, next to a skull, a cobra, and a crescent moon.
Moonflower, she is.
This mysterious dhattura plant (although she goes by many other names, eg. unmattam in Tamil) is mentioned in ancient texts, such as the well-known Kamasutra (c. 4th century AD), where ’tis said on the chapter on “Compelling Love and Enslaving Others”:
“There are means of attracting others and raising one’s prowess to enviable heights. If a man anoints his lingam with a mixture of the powders of dhatturaka, white thorn apple, pippali, long pepper, maricha, black pepper, and madhu, honey, and engages in sexual union with a woman, he makes her subject to his will.”
When I read this, I shivered. Indeed legend claims that some Datura species have been used to enslave others’ willpower (think zombies. Too long to explore here, but another day…).
No other plant seems to fit the ancient Indian descriptions of “dhattura” as convincingly as our American ghost. If this were true though, it would mean that Datura (probably D. metel) somehow made it to India by the 1st millennium AD.
I haven’t been able to find studies addressing the genetic relationships between Indian Datura metel varieties and American ones and see whether the paper’s hypothesis is possible. For now, science hasn’t tried to elucidate whether she crossed the Pacific before ever bridging the Atlantic.
The history of Datura in Eurasia is still a bit of a thorny mystery; even after all my research adventures, her story remains nebulous, lit by a crescent moon in a cloudy night.
Looking at the enigmatic smile of Shiva Nataraja, I’m humbled by the realisation that I’m still fumbling in the dark, trying to grasp her —and that perhaps I never will.
Perhaps only the dancing god who took the ghostly, dangerous moonflower under his wing will ever know all her secrets.
– The two poisonous plants whose leaves and seeds I mention in passing are oleander (Nerium oleander; leaves were used against lice and vermin) and the castor plant (Ricinus communis; one seed lethal for a child, c. three for an adult. Ricin is very, very, very poisonous).
– One of the main “traditional” texts concerning Datura is Evans Schultes, R., Hofman, A. and Rätsch, C. 1998. Plants of the gods: their sacred, healing, and hallucinogenic powers. Healing Arts Press.
– The twelve accepted species of Datura may be read, along with a long list of synonyms, on the website The Plantlist.
– The paper that first dealt with the American origins of Daturas I haven’t been able to access, alas. The reference though is Symon D, Haegi LAR. Datura (Solanaceae) is a New World genus. In: Hawkes JG, Lester RN, Nee M, Estrada N (eds). 1991. Solanaceae III: taxonomy, chemistry, evolution. Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Richmond: 197–210.
– On the phylogenetic origins of Datura metel: Luna-Cavazos, M.; Bye, R. and Jiao, M. 2009. The origin of Datura metel (Solanaceae): genetic and phylogenetic evidence. Genet Resour Crop Evol 56: 263–275 DOI 10.1007/s10722-008-9363-5.
– On jimsonweed and Botticelli, some of the best blog articles covering the botanical mystery are to be found here and here (with an update on the likelihood of the capsule being squirting cucumber here; I find it highly plausible. I’ve always loved Ecballium’s spitting ways…).
– However, the story still circulates as true, eg here (where, on the other hand, there’s very interesting information on Datura-esque perfumes!).
– D. stramonium capsules mentioned in a Bronze Age dig, the paper where I read it was this: Guerra-Doce, E. 2015. The Origins of Inebriation: Archaeological Evidence of the Consumption of Fermented Beverages and Drugs in Prehistoric Eurasia. J Archaeol Method Theory 22: 751–782 DOI 10.1007/s10816-014-9205-z.
– Citing this other paper over here: Yáñez, C., Burjachs, F., Juan-Tresserras, J., & Mestres, J. S. 2001-2002. La fossa de Prats (Andorra). Un jacimient del bronze mitjà al Pirineu. Revista d’Arqueologia de Ponent 11-12: 123-150.
– Datura’s mysterious connection to India explored here: Geeta, R. and Gharaibeh, W. 2007. Historical evidence for a pre-Columbian presence of Datura in the Old World and implications for a first millennium transfer from the New World. J. Biosci. 32 (7): 1227–1244.
I’ve sweated my way through a good deal of Shiva Nataraja pictures (and other representations of the god); not all of the statues have thorn-apple flowers in their head-dress, and in most cases the pictures either have a pretty low resolution, or they have been shot to focus on elements different from the trumpety blooms.
Chennai’s museum website has appallingly low-res pictures of otherwise gorgeous sculptures, but they include descriptions and there’s mention of datura flowers, eg. see here (where ’tis said of a 9th century bronze sculpture: “This is an early piece showing the utmost simplicity in workmanship. The head-dress of the figure shows for the first time, the crescent and the Datura flower in the round“).
I believe I’ve also seen a lateral shot of this 7th-8th cent. AD sculpture of Shiva in Rajaraja Museum, Thanjavur; although on that picture there’s only a hint at a trumpet flower on the sculpture head’s left side, trust me: the picture taken from the left shows a single trumpet flower strikingly similar to Datura metel.
I’ve learnt quite a bit about Shiva Nataraja (commonly translated as Lord of the Dance) while researching this article; the most interesting stories I’ve read are here (The Hindu) and here (Rodin’s thoughts on the Thiruvalangadu Nataraja). The iconography as explained by the website Art and Archaeology is the following:
“Surrounding Shiva, a circle of flames represents the universe, whose fire is held in Shiva’s left rear palm. His left front arm crosses his chest, the hand pointing in “elephant trunk” position (gaja hasta) to his upraised left foot which signifies liberation. His right foot tramples the much put-upon dwarf Apasmara, who represents spiritual ignorance. The hand of Shiva’s right front hand is raised in the “fear-not” gesture of benediction (abhaya mudra), while his right rear hand holds a drum with which he beats the measure of the dance. The snake, an emblem of Shiva, curls around his arm. His hair holds the crescent moon -another emblem- and a small image of Ganga, the river-goddess whose precipitous fall from heaven to earth is broken by Shiva’s matted locks.”
Datura legends in India may be read in Giorgio Samorini’s Gli allucinogeni nel mito (Nautilus, 1995).
Aand that’s enough for today.
Picture of Shiva Nataraja by flickr user Badri Seshadri, which I tweaked a bit to emphasize the god’s headdress Datura-like adornment. The original one may be seen here.
Painting of Botticelli’s Venus and Mars can be seen at the National Gallery website over here.
All other photos were taken by Yours Truly.