Dear Readers, I spotted this plant in Regent’s Park at the weekend, and was amazed at its beauty, but there’s more to this shrub than meets the eye. Angel’s Trumpet (and the closely related Datura) are some of the most poisonous ornamental plants in the world, containing the same poisons as those found in Deadly Nightshade (not surprisingly as they’re in the same family, the Solanaceae). Like many poisonous plants, however, their toxins have proved to have many uses. Medicinally, the alkaloid chemicals that they contain have been used for everything from anaesthesia and sedation to treating asthma. However, the plant was originally found in Central and South America, and here the local people used the plant mainly for external complaints such as rashes and arthritis. They were much more circumspect about using the plant internally, although it was sometimes used to induce vomiting and to kill parasites such as tapeworms.
However, Angel’s Trumpet is probably most famous for its hallucingenic properties. The effects of the plant have been described as ‘terrifying rather than pleasurable’, and I read with a certain amount of horror that children in some South American tribes would be given a drink containing Brugmansia so that they could be admonished directly by their ancestors in the spirit world. It was also used to drug slaves and the wives of important people so that they could be buried alive with their dead lords. And if that doesn’t make you shudder, I don’t know what will.
Angel’s Trumpet was also used by South American shaman for a variety of initiation and magical ceremonies. Apparently ‘bad shamans’ will add the plant to the brew served to gullible Westerners who want to take part in Ayahuasca ceremonies, seen as a way of raising consciousness, altering perception and as a cure for depression. As vomiting is seen as part of the ceremony, I guess that the Angel’s Trumpet is likely to make you vomit a whole lot (if it doesn’t kill you).
For a plant that can be seen in cultivation on a regular basis, Angel’s Trumpet is listed by the IUCN as extinct in the wild. How so? It appears that the plant had a long-standing relationship with some large species of megafauna which probably ate the seeds and dispersed them. The animal has since become extinct itself, and so it’s the shamans (and latterly the gardening industry) that have kept the seven species in the Brugmansia family alive.
Incidentally, the way that you tell a Brugmansia from the closely-related Datura is that in Angel’s Trumpets, the flowers hang down, whereas with the Daturas (such as the American Jimsonweed) the flowers stick out or up. They are just as poisonous as their dangly relatives.
Another reason to grow Angel’s Trumpets has been their sweet scent, which is especially pronounced at night. As you might surmise, this indicates that the plant is moth-pollinated (and by moths with very long tongues, presumably). One red species (Brugmansia sanguinea) has no scent, and is pollinated instead by hummingbirds. Some butterfly larvae also feed on the leaves and are able to utilise the poison in the plant to make themselves distasteful to predators. The poison lingers on not just in the caterpillars, but through the pupal stage and into the adult butterfly.
So, Angel’s Trumpet is a plant of contradictions – exquisitely beautiful and sweet-smelling, but also so poisonous that a woman who pruned her plant and then rubbed her eye with her hand was blinded in that eye for 24 hours. It’s not surprising that Jimson Weed, with all of its strange, exotic beauty, was painted numerous times by Georgia O’Keefe. She frequently painted flowers which were common, but she had this to say, and I couldn’t agree more.
“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment, I want to give that world to someone else.”