Brugmansia: A Trick or a Treat?

Holy Happy Halloween. Wow. I just read about this plant. It’s very thematically appropriate for today. Creepily dark. I mean, Holy S#*+. But first, I’ll start off not scary… This horror movie starts out harmless, with color and playfulness, as they do…

It’s called Brugmansia & there are seven different types. They come in pink, red, white, yellow, orange or green and they have a lovely fragrance that is most noticeable in the evenings. The plant was originally found in tropical areas in South America, from Venezuela to Chile and in Brazil. It’s now listed as extinct in the wild by the ICUN Red List, but is grown in the wild in places where it is non-native and ornamentally in yards. In Los Angeles, I’ve seen them in yards inland in Norwalk, and in the Hollywood Hills, and Beverly Hills. They get surprisingly tall. I’ve always been intrigued by them. I thought they were very beautiful and amusing, droopy sad cartoon plants that look like elephant wallflowers waiting for someone to ask them to dance. (Wouldn’t Brugmansia be a great name for a wallflower elephant?) Little did I know that they are much more strong than that!

The plant contains alkaloids that in modern medicine have proven to be medically valuable for their anesthetic, spasmolytic, anticholinergic, narcotic and anti-asthmatic properties. Although some alkaloids can be beneficial, there are many types of alkaloids and they’re used for many things. Cocaine, nicotine, morphine, caffeine & strychnine are all alkaloids. Different parts of the Brugmansia plant have different concentrations of the alkaloids scopolamine, hyoscyamine, and atropine that change with the seasons and the plant’s hydration. So determining a level of safe alkaloid exposure from the plant is kind of impossible. (A little bit unsettling right? Let’s cue the start of just the slightest underlying scary music…)

Indigenous South American cultures used it in spiritual or religious ceremonies and medicinally, mostly externally, where the leaves were applied to the skin as part of a poultice, tincture, or ointment. They used it to treat arthritis, rheumatism, headaches, infections, aches and pains, dermatitis, orchitis and as a general anti-inflammatory. Internal uses were rare because of its dangers, but when it was used internally, it was used in an extremely diluted state for stomach and muscle ailments, as a decongestant, to induce vomiting, as a sedative and to expel worms and parasites. Worms and parasites get the hell out of a body to flee from this stuff, that is very telling.

(However, let’s have a music change again, something light, happy and disarming…) Night pollinating moths are drawn to its smell. Attracting pollinators is always beneficial. Hummingbirds drink happily from the unscented red Brugmansia. And butterfly larvae eat the alkaloids and store them into their adult butterfly stage so that they are less tasty to predators. (So far this horror movies seems really mild and butterfly-friendly. But… Back to that creepy music.)

A couple weeks ago, as we tended to trees we planted with our Orchard friends, a tree expert walked with us and answered someone’s question about if this plant is poisonous by saying, “There’s a fine line between poisonous & hallucinogenic. Is it more toxic to your stomach or your brain?” In looking it up for this post, I see what she means. But DAMN. I thought hallucinogenic sounded like it had an element of fun to it. This is some scary Halloween morbid hallucinating.

Ingesting parts of the plant (the seeds and leaves are the most potent) can cause tachycardia where the heart rate is above normal when resting, dry mouth, diarrhea, migraine headaches, paralysis of smooth muscles, confusion, visual and auditory hallucinations that the person doesn’t recognize are happening- with amnesia that follows afterwards, mydriasis where the pupil is enlarged even in bright light, rapid onset cycloplegia where the eye becomes paralyzed and therefore can’t focus on nearby objects, and death.

Swiss explorer Johann Von Tschudi described a man who ingested Brumansia in Peru:

“Soon after drinking the Tonga, the man fell into a dull brooding, he stared vacantly at the ground, his mouth was closed firmly, almost convulsively and his nostrils were flared. Cold sweat covered his forehead. He was deathly pale. The jugular veins on his throat were swollen as large as a finger and he was wheezing as his chest rose and sank slowly. His arms hung down stiffly by his body. Then his eyes misted over and filled with huge tears and his lips twitched convulsively for a brief moment. His carotids were visibly beating, his respiration increased and his extremities twitched and shuddered of their own accord. This condition would have lasted about a quarter of an hour, then all these actions increased in intensity.

His eyes were now dry but had become bright red and rolled about wildly in their sockets and all his facial muscles were horribly distorted. A thick white foam leaked out between his half open lips. The pulses on his forehead and throat were beating too fast to be counted. His breathing was short, extraordinarily fast and did not seem to lift the chest, which was visibly fibrillating. A mass of sticky sweat covered his whole body which continued to be shaken by the most dreadful convulsions. His limbs were hideously contorted. He alternated between murmuring quietly and incomprehensibly and uttering loud, heart-rending shrieks, howling dully and moaning and groaning.”

Brumansia causes such terrifying hallucinations that the journal of Psychiatry & Clinical Neuroscience even reported of a man who drank only one cup of Brugmansia tea and then amputated his own tongue and penis.

Ancient South American cultures mixed it with corn beer and tobacco leaves and drugged wives and slaves with the mixture before burying them alive with their dead lords. Holy I Can’t Handle That.

From me & the boring plant world 😉 Happy Halloween.

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Resources: Wikipedia pages on Brugmansia, Alkaloids, Tachycardia, Cycloplegia, & Mydriasis

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