Downy thorn apple (Datura metel) growing in a bed in Bonnefont garden devoted to plants used in medieval magic. The common name “thorn apple,” shared with other members of the genus, is derived from the character of the spiny seed capsule. Above: D. metel in bud (left) and bloom (right). This handsome, heat-loving plant flowers profusely from late July until October. Below: Semi-ripe capsule of the downy thorn apple, broken open to show the developing seeds.
The beautiful but sinister thorn apple (Datura metel) is a powerfully hallucinogenic plant employed in medieval magic as well as medicine.
Thorn apple reached Northern Europe from India in the later Middle Ages, although it is mentioned in medieval Arabic texts at an earlier date. (Some authorities regard D. metel as a native of China; see below for the debate about its origin.) Along with other plants in the nightshade family, datura was an active ingredient in the famous “flying ointment” used by European witches, a preparation that produced the illusion and sensation of transport through the air. (At least some medieval and Renaissance authorities correctly attributed these sensations to the psychotropic properties of the plants.) For more on the psychotropic properties of the tropane alkaloids found in datura and other members of the Solanaceae, see “The Nightshades,” November 7, 2008.
Datura and other such narcotic agents were applied topically; it was well recognized that it was extremely dangerous to ingest so poisonous a plant. The fifteenth-century herbal Hortus Sanitatis classes datura as cold in the fourth degree, a classification shared with other dangerous plants like opium poppy and poisonous mushrooms. For more on the classification of plants and medieval humoral theory, see “Cool, Cooler, Coolest,” July 27, 2012. For several representations of datura in sixteenth-century herbals, see the Smithsonian’s online database.
Although datura was considered the equal of the long-famous mandrake, which had been accreting lore since antiquity, it was a relatively recent introduction into the flora and pharmacopeia of the West, and its medieval lore is comparatively sparse. Despite thorn apple’s medicinal virtues as a painkiller, soporific, and unguent for ulcers, wounds, and burns, it was most strongly associated with sexuality and with the activities of witches. A reproduction of a sixteenth-century drawing by Urs Graf shows Fortuna wearing a hat adorned with thorn apples: see Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany by Lyndal Roper. The sinister reputation of the beautiful but dangerous datura persists in the nineteenth-century language of flowers, in which datura is an emblem of “deceitful charms” (see The Language of Flowers by Louise Cortambert).
A recent but controversial interpretation of Sandro Botticelli’s painting of Venus and Mars (The National Gallery, London) identifies the green fruit held by the satyr at the lower right-hand corner of the work as a thorn apple. On a blog about art historical topics, author Hasan Niyazi dedicated two posts to the arguments for and against the identification: “Misrepresenting Botticelli for the Modern Era” and “An update on Botticelli’s Venus and Mars“. (I am inclined to agree with those who identify the fruit as a member of the cucumber family, rather than a datura.)
Datura metel was associated with the worship of the Hindu god Shiva from at least the ninth century. A number of other hallucinogenic species in this small genus, including D. inoxia, D. ferox, and D. stramonium, known as Jimson weed, have been revered as sacred plants and used ritually by indigenous peoples in North, Central, and South America. Botanists long believed that the genus was indigenous to both the Old and New Worlds; more recent studies indicate that all daturas are of New World origin, although Datura metel may have have been introduced to the Old World in pre-Columbian times. (The historical evidence is discussed in The Journal of Bioscience, 32(7), December 2007, 1227–1244 (PDF).
Common thorn apple, or Jimson weed, is not a garden subject, but a noxious weed species found in both tropical and temperate climate zones. Datura stramonium contains the same poisonous alkaloids as D. metel. Above, from left to right: Common thorn apple in flower; the mature capsule splits open to spill its seeds.
Datura stramonium is now a common weed in both the Old and New worlds, and is widely found on waste ground in the U.S., both in urban and rural contexts. (See the U.S.D.A. Plant Database.) The common name, Jimson weed, is a corruption of “Jamestown weed,” and refers to a famous incident in which some British soldiers in the Virgina colony mistakenly ingested the plant and grew so delirious that they were incarcerated for their own safety. When they regained their right minds, which took eleven days, they had no recollection of their experiences.
For more on the chemical character and cultural history of the genus, see The Genus Datura: From Research Subject to Powerful Hallucinogen, an ethnobotanical leaflet published by Southern University of Illinois Herbarium.
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.
Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. 1931. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications.
Lewis, Walter H. and Memory P.F. Elwin Lewis. Medical Botany: Plants Affecting Man’s Health. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1977.