Monday, July 16, 2012

Solanaceae: the Nightshade Family

Rishidev Chaudhuri explores the Nightshade family of plants:
The classical Old World members of Solanaceae are plants like deadly nightshade (belladonna), datura, mandrake, angel's trumpet and henbane; these are famously the plants of Hecate and the occult. They are striking examples of the weird intersection of the toxic, the medicinal and the religious that characterize our relationship with plants, and of the thin line between the altered states of revelation and transcendent experience and those of poisoning and death. These plants inherit their toxicity from a group of compounds called tropane alkaloids, specifically atropine (after Atropos, the oldest of the Three Fates and the one who snips the thread of life), scopalamine and hyoscyamine. These alkaloids reduce the activity of acetylcholine, one of the brain's primary neuromodulators, by competing with it to lock onto neural receptors (and hence are called anticholinergics). . . .

Anyhow, these plants show a number of physiological effects, generally related to inhibition of the parasympathetic nervous system, and at low doses this allows for medical uses, including stimulating the heart and reducing various secretions, like saliva. They have been used to dilate pupils both for examination or for cosmetic reasons; pleased or aroused people have dilated pupils and the name “Belladonna” is said to come from women using these to dilate their pupils and make themselves more attractive. They have also been used for anesthesia and, along with opiates, as components of the “twilight sleep” induced in women during childbirth in the early 20th century.

More dramatically, though, these compounds cause powerful hallucinations. The hallucinations produced by anticholinergics are often contrasted with the hallucinations reported from psychedelics (think LSD and the drugs of the sixties); the former are described as “true” hallucinations, unfounded in sensory stimulus, as opposed to those caused by the psychedelics, which are typically thought of as distortions of sensory stimuli. Sometimes these substances are called deliriants, highlighting the nature of the intoxication. Despite their potential to produce altered states (and their legality), they seem to rarely be used recreationally. The hallucinations are reported as too strong and too terrifying; they can last for days and there is little euphoria. They are very clearly poisons. The only people who seem to use them are naïve teenagers looking to get high [e.g., jimsonweed around here] and brave people curious about various derangements of the senses. . . .

On the other hand, as their long association with witches attests, the members of Solanaceae have been used for spiritual and occult practices for quite a while. The “flying ointments” used by witches often contained Solanaceous plants and many people speculate that reports of flying and meeting with the Devil were the result of Solanaceae-induced delirium. Datura has also been reported in initiation and shamanic ceremonies in the Southwestern United States and Mexico (most famously in the writings of Carlos Castaneda, which are very entertaining but of dubious veracity), in various parts of Africa and in India. Like several other intoxicants, Datura is sacred to Shiva, and he is often pictured with a datura flower.

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