Students of Ethnobotany: Mr. Potato-head’s beautiful but deadly cousin

503px-Brugmansia_versicolor_1

Angel’s Trumpet. Image from Wikimedia Commons by berichard.

This ultimate edition of Students of Ethnobotany comes from Carina I., and teaches us that you can’t necessarily trust a plant just because it’s beautiful and comes from a good family.

Imagine this… you see a nice looking flower in a nearby garden, you take a whiff and BAM! Free will and the ability to reason are knocked right out of you! Sounds like a tale out of a science fiction story, doesn’t it?

But consider again, this plant does exist and it is actually in the same family as the common potato! This diabolical plant is commonly called Angel’s Trumpet, and it, along with the potato, are in the Solanaceae family (Khare, 2011).  The Angel’s Trumpet is in the genus Brugmansia and is named for its beautiful and ornamental hanging flowers. However, people don’t turn into zombies just by looking at the pretty flowers; all parts of the plant are poisonous and contain varying amounts of tropane alkaloids (Khare, 2011). One of these alkaloids is called scopolamine; this is the alkaloid that is extracted to create a powerful and dangerous drug.

Angel’s Trumpet is native to Mexico. The plant is now grown most often for ornamental purposes but medicinally the leaves and flowers are used as an anesthetic and to treat asthma (Khare, 2011). Traditionally the Brugmansia spp. has also been used in parts of South America, namely Peru, as a “magical plant”. These plants were used by shamans as a way to connect to the supernatural world for healing and prophecy ceremonies (Feo, 2004).

With that said we can now delve into the more fascinating and terrifying side of this flowering plant.  The scopolamine in the Brugmansia spp. can be extracted and refined to make the perfect drug for criminal activity. This drug induces a zombie-like state where a person is fully functioning but their free will and ability to reason no longer exist; they become completely obedient and subject to any requests or questions. On top of that, the drug also inhibits memory encoding, which means that after the drug trip the drugged person will not remember what happened to them (Duffy, 2007)! For these reasons, the drug is used often in Columbia for criminal activity to incapacitate victims for robberies, sexual assault, kidnappings, etc. It is such a rampant problem that on the government of Canada website they have this disclosure for travellers intending to go to Columbia (“Columbia”, 2013).

“Be wary of accepting snacks, beverages, gum or cigarettes from new acquaintances, as they may contain drugs that could put you at risk of sexual assault and robbery. Travellers are typically approached by someone asking for directions. The drug scopolamine is concealed in a piece of paper and is blown into the victim’s face. Exercise extreme caution, as the drug causes prolonged unconsciousness and serious medical problems.”

Conversely, this seemingly perfect criminal drug was once used by police for its side effects of inhibiting ones capacity to formulate a lie (since they can’t think for themselves or reason). In the 1960s the CIA tested scopolamine on two convicted prisoners who volunteered to take the drug in an attempt to prove their innocence. Under the drug the convicts denied the allegations and were later acquitted of their crimes in trial. The prisoners testified that the drug made them want to answer any question they heard and that their mind would focus only on true facts (House, 1931). However, despite the potential benefits of the drug for interrogation purposes, it was found that the residual effects outweighed the gains and thus scopolamine is no longer used by the police (Strachan, 2012).

So what have we learned today?

  • That looks and labels are DECEIVING! The Angel’s Trumpets are not so innocent, this plant is the source of what some are calling is the SCARIEST drug on Earth (Strachan, 2012).
  • And that zombies do exist… kind of.
comic angel trumpet

Angel’s trumpet is not so angelic! Illustration by Carina I.

 

References:

Colombia. (2013). Travel.gc.ca. Retrieved from http://travel.gc.ca/destinations/colombia

Duffy, R. (2007). Columbian Devil’s Breath. Vice. Retrieved from http://www.vice.com/en_ca/vice-news/colombian-devil-s-breath-1-of-2

Feo, V. (2004). The ritual use of Brugmansia species in traditional Andean medicine in northern Peru. Springer.

House, R. E. (1931). The Use of Scopolamine in Criminology. The American Journal of Police Science, 2, 328-336.

Khare, C. (2011). Indian Medicinal Plants: An Illustrated Dictionary A Springer Live Reference. Heidelberg, Germany: Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg.

Strachan, Y. (2012). Is Scopolamine the world’s scariest drug?. Digital Journal. Retrieved from http://digitaljournal.com/article/324779

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