Potent chemicals lurk behind some of South America's most alluring blossoms.
In 1857 the French poet Charles Baudelaire published a collection of poems entitled The Flowers of Evil. Being a botanist, I once searched through the volume, curious as to which flowers he had in mind. I should have realized that poets don't mean things so literally. Had Baudelaire needed to single out a bloom whose beauty was coupled with malevolence, however, I would have offered him a flowering branch of Brugmansia, the angel's-trumpet of South America. This tree's flowers are among the largest and most sumptuous in the plant kingdom, while the stems, leaves, and roots contain narcotic and hallucinogenic compounds that alter the behavior of mind and body. Dozens of indigenous peoples in South America have used these plants in ways medicinal, ritualistic, and, in some instances, criminal.
Brugmansia is a genus of small trees and shrubs in the nightshade family, the Solanaceae (which includes potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants as well as tobacco and many ornamental genera), The majority of its five or six species are native to the hills and mountains of the Andean countries, but one, B. suaveolens, is found in parts of coastal Brazil. I have seen Brugmansia resplendent with pendent tubular or trumpet-shaped blossoms, some measuring twenty inches from stem to tip, and can think of no other tree that has such a large proportion of its output diverted to floral flag-waving. The blooms have an almost fleshy texture, and the color may be ocher, ivory, soft pink, yellow, or even, in the species B. sanguinea, a combination of blood red and canary yellow. One feels compelled to fondle the flowers and inhale the complex perfume that wafts from the long trumpets. No wonder some native trailblazer was drawn to sample the taste of the plant; what an interesting meal that must have made.
Most potent among Brugmansia's chemicals is the alkaloid scopolamine, formerly used during childbirth for its amnesia-inducing properties. In low doses, it can prevent motion sickness and is one of the ingredients of an antinausea medicine given to astronauts during weightlessness training. Overdosing may lead to delusions, hallucinations, and sometimes death. A modest dose of atropine, another alkaloidal compound found within Brugmansia, acts as an antidote to pesticide and nerve-gas poisoning, but an overdose can cause delirium, convulsions, and coma. This is definitely not a plant to be used by the self-medicating.
Although the narcotic and hallucinogenic properties of the angel'strumpet were well known to various South American peoples at the time of the Spanish conquest, the religious matrix surrounding indigenous consumption of the plants has long since evaporated in most areas. Among the more ghoulish ancient usages were those by the Chibcha Indians of Colombia. According to a sixteenth-century narrative by the soldier and cleric Juan de Castellanos, when a chief died, "his women and slaves" were anesthetized so that they could be buried (quieted, but alive) with the departed. More recent reports from Colombia indicate a burgeoning use of powdered Brugmansia or its extracts to dose unsuspecting victims before robbery or rape.
The early European explorers who ventured into the South American wilderness included those seeking riches (gold, rubber, and quinine), those seeking souls, and those in pursuit of hidden botanical treasures. They often traveled the same paths and river roads, but of the three types of explorers, botanists may have left the slightest footprints and the gentlest wake.
Among the modern-day scientists who explored Brugmansia in the field was the late Richard Evans Schultes, of Harvard University, renowned for his research on plants with therapeutic and psychoactive properties. During the winter of 1941-42, Schultes crossed the Colombian Andes before descending into the western Amazon Basin, his Eden. …