Palomar College

American Indian Studies

Datura sp.

Datura sp.


It is clear to me that the elders were certain about the danger of contact with this plant. 
The Chumash, for example, tell this story about the plant. 

This story happened long ago, when people and plants were not so different.  Grandmother Datura washed herself every morning.  It was the chore of her young grandson to bring and take away her wash water.  Each morning she warned him to be careful when carrying away her wash water, to avoid touching it or being splashed by it.  If the water should touch him, she said, he was sure to die.  So, he was very careful, every day. 

The years passed and the Grandson grew into a strong and handsome man; he was so smart and thoughtful and compassionate that most of the community assumed he would one day be their leader.  Even though he was quite admired and envied by the community he never forgot his responsibility to his Grandmother Datura and he never failed in his duty to bring and carry away her wash water.

One day, the Grandson brought his Grandmother Datura her wash water and he waited, as always, for her to wash so he could empty the basin.  Once out of the house, he was momentarily distracted by a bird he accidentally startled and the water in the basin slipped over the lip and a drop touched his hand.  He immediately fell down dead.  The End.

The fact that this story ends as it does, should be a warning to the people of today.  This is an old story and while we sometimes discount "old wives' tales," in this instance, it is proof that the deadly effects of this plant have long been known to Indian people of the Southwestern United States and Northwestern Mexico and to tribal peoples all over the world.  It's name is said to have originated in India.

The records of certain anthropologists outline the recipes for the datura concoction consumed by select Indian men during ceremonies in Southern California.  Several things are striking about the recipes as a group.  First, it is probable that each hechicero or datura shaman used the their own plant each time a concoction was made. This is important, because it indicates that each separate plant, depending on the chemical constituents of the soil and water it receives, has a different level of toxins.  It is therefore probable that hechiceros calculated the strength of the tea based on their knowledge of the properties of a particular plant.  A hechicero who erred and killed someone under their care was typically killed as retribution.  So dangerous was the concoction that the hechicero buried his equipment between uses, a precaution to prevent accidental poisoning by someone mistakenly thinking the equipment was for food preparation.

"Those who have taken the draught must be watched day and night by the elders, lest they wander away and be destroyed."  This is the caution of the recorders of recipes for the datura concoctions used in Southern California.  It is interesting that the phrase. "...lest they wander away and be destroyed," is repeated verbatim in each recipe.

The destruction comes from the alkaloids present in the plant material.  They are not destroyed by the heat of smoking the plant or by pouring boiling water over the plant parts to make tea.  The alkaloids can cause respiratory and cardiac failure. The Native elders knew this and warn strongly against its ingestion to this day.  They know there are no more hechiceros

Every year, some young people seek a recreational high and think that this is a cheap and pure source of hallucinogens.  Occasionally, someone survives the experience, but typically the risk of death from the ingestion is quite high.  The local datura victim for 2004 was Eric Sears, a 17 year old Carlsbad resident.  Here is the story by Tim Mayer from the July 23, 2004 North County Times:

CARLSBAD ---- What had been a firm, bright flame of hope turned to grief and mourning Friday evening as word spread across the city that a body believed to be that of 17-year-old Eric Sears had been discovered in Joshua Tree National Park.

Neighbors of the Sears family gathered on front lawns, in driveways and inside open garages talking quietly, trying their best to ignore the rumble of generators from TV vans parked sometimes bumper to bumper along normally quiet Cynthia Lane east of Interstate 5.

Yellow ribbons tied to virtually every tree, pole, mailbox post and porch looked forlorn.

"What's particularly difficult about this is that in our hearts, we probably knew this was inevitable, but when it hits, it's very emotional," said neighbor Joe Ramirez.

Ramirez said his family moved to the neighborhood 11 years ago and that the Sears were "the very first people we met."

"I watched their children grow up," he said. "Eric baby-sat my kids. It's incomprehensible what the family must be going through. But our hearts go out to them. We're going to pull together and help the family."

On the porch of the Sears' home, signs with messages of hope, flowers, and red, white and blue candles formed what was to be a welcome for the family when they returned. Parents Tom and Wendy Sears have remained at the desert campground since shortly after their son was reported missing.

Officials said the Sears family was in seclusion Friday night in nearby Twenty-Nine Palms and that their daughter, Stephanie, 19, was en route to join them.

Teenage friends through the late afternoon brought still more flowers, walking up in pairs, arm-and-arm. It seemed nobody wanted to be alone on this day.

Many were expected to return later in the evening to share prayers and light candles against the darkness at the Sears' home, something they have done night after night this week.

Neighbors and friends said the mutual support provided by the small, close community has at times been the only thing that carried them through more than a week of waiting. Groups of neighbors have traveled daily to Joshua Tree to help support the family.

"This just shows how important community is and getting to know your neighbors," said Julie Mennen.

Young children from the neighborhood gathered on the front porch of the home, kneeling to use small candles to spell out the word Love. Others placed chocolate "kisses" by the front door.

"I don't think any of us gave up hope," said neighbor Sue Ward. "If you don't have hope, you don't have anything."

Friends of Eric Sears mourn

Neighbors of Eric Sears place candles that spell 'Love' on the front doorstep of the Sears home in Carlsbad Friday evening after a body believed to be Eric was discovered in Joshua Tree National Park Friday morning.
Jamie Scott Lytle

Here is the story from KESQ Television, Channel 3, Palm Springs, CA from Tuesday, August 3, 2004

While searchers in Joshua Tree National Park looked for a missing San Diego teenager several ago weeks ago his friend and camping partner was admitting to police he knew Eric Sears was dead.

This is just one of many startling revelations made by Sears' friend Ben Fogelstrom, the person now at the center of an ongoing investigation into Sears' death.

Now a search warrant request for Fogelstrom's home is providing new details about how Sears disappeared.

Investigators say 17 year old Ben Fogelstrom gave conflicting statements about how his friend Eric Sears disappeared.

According to this recently released affidavit, investigators gave Fogelstrom a lie detector test. This while searchers were still looking for Sears in the Joshua Tree National Park.

According to the affidavit, Fogelstrom tearfully admitted during an interview with detectives that he found Sears dead inside his tent. He said that happened the day he reported Sears missing.

Fogelstrom said he and Eric both drank a tea made from jimson weed the night before. Jimson is a hallucinogenic drug. Fogelstrom told detectives that night, while he was high on the drug, he spoke to a bush, an Indian and possibly to Eric Sears.

And Fogelstrom told investigators the next day he disposed of Sears’ body by putting it inside an outhouse toilet at their campsite. But according to the affidavit that's when Fogelstrom stopped talking to investigators and then changed his story.

Investigators say he later denied dumping sears body in an outhouse and said that's not where I put him." Investigators checked several park toilets, but searchers eventually found Sears’ body in the middle of the desert, about 3 miles from the Jumbo Rocks campground.

Sheriff's investigators say they are still trying to corroborate what Fogelstrom told them about Sears’ death.

“Whatever information was given to us in the affidavit, investigators are looking into it and looking at every scenario in the affidavit.”

But despite statements Fogelstrom apparently made in this affidavit, the sheriff's department says he is not a suspect in Sears’ death. They do say that he is still a focus of their investigation as investigators try to figure out exactly how the 17 year old ended up dead in the Joshua Tree desert.

Here is an article by Mark Wheeler from the Hi-Desert Star, August 15, 2004:

Jimson weed: a fatal beauty

MORONGO BASIN - The recent (7/15/2004) Eric Sears tragedy in Joshua Tree National Park has put "jimson weed" into the front page news. It's another in a long line of old stories. Almost every summer there's another incident: someone playing fast and loose with a dangerous chemistry she or he doesn't know anything about.

Datura wrightii is the botanical name for a plant found in abundance in the Morongo Basin and adjacent desert lands. One of two species native to the Mojave and Colorado deserts region, it is in the same family as the edible potato, tomato and pepper, along with a number of other plants notorious for their toxicity, such as henbane.

What makes Datura - the name from India - so poisonous is its concentration of alkaloid compounds.

These chemical additives act on the nerve endings in the human body. Effects range from agitation to lethargy, but the famous power of these compounds to dull pain and reduce muscle spasm shows that the tranquilizing affect is most typical.

Indeed, respiratory arrest - a cessation of breathing - is universally mentioned in all botanical and medical warnings about this plant.

Other symptoms of Datura poisoning include visual disturbances, nausea, fever, delirium and acute cardiac difficulties.

That death is a genuine risk when using it as anything but a photo subject is well demonstrated in Bean's and Saubel's book on Cahuilla plant usage. They note: "Even among the Cahuilla with their long experience with the drug, accidents have occurred  and a number of deaths have resulted."

As remarked in many texts, Datura's mystical reputation derives from its use, wherever in the world it grows, by indigenous peoples for non-ordinary reality and spiritual purposes. Southern California tribes, according to Bean and Saubel again, used it for marathon dancing and singing ceremonies, and for male rite-of-passage ordeals.

Medicinally, the Toloache, by its Mexican name, and thorn-apple by another North American common name, is an important source for atropine and scopolamine. The former is used as an anti-spasmodic, and the latter is found in treatments for vertigo and seasickness.

Epel wrote in his "Herbal Field Guide to Plant Families," that, "Soldiers in the Persian Gulf War carried the alkaloid atropine with them as a treatment for nerve gas attacks." The anti-spasmodic effects which made it such a boon in the Middle East serve only to illustrate how deadly this plant, and its properties, is as a central nervous system depressant here in the civilian world.

Found along roadsides right now throughout the Basin, Datura is a lush and beautiful attraction. Its large, white trumpet flowers, increasingly darkened by purple with age, cannot fail to elicit comments of admiration from the passerby, especially when the bush is full and plentifully supplied with blossoms.

It's a far better object of admiration, though, than it is a source of entertainment, as many have learned, sometimes fatally. "Look but don't touch," is what the plant should say to all of us. After all, it is a member of the Solanaceae family, by another name, "Nightshade." Think about it.

The tragedy affected more than Eric's family and friends.  If he hadn't taken the datura, two rescue searchers wouldn't have died in an accident during the attempt to find him.  Here is the story by Michelle Willey, Dave Miller and LeAnn Robinson from the Hi-Desert Times, July 20, 2004:

Crash claims two rescuers' lives; driver pleads not guilty

JOSHUA TREE - Judge James McGuire entered a plea of not guilty Tuesday for Joseph Tidwell, 35, of Wonder Valley, who is accused of killing two people while driving under the influence of drugs early Saturday morning in Morongo Valley.

The judge also raised Tidwell's bail to $1 million because of his prior criminal record.

Tidwell is charged with two counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and one count of causing bodily injury while driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The two people Tidwell is accused of killing were San Bernardino County Sheriff's search and rescue volunteers on their way to help search for missing hiker Eric Sears in Joshua Tree National Park.

The volunteers' van was hit head-on by Tidwell's van Saturday; the Wonder Valley man allegedly was under the influence of multiple illicit drugs.

"The sheriff's van was traveling eastbound on Twentynine Palms Highway near Navajo Trail in the No. 1 lane," said California Highway Patrol investigator Jeff Arnswald. "Tidwell was driving westbound in the No. 1 eastbound lane and a head-on collision took place."

Tidwell lost consciousness due to his drug intoxication, causing his truck to drift across the roadway directly into the path of the sheriff's van, the CHP reported.

Scott Johnston, 30, of Redlands, died at the scene.

Philip Calvert, 58, of Mentone, was transported to Desert Regional Medical Center with major injuries and died early Tuesday morning, according to a CHP report.

Shane Elliott, 34, from Redlands, a passenger in the sheriff's van, was taken to Desert Regional Medical Center with major injuries. Dave Atchley, 45, was taken to Desert Regional Medical Center with minor injuries, the CHP news release states.

Tidwell was not hurt in the accident, but his 35-year-old female passenger from Coachella suffered major injuries and was transported to Arrowhead Medical Center.

According to sheriff's spokeswoman Arden Wiltshire, several other sheriff's vehicles were following behind the group when the van was hit and they stopped to help.

A chaplain and counseling team came up and spoke to the followers because they were traumatized and devastated about the accident, Wiltshire added.

"It's a tragedy that five of our volunteers were injured en route to save someone else's life," Wiltshire said.

Tidwell, who has a prior DUI arrest record, was arrested at the scene and booked into the San Bernardino County Jail on the charge of murder.

Arnswald, a member of the CHP's Multi-disciplinary Accident Investigation Team, which was activated early Saturday morning, described a picture of devastation which he found upon reaching the scene after being called from his home.

Arnswald said Johnston was dead when he reached the scene.

Twentynine Palms Highway was covered in debris from the two wrecked vehicles and the injured from both vehicles were being treated.

"Of all the injured and the one death at the scene, only one person escaped injury and that was the driver of the vehicle that caused the accident," Arnswald said.

"He (Tidwell) had no injuries. He appeared to be under the influence of heroin and because he had priors, we arrested him on suspicion of murder and booked him into the Morongo Basin Jail," Arnswald said.

"Even his (Tidwell's) girlfriend, who was riding with him, suffered major leg fractures. Neither of them were wearing seat belts; the airbags saved both of them."

A small stretch of Twentynine Palms Highway was closed and traffic backed up for more than seven hours Saturday.

Emergency signs were placed on Interstate 10 before the Twentynine Palms Highway exit warning of the closed highway. Vehicles were diverted to dirt roads around the highway.

Tidwell is no relation to former San Bernardino County Sheriff Floyd Tidwell, a sheriff's spokesman said.


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