Despite its origins of medicinal usage, the plant known as datura caused an uproar among students in the late 1980s.
Nicknamed jimsonweed, this elegant yet toxic plant has been the topic of study among horticulturists for centuries. Known for its beauty and destruction, the datura is a member of a genus that is historically dangerous..
About 25 years ago, several students living at Jackson Hall ingested a deadly amount of datura and were all admitted to the emergency room.
The students were reported to have mixed the leaves with a liquid in order to experience the plant’s full potential effect as well as to circumvent any suspicion from the residential hall employees. The students endured a loss of bodily sensation along with any sense of reality which resulted in forms of self-mutilation including castration and skin removal.
When the students were admitted to the hospital, anthropology professor Jim Garber was called to the scene. Garber teaches several undergraduate courses including Magic, Ritual and Religion, where students are educated about the plant's uses for religious purposes.
"Traditionally, the plant was used in witchcraft," Garber said. "Witches would apply the leaves to their skin in order to experience the loss of sensation for ritual tactics."
Garber said on the night of the incident, he was notified that several students at Jackson Hall were having a dangerous reaction to some type of drug. He said the students stood in a horizontal line on the common room coffee table and repeatedly fell flat on their faces one at a time.
Garber said the incident put one student in a mental institution. He was informed that it took several months for the drug to wear off, and one has not fully recovered.
"A student told me he took LSD in order to gain back a sense of reality," Garber said. "That's how bad off these kids were."
Although the plant can produce mind-altering effects, datura is grown domestically throughout the country. According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, datura grows wild in the U.S. and can be found in people's backyards.
Tina Marie Cade, professor of horticulture, has studied plants such as datura. She said the plant is sold commercially in the horticulture industry and although it is toxic and hallucinogenic, the plant also has medicinal properties.
In history, datura has been used as a sedative and a catalyst for shamans to encounter the spirit world. In modern medicine, the plant can be used to treat problems associated with the heart, lungs and nervous system.
Datura has made appearances in popular culture, most notably in Carlos Castaneda’s book “The Teachings of Don Juan,” published in 1968. The drug has had an influence on counter-culture and college students in the late 20th century.
"I tell my students this story because I want them to be aware of the dangers," Garber said. "I don't encourage anyone to experiment with this drug."
Despite these catastrophic results, the plant currently can be found in the Living Library located on campus.