Brugmansia sanguinea

This cultivated specimen of scarlet angel’s trumpet or red floripontio was photographed in the Berkeley Botanical Garden this past April. Like all members of the genus, it is native to South America: in this case, the mountain slopes of the Andes from northern Colombia to northern Chile at elevations of 2000-300m (6500-9750ft).

The photograph doesn’t provide an idea of scale, so I need to note that the flowers are roughly 20cm (8in) in length. The Preissels, in their book Brugmansia and Datura: Angel’s Trumpets and Thorn Apples, note that Brugmansia sanguinea “is the most wonderfully colored of all” members of the genus, with significant variation in number of colours on the flowers (up to three) and range of colours (from brilliant red to pink, orange to light yellow). Intriguingly, flower colour is correlated with temperature, so flowers developing in the summer will be differently shaded than flowers borne in the autumn. Too hot of conditions, however, will lead to flower development being inhibited in this species.

Unlike other members of the genus, Brugmansia sanguinea is not fragrant. Its pollinator (hummingbirds) doesn’t rely on scent, but instead homes in on the (typically) red colouration.

Members of the Solanaceae often (always?) contain potent alkaloids. In the case of Brugmansia species, scopolamine and related compounds are found in high concentrations. At extremely low doses (e.g., 330 micrograms / day is cited by Wikipedia), scopolamine can be medicinal for purposes of treating nausea or intestinal pain. Somewhat higher doses were/are taken by indigenous peoples of South America to enter a mind-altering state purportedly used to make contact with the gods or spiritual ancestors. This has led to the occasional modern-day recreational usage, but I would say (in my opinion) only in instances of extreme stupidity given that it is: a) easy to take a fatal dose; and b) painful. Here’s an account cited in the book by the Preissels, from J.J. von Tschudi’s observations during travels in Peru between 1838-1842 (so in the public domain, I hope):

“The beautiful red Thorn Apple trees (Datura [Brugmansia] sanguinea) grow at the river’s edge … on the less steep slopes of the mountain. The natives call them Huacacachu, yerba de Huaca or Bovachero and use the fruit to prepare a very strong narcotic drink which they call Tonga. Its effect is terrifying. I once had the opportunity of watching how it affected an Indian who wanted to communicate with the spirits of his ancestors. The ghastly scene is so impregnated in my memory that I will never forget it. Soon after drinking the Tonga, the man fell into a dull brooding, he stared vacantly at the ground, his mouth was closed firmly, almost convulsively and his nostrils were flared. Cold sweat covered his forehead. He was deathly pale. The jugular veins on his throat were swollen as large as a finger and he was wheezing as his chest rose and sank slowly. His arms hung down stiffly by his body. Then his eyes misted over and filled with huge tears and his lips twitched convulsively for a brief moment. His carotids were visibly beating, his respiration increased and his extremities twitched and shuddered of their own accord.”

“This condition would have lasted about a quarter of an hour, then all these actions increased in intensity. His eyes were now dry but had become bright red and rolled about wildly in their sockets and all his facial muscles were horribly distorted. A thick white foam leaked out between his half open lips. The pulses on his forehead and throat were beating too fast to be counted. His breathing was short, extraordinarily fast and did not seem to lift the chest, which was visibly fibrillating. A mass of sticky sweat covered his whole body which continued to be shaken by the most dreadful convulsions. His limbs were hideously contorted. He alternated between murmuring quietly and incomprehensibly and uttering loud, heart-rending shrieks, howling dully and moaning and groaning. This dreadful condition lasted for a long time until gradually the strength of the symptoms abated and peace was restored. Immediately the women hurried over, and washed him all over with cold water and made him comfortable on some sheepskins. He then slept quietly for several hours. In the evening I saw the man again when, surrounded by a circle of attentive listeners, he was relating his visions and his talks with the spirits of his ancestors. He seemed to be very tired. His eyes were glassy, his body was limp and his movements were lethargic.”

And, in case that isn’t enough to dissuade, here is a search on Google for fatal Datura with results pointing to a number of separate incidences of death (often young and male). Datura is a close relative of Brugmansia, with the same set of alkaloids.

Brugmansia sanguinea

13 responses to “Brugmansia sanguinea”

  1. Doug

    I love the seed pods of our local datura, d. stramonium…

  2. Rob Montgomery

    Thanks for such a great ethnobotanical report! Indeed this is a spectacular beauty in bloom, and is one of the only Brugmansia species tolerant of frosts (rare B.vulcanicola as well). You might like to know that Tommie Earl Lockwood’s ’70’s PhD thesis presented interspecific compatibilities and his unpublished ms. documented hundreds of his wild accessions which were lamentably tossed into the Harvard greenhouses’ compost upon his untimely death with students on a collecting trip. I was given the rescued clones, labels lost forever by colleague Tim Plowman. In the course of fieldwork (Andean Ecuador through Chile) I had the opportunity to ‘bioassay’ B.sanguinea and others, with trusted local healers. I must concur with your quoted experience, impressive! Aside from the visionary significance, the specific folk medicine application is also very effective for safe, emergency relief of acute asthma when smoked.
    Still, for horticulture in our temperate coastal fog belt it remains rather unrepresented. The potential for new hybrids awaits, easily done.
    Keep up the great blog, more ethnobotany is welcome!

  3. phillip

    “occasional modern day recreational usage” this mans near death experience sure doesn’t sound like a day at Disneyland..!

  4. kcflowers

    Thank-you Daniel and Rob for a very interesting dialog about a very beautiful flower.

  5. Irma in Sweden

    Such an appropriate flower for the Christmas season. I wish you all a happy festive season and hope for a happy new year with many wonderful pictures and educating texts from you

  6. Pat

    Not just fatal but damages the brain permanently at sub-lethal doses. Many of the deaths come from the induced stupidity of the delirium. For example, three teenagers out of a group of four drowned themselves in a puddle because they were “Looking for red-eyed dolphins.”
    In India deaths usually occur from Datura (which contains similar alkaloids) in the hot season because the alkaloids stop sweating.
    There have been cases where idiots or criminally irresponsible airheads have made ayahuasca preparations containing Brugmansia. In one case more than 30 people were hospitalised in the Czech Republic. Though this and related herbs are legal in most countries to own and grow, it should be remembered that it is illegal to give poisons to other people.
    The mnemonic for the symptoms of tropane alkaloid poisoning is “Blind as a bat, mad as a hatter, red as a beet”. Wikipedia gives an extended version, adding “hot as hell, dry as a bone, the bowel and bladder lose their tone, and the heart runs alone.”

  7. Lorax

    One of my favourite flowers. Here’s a bit of an idea of the seasonal colour variation in the Ecuadorean highlands – it appears that the colder the overnight temperatures, the deeper red the colour of the blossoms.
    This one is from Papallacta, at over 3,000 meters, which goes down to about 3 degrees C on a typical night.

    And this one is from Quito, which is only slightly lower at 2,850 meters, but which has significantly warmer nights.

  8. elizabeth a airhart

    i doubt if our american horror writer stephn king could write this
    as well as the author of this nightmare
    we have had so many young people in this county useing the angels
    and just about any thing else even the cipro i am takeing can cause
    all kinds of effects one needs to use care
    the flower is just beautiful looks lovely when it has grown full and lush
    hanging over pools of koi here in florida
    thank you for all the comments and writeing

  9. Claire B (Saskatoon)

    Wonderful write-up on a fascinating species. I’ve always loved the flowers of both Brugmansia and Datura but haven’t been great at overwintering them.
    Thanks to Daniel and staff for all the beautiful and educational entries all year long. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a wonderful New Year!

  10. Island Jim

    Several years ago, I came upon a B. sanguinea growing on a cliff above the ocean at Ft. Ross, California.
    http://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/showimage/29131/

  11. Jennifer Frazer

    I have used the Trans-Derm Scopalamine patch at the low dose you mention for seasickeness and it works beautifully. As always, the dose makes the poison! The major side effect is dry mouth, which is very common and usually happens pretty quickly. When I first tried it, I left the patch on for the full three days and found that by the end, in addition to the dry mouth, I experienced dry, swollen, painful eyes and lightheadedness. As a result, I try not to leave the patch on longer than I need it.
    It always delights me when I take it that it’s also one of the ingredients in “deadly nightshade” or “belladonna” (another Solanid — Atropa belladona — see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atropa_belladonna for more info). I wonder if the pharmaceutical companies synthesize it, or harvest it from plants, and if so, which ones.
    Thanks for the beautiful photo of a flower that makes a chemical that has saved my butt on more than one occasion! : )

  12. Pat

    Jennifer, the scopolamine is a little too complicated to synthesise. It is generally extracted from plants or made from one of the other tropanes. I seem to remember that Scopolia carniolica used to be grown commercially for this purpose but I don’t know what the current source is.

  13. Olga Kopp

    Sometimes Scopolamine is used in Latin America to rob and/or assault people. The person loses consciousness and later wake up without a penny in their pockets. It could be in a taxi or on the street when a stranger approaches the potential victim.

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