The Old Favourites
Historically, many of the plants used for their psychoactive effects were members of the Solanaceae family. These plants tend to be highly toxic so the human race's desire to get high has always carried with it the risk of poisoning, possibly fatal.
Some of the most frequently used of these plants were;
Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane
Gustav Schenk's experience of using henbane has already been mentioned in the A to Z section of The Poison Garden website but here is a fuller account.
When a young man, while staying in a remote village studying
plants, Schenk decided to experiment with the effects of Black
henbane. He roasted some seeds and inhaled the fumes given
off. In ‘The Book of Poisons’ he describes the effects.
His description is incomplete as he says that one of the key effects is to obliterate memory and he could not recall how many seeds he had roasted or much other detail of the experience. Within a quarter of an hour he suffered great pain and physical discomfort, his head felt as though it were enlarged and he was extremely thirsty. Shortly after, he lost his short-term memory and could not understand what was making him feel so unwell. He felt himself being cut-off from the world; his sight became dim and he seemed to be deaf but he became very aware of the sounds being made within his own body. The room seemed to be moving all around him. Once recovered, he concluded that he must have been moving around the room but did not experience any sensation of movement by his body.
The feeling of panic caused by his seeming withdrawal from the world around him and the visual hallucinations he was having was, suddenly, replaced by tremendous amusement. This amusement didn’t last long and was replaced by the feeling that his body was separating into its component parts. His arm and foot began talking to him and then he was convinced that his body was about to dissolve. At this point he experienced the sensation that he was flying and the terror that his body might separate completely was balanced by the joy of flying.
Though his visions were of soaring high above the ground he never lost the sense of being seriously ill and the conflict between the constant urge to move and the lack of the strength to move gave him great discomfort.
When the visions subsided they were replaced with nausea and pain plus a ‘grey misery’ filling his mind which lasted for some time.
Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade
A relative of the Hyoscyamus niger and capable of producing hallucinations. Also, if the story of Marie Jeanneret, is typical, tolerance can be developed which is a sign of an addictive substance. Jeanneret was a Swiss who was fascinated with the effects of belladonna and experimented on herself so much that she developed tolerance and it no longer produced any symptoms for her. This led her to become a nurse so that she could use her patients as guinea pigs, seven of whom died as a result.
Datura spp. including Brugmansia spp.
The non-fatal effects of Datura are said to be great relaxation, followed by hallucinations and then sleep. Indian whores were said to give it to their clients both to avoid delivering the service which was expected and also to make them easy to rob as they slept.
It seems possible that the hallucinations might have created the impression that these poor fools had enjoyed many exotic treats and they may have attributed their empty pockets to having had to pay for the many 'extras' which, in fact, existed only in their drug-induced sleep.
Though revered as an aphrodisiac, mandrake is actually quite a powerful narcotic. Given the very high price, it is likely that only tiny amounts were consumed and it has been supposed that any effect it may have had on sexual performance was based on its reputation not on its chemical constituents. These days however, we recognize a condition called 'performance stress' or 'stress impotence' which makes me wonder if the mildly narcotic effect of consuming very small amounts of mandrake might have been enough to relax the taker enabling him to deliver a greatly enhanced performance which he would attribute wholly to the effects of plant.
But, the Solanum family did not have the monopoly on psychoactive effects;
Even something like the humble lettuce has mildly narcotic effects which seem to have been used to produce a state of relaxation.