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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, June 18, 2001

Beautiful blossom devilish on humans

By Tanya Bricking
Advertiser Staff Writer

Schofield Barracks bans the beautiful blossoms.

Hallucinations are a common side effect from Angel's Trumpet flowers.*Roy Oda, a volunteer at Soka Gakkai International, looks at Angel's Trumpet in the organization's parking lot.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Emergency room doctors have stories about patients who have experienced its devilish highs.

Now parents in Kailua are taking notice of a pretty plant that carries a potent punch.

They say the Brugmansia species plant commonly called Angel's Trumpet, known for its long, white or salmon bell-shaped flowers that face the ground, is angelic in name only.

A 15-year-old Kalaheo High School student ended up in the Castle Medical Center emergency room last week after experimenting with the drug-like flower. The toxic effects made him so sick he was hallucinating, out of control and later embarrassed by an experience he doesn't remember.

"I'm just trying to help other parents," said his mother, who asked not to be named to protect her son's identity. "It's a poison. It's not like you have to buy it from a dealer. You just pluck it from a tree. But it doesn't seem to be a fun high."

The high of what Hawaiians call Nana honua, meaning "earth-gazing," is an agonizing one, said Craig Thomas, a Castle emergency room physician and an author of last year's book "Poisonous Plants of Paradise," which has a picture of Angel's Trumpet on its cover.

"It cannot be fun, and what's more, they don't remember it," Thomas said. "I guess if the word 'dangerous' doesn't turn people off, it's 'horrible.' You are disconnected from reality. You are seeing things that aren't there, and they're not nice."

Thomas once treated a high school science teacher who ate a couple of blossoms out of curiosity when he picked some up during an evening walk. The teacher and his wife, who took him to the emergency room, came to regret the experiment, Thomas said.

The Hawaii Poison Center handles at least a few calls a year from people experiencing the ill effects of the plant.

"We are well aware of its toxicity," said Val Leverenz, a nurse who answers poison center calls. "A couple weeks ago, we got a call from a guy who made tea out of the leaves."

The tea time was followed by a trip to the emergency room because of his hallucinations and blurry vision, she said.

Simply put: "It's not to get you high. It makes you nuts," said Heidi Bornhorst, director of the city's five botanical gardens. "Plant poisons are among the most dangerous poisons."

Roy Oda, a volunteer at Soka Gakkai International, looks at Angel's Trumpet in the organization's parking lot.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Shirley Gerum, a botany professor at Chaminade University of Honolulu, has been known to stop her car and get out just to get a closer look at Angel's Trumpet trees.

It has nothing to do with admiration. She stops to knock on doors or leave notes to warn people of their dangers.

Gerum once had to go to the hospital after accidentally touching a flower and experiencing a bad allergic reaction after touching her eye. She said she sometimes gets headaches when she transports the Angel's Trumpet in her car for show-and-tell for her poisonous plants class.

"To me, it's one of the most dangerous plants and one of the most beautiful plants on the island," she said.

The plant is similar to Jimson Weed, which was a drug fad on the Mainland a few years ago, she said. But she recommends that people rid their yards of Angel's Trumpet.

Schofield Barracks banned the flower from yards on its Army base in 1996, after soldiers had used flowers on base to get high. A clinical investigation written by a Tripler Army Medical Center doctor described what a bad high it was: One 19-year-old soldier brewed tea from the plant and then began suffering from emotional swings, poor coordination, disorientation and hallucinations about propeller blades.

Botanists warn that the pretty plant is nothing to play around with. It was linked to the 1982 death of a 50-year-old Nanakuli man, Nauga Savini Sr., who collapsed after drinking the juice of the plant in a concoction intended to treat abdominal pain.

While the plant has a history of being dried and smoked by asthma sufferers, it is too risky for experimentation, said David Duffy, a University of Hawai'i botany professor.

"It's sort of like Morning Glory on steroids. In the '60s, people experimented with that," said Duffy, who works near Sherman Laboratory, where Angel's Trumpet grows. "This is just way too powerful. It's like a 12-foot wave instead of a one-footer. It's not a hallucinogen. It's a poison. Things can really go wrong. You can overdo it far more easily than you can achieve what you want."

Kalaheo High School is handling the case of the boys with the bad high as a disciplinary matter. While Angel's Trumpet is not an illegal substance, the school follows the Department of Education's zero-tolerance policy regarding being under the influence of any dangerous substance.

Honolulu police have talked to the parents involved, but school administrators don't plan to change any rules regarding the flower.

"We really aren't police, and we aren't judges in school. We're parents," said Pamela Bond, Kalaheo's vice principal. "We use common sense. We tell little kids: 'Don't put stuff in your mouth.' We don't tell the big kids: 'Don't put stuff in your mouth.' We think they should know better."

At Soka Gakkai International, a Buddhist association on Pali Highway in Nu'uanu, Henry Miyamoto trims the Angel's Trumpet trees back as far as he can. He doesn't like it when the branches hang over a nearby bus stop bench.

"Those kids, if that's what they're doing, they're crazy," he said. "We know the potential of it, so we try to keep an eye on this stuff as much as possible. But it is a beautiful flower. We tell people: 'Just look at it.' "