Basic Illustrated Poisonous and Psychoactive Plants

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In Peru, the bitter mescaline-rich cactul Trichocereus pachanoi became the basis of the San Pedro curative cults of the northern Andes.

Here the preferred form of administration is the decoction, a tea served up at the long nocturnal ceremonies during which time the patients' problems were diagnosed. At dawn they would be sent on the long pilgrimages high into the mountains to bathe in the healing waters of a number of sacred lakes. Lowland South America has provided several exceedingly important and chemically fascinating hallucinogenic preparations, notably the intoxicating yopo Anadenanthera peregrina and ebene Virola calophylla, V. Yopo is prepared from the seeds of a tall forest tree which are roasted gently and then ground into a fine powder, which is then mixed with some alkaline substance, often the ashes of certain leaves.

Ebene is prepared from the blood red resin of certain trees in the nutmeg family. Preparations vary but frequently the bark is stripped from the tree and slowly heated to allow the resin to collect in a small earthenware pot where it is boiled down into a thick paste, which in turn is sundried and powdered along with the leaves of other plants. Ayahuasca comes from the rasped bark of a forest liana which is carefully heated in water, again with a number of admixture plants, until a thick decoction is obtained.

Basic Illustrated Poisonous and Psychoactive Plants (Basic Illustrated Series)

All three products are violently hallucinogenic and it is of some significance that they all contain a number of subsidiary plants that, in ways not yet fully understood, intensify or lengthen the psychoactive effects of the principal ingredients. This is an important feature of many folk preparations and it is due in part to the fact that different chemical compounds in relatively small concentrations may effectively potentiate each other, producing powerful synergistic effects - a biochemical version of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

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The awareness of these properties is evidence of the impressive chemical and botanical knowledge of the traditional peoples. In the Old World may be found some of the most novel means of administering hallucinogens. In southern Africa, the Bushmen of Dobe, Botswana absorb the active constituents of the plant kwashi Puncratium trianthum by incising the scalp and rubbing the juice of the onion-like bulb into the open wound.

The fly agaric Amanita muscaria , a psychoactive mushroom used in Siberia, may be toasted on a fire or made into a decoction with reindeer milk and wild blueberries. In this rare instance the active principals pass through the body unaltered, and the psychoactive urine of the intoxicated individual may be consumed by the others. Certain European hallucinogens - notably the solanaceous belladonna Atropa belladonna , henbane Hyoscyamus niger , mandrake Mandragora officinarum and datura Datura metel - are topically active; that is the active principals are absorbed directly through the skin.

We now know, for example, that much of the behavior associated with the medieval witches is as readily attributable to these drugs as to any spiritual communion with the diabolic. The witches commonly rubbed their bodies with hallucinogenic ointments. A particularly efficient means of self-administering the drug for women is through the moist tissues of the vagina; the witch's broomstick or staff was considered a most effective applicator. Our own popular image of the haggard woman on a broomstick comes from the medieval belief that witches rode their staffs each midnight to the sabbat, the orgiastic assembly of demons and sorcerers.

In fact, it now appears that their journey was not through space but across the hallucinatory landscape of their minds. There is in the worldwide distribution of the hallucinogenic plants a pronounced and significant discrepancy that has only inadequately been accounted for but which serves to illustrate a critical feature of their role in traditional societies. Of the or more such plants found to date, over are native to the Americas; the Old World has contributed a mere species.

How might this be explained? To be sure it is in part an artifact of the emphasis of academic research. A good many of these plants have entered the literature due to the efforts of Professor R. Schultes and his colleagues at the Harvard Botanical Museum and elsewhere, and their interest has predominantly been in the New World.

Yet were the hallucinogenic plants a dominant feature of traditional cultures in Africa and Eurasia, surely they would have shown up in the extensive ethnographic literature and in the journals of traders and missionaries. With few notable exceptions, they don't. Nor is this discrepancy due to floristic peculiarities.

The rainforests of West Africa and Southeast Asia, in particular, are exceedingly rich and diverse. Moreover, the peoples of these regions have most successfully explored them for pharmacologically active compounds for use both as medicines and poisons. In fact, as much as any other material trait the manipulation of toxic plants remains a consistent theme throughout sub-Saharan African cultures.

The Amerindian, for their part, were certainly no strangers to plant toxins which they commonly exploited as fish, arrow and dart poisons. Yet it is a singular fact that while the peoples of Africa consistently used these toxic preparations on each other, the Amerindian almost never did. And while the Amerindian successfully explored his forest for hallucinogens, the African did not.

This suggests the critical fact that the use of any pharmacologically active plant - remembering that the difference between hallucinogen, medicine and poison is often a matter of dosage - is firmly rooted in culture. If the peoples of Africa did not explore their environment for psychoactive drugs, surely it is because they felt no need to. In many Amerindian societies the use of plant hallucinogens lies at the very heart of traditional life.

To begin to understand the role that these powerful plants play in these societies, however, it is essential to place the drugs themselves in proper context.

Basic Illustrated Poisonous and Psychoactive Plants by Jim Meuninck

For one, the pharmacologically active components do not produce uniform effects. On the contrary, any psychoactive drug has within it a completely ambivalent potential for good or evil, order or chaos. Pharmacologically it induces a certain condition, but that condition is mere raw material to be worked by particular cultural or psychological forces and expectations.

This is what our own medical experts call the "set and setting" of any drug experience.

ISBN 10: 076279190x

Set in these terms is the individual's expectations of what the drug will do to him; setting is the environment - both physical and social - in which the drug is taken. This may be illustrated by an example from our own country. In the northwest rainforests of Oregon are a number of native species of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Those who go out into the forest deliberately intending to ingest these mushrooms generally experience a pleasant intoxication.

Those who inadvertently consume them while foraging for edible mushrooms invariably end up in the poison unit of the nearest hospital.