View attachment 40463 The weird and fascinating world of mind-altering plants is the subject of an exhibition that opens today at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. As a reader of the Telegraph, you are, of course, an upright citizen – not at all the kind of person who would have any doings with mind-altering compounds.
Except what’s that by your elbow? A cup of tea? Dangerous stuff. Five cups a day are sufficient to cause addiction.
Or maybe you rely on coffee beans to get you going in the morning, to sharpen your reaction times, memory and reasoning skills and to banish sleep by blocking chemical signals in your brain? You’re not alone in needing that caffeine hit: more than 2.25 billion cups of coffee are consumed across the world every day.
View attachment 40464 Every mum whose first move, once the children are safely tucked up, is to hotfoot it downstairs for a glass of wine; every glum spirit who can be cheered with a bar of chocolate; let alone the few stubborn pariahs who experience the singular joy of the first cigarette of the day – all of us are self-medicating with psychoactive compounds.
We tend to think of mind-altering plants as dangerous and illicit – and, indeed, some are – but almost every culture around the globe uses plant intoxicants in one form or another, whether mild stimulants such as tea, kat and betel nut, or powerful and potentially lethal substances such as ayahuasca, opium or datura. How we see them – and use them – is conditioned by history and our culture.
The benign coca leaf, which for 8,000 years has staved off hunger, weariness and altitude sickness in the High Andes, is also the source of crack cocaine. In Victorian Britain, fretful infants were routinely dosed with Godfrey’s Cordial, a most effective mixture of treacle, water and opium. Alcohol, shunned by Islam, is a social emollient in most Christian societies. Cannabis, revered throughout the ancient world as a conduit to the divine, now provokes polarised views.
These conundrums are examined by Intoxication Season, an exhibition and series of talks devoted to psychoactive plants, at Kew. There is a chance to see them growing, some under special licence, in the Princess of Wales Conservatory, to taste them in cocktails or in curious confections devised by “jellymongers” Bompas & Parr and, while you may not be permitted to ingest cannabis, you can try knitting with it in the form of hemp.
Cultural historian and curator Mike Jay has made a study of the global role of mind-altering substances. “For me, it’s the most fascinating corner of our relationship with plants. I find it extraordinary in terms of both botany and biochemistry that so many plants contain alkaloids that correspond to our brain neurochemistry and can change the way that we think and feel, our moods and our perceptions. Their use is so universal, and informs so many different areas – botany, anthropology, ethnography, psychology, science, art, literature – it opens a window on to the whole span of human culture.”
Jay believes that we are hard-wired to seek out intoxicants, pointing out that animals do so, too. Indeed, many of the original myths for intoxicants begin with animal behaviour: coffee, for example, was allegedly discovered by an Ethiopian goatherd who noticed how frisky his animals became after eating the red berries. Similar tales exist about Sami herders pursuing reindeer in order to drink their urine: the animals were high on Amanita muscaria, commonly known as fly agaric (the white-spotted red toadstool that elves traditionally sit on).
According to Andy Letcher, mycologist, troubadour and author of Shroom, the definitive cultural history of the magic mushroom, this isn’t as unlikely as it sounds: Sami tribes do, in fact, feed their (tethered) reindeer the mushrooms and collect their urine, thereby filtering out the nastier toxins in this highly unpredictable fungus.
A similar process was observed by ethnologist Waldemar Jochelson in the early 20th century, in his studies of the Koryak peoples of north-eastern Siberia. He described men of the tribe chewing on hallucinogenic mushrooms, then urinating solemnly into an empty can labelled California Peaches. The liquid was subsequently shared out and drunk – an ingenious way of making a limited supply go further.
By contrast, Britain’s own magic mushroom, Psilocybe semilanceata, was shunned until the Seventies. Accounts of eating it by accident in the 18th and 19th century characterise the experience as fearful, poison-induced delirium. It was not until the Western hippy counterculture learnt of the closely related species P. mexicana, important in the Mexican shamanic tradition, that the experience was recast as insightful and as something to be sought out.
Mexico is rich in hallucinogens – various cacti, datura (angel’s trumpet), ipomoea (morning glory) and Salvia divinorum (sage) are all plants of healing and divination.
“Other cultures view hallucinogenic plants in a very different way from here in the West,” says Letcher. “Here we see them as problematic, whereas in Mexico, with its long history of shamanism, they are viewed as potent tools, as instruments of healing, and as a way of accessing a level of reality that is more real than the here and now.
“A common experience of psilocybin is that people feel a profound connection to nature, and particularly the plant kingdom. There’s a growing feeling in the West that we’ve lost some essential connection with nature, and, as people get more interested in indigenous cultures and indigenous world views, these plants seem to offer a way of reconnecting, an experience of engaging with the world at a more meaningful level,” he says.
“Of course, there will always be people who just want to go on a psychedelic fairground ride on a Saturday night, then go back to work on Monday. But it’s notable that the 'drugs’ that are sanctioned in our society are coffee, which makes you a more productive worker, and alcohol, which helps you wind down after a hard day’s work. These are drugs that are compatible with the capitalist project, whereas tripping out for six hours doesn’t really fit …”
Which intoxicants should be controlled and how is clearly an important matter of debate. Monique Simmonds, a specialist in plant chemistry and leading researcher at Kew, has often helped police investigate mysterious deaths in which plant intoxicants have played a part, sometimes reacting in unexpected ways with other compounds.
Prof Simmonds says that, in traditional usage, potentially dangerous plants were tightly controlled by a shaman, and surrounded by taboos that helped to limit risky interactions. The commodification of what was once a privileged experience causes her concern.
“Now that almost any intoxicant ever used is available on the internet, anyone can get them in any combination, and we don’t know what the effects of that may be,” she says.
It is even possible, she assures me, to get a perfectly legal high by combining the right ingredients with baked beans. I’m not sure if she’s joking.
20 September 2014