Man has had a profound impact on the ecology of the planet since our rise to dominance, becoming masters in shaping the world around us and bending nature to our whims. Many plants and fungi have grown strong associations with our species. Although unable to move, plants have managed to exploit animals into pollinating them and spreading their genes far and wide. Animals are again exploited in the movement of plant seeds and fungal spores, so as to spread their influence further. When Man enters this picture, things become yet more complex. Through our long term association with plants and fungi, we have discovered a vast array of species we consider valuable for a multitude of different reasons; as foods, building materials, medicines, poisons and intoxicants. Any species we deem to be of value have tended to benefit in our association with us, by our spreading them far beyond what their range would otherwise be, and often by our manipulation of the surrounding ecology to provide them with optimal habitat while markedly reducing their competition with species we find less favourable.
Grasses have done very well through their association with Man. The domestication of grasses such as rice, wheat, oats and maize lies at the foundation of human civilization around the world. These plants, in effect, domesticated us by causing us to largely reject a hunter-gatherer existence in favour of a more sedentary, agricultural based life, and allowed higher numbers of people to live within closer proximity to each other than they could before. We have chopped down forests and altered our surrounding ecology to an incredible degree to provide habitat for our favoured grasses at the expense of many other species that share the biosphere. These grasses included the species grown for food, as well as grass pastures which sustain our livestock. From these grassy habitats have emerged some powerful and important psychedelic fungi.
The liberty cap (Psilocybe semilanceata) is a species that is widespread in temperate parts of the world. It is one of the more common and most potent of psilocybin mushrooms known. The fungus is saprobic, the mycelium feeding on decaying grass roots. The grass habitat within which this species thrives has done very well due to human influence, and open grassland is a great deal more common than it otherwise would be. Furthermore, the species thrives in nitrogen rich pastureland fertilised with dung, although it is not directly associated with dung. Thus our manipulation of our ecology in this manner has vastly increased suitable habitat for this species, while at the same time increasing the likelihood of human encounters with it. Psilocybe mexicana, an important species to the Aztecs and the Mazatec also appears to favour human made habitats, such as along trails and roads, and in meadows and cornfields, and in grassy areas bordering deciduous woodland. The species Psilocybe cubensis has spread so widely around the world in tropical and subtropical regions that it isn’t entirely clear where its original native range is. Due to its coprophilic or dung loving nature it has done very well following our domestication of a number of bovine species, and is widespread in subtropical and tropical pastures all over the world. The coprophilic and highly potent Panaeolus mushroom genus has also benefitted through our actions.
LSD is a semi synthetic derivative of alkaloids from the fungus ergot (Claviceps purpurea). Like P. semilanceata, C. purpurea is another species that lives in close association with grasses and has done very well via our actions on the environment. The grasses in question are this time arable instead of pastoral, with the fungus being a parasite on the ears of cereals such as rye and related plants. Man has known of ergot for some time, and cases of ergot poisonings were common in the Middle Ages. It is unlikely that the invention and discovery of the very powerful psychedelic compound LSD would have occurred were it not for our domestication of grasses and manipulation of our surrounding ecology.
Some grasses themselves are known to be potent psychedelics. Phalaris is a widespread group of grasses and some species such as P. aquatica, P. brachystachys and P. arundinacea have been found to contain high levels of tryptamine psychedelics such as DMT and 5-MeO-DMT. They have found use in ayahuasca analogue concoctions by intrepid psychonauts in recent times. Phalaris species such as P. aquatica and P. arundinacea have also been found to be highly invasive species in some parts of the world, thriving in disturbed areas, and members of this group have certainly benefitted through Man’s actions on the biosphere.
Visionary fungi have benefitted markedly through our association with trees. The fly agaric Amanita muscaria lives in symbiotic association with pine trees, and through our actions with forestry has spread to many parts of the world unintentionally, and should be considered a cosmopolitan species (Geml et al. 2006). The wood loving Psilocybes such as P. cyanescens and P. azurescens are among the most potent psilocybin-containing mushrooms and have also benefitted markedly through our actions manipulating our surrounding ecology. These species would have occupied highly specialised niches previously, but due to actions of forestry and the ability of their spores to travel far and wide, they have benefited vastly via spreading through wood chips. Thus, on a global scale, our species’ modification of our surrounding ecosystems can be seen as increasing both habitat and the likelihood of encounters with these psychedelic fungi. It is interesting that these species have the ability to greatly and reliably enhance ecological awareness and aesthetic appreciation in humans that consume them, and tend to proliferate in ecologically disturbed areas. Furthermore, the cultivation of Psilocybes around the world and deliberate seeding of wood chips with psilocybe mycelium has only assisted in their spread. Mycologist Paul Stamets has referred to the wood loving Psilocybes as anthropophilic in nature, but this description applies to all the species discussed here to some degree. So what may have evolved as some kind of defensive compound inferring evolutionary advantages on the fungal species in question seems to have further evolutionary benefits once Man enters the picture.
Other visionary plants have benefitted from us in a global sense. Syrian rue, cannabis and tobacco are all ruderal plants, thriving on disturbed ground and areas associated with human activity. The species Acacia confusa, known as the rainbow tree, has one of the highest DMT concentrations yet reported in a plant; with the highest concentrations occurring in the root bark, like iboga. It has become invasive on Hawaii (Luken & Thieret 1996), supplanting the native Acacia, on an island with a long history of ecological disturbance that was ignited following the arrival of Man to the islands and continues to unfold. Elsewhere in the tropics, the ayahuasca vine Banisteriopsis caapi has been reported as a feral species, and has spread its tendrils of influence far beyond its Amazonian home. Thus its alliance with Mankind may have assured its long term survival on the planet. Its increasing use by urban sects of the Santo Daime Church allow people a deep contact with Nature even while being largely cut off from it.
Psychedelic plants and fungi, for the most part, have done well having developed a relationship with humans, and it could be argued in some cases that there is a kind of symbiosis going on, especially if you look at it from the ecosystem level. In a more localised sense, association with these plants may have conferred and continue to confer a slight evolutionary advantage to indigenous people that use them. The alkaloids in ayahuasca, iboga and peyote have both been reported to have antibiotic effects, and both of the latter two plants are used in small doses by indigenous people in different parts of the world to reduce the effects of thirst, hunger and fatigue, and this may be of benefit while hunting. With this positive association come collateral effects for the plants; ayahuasca vines are planted near human habitation, iboga is widely planted at Bwiti temples. While Peyote has become more restricted in range due to over exploitation, this is no fault of the traditional and sustainable Huichol and Tarahumara Indian harvesting methods, which emphasise the importance of cutting the plant above the root stock, which allows it to regrow.
Man’s observations of animal species have also affected his interactions with psychoactive plants. Reindeer are well documented having a profound fondness for the fly agaric mushroom A. muscaria, and that they can be round up using this fungus, and will consume it until they take on a state resembling a trance (Wasson 1972). Goats have a fondness for khat (Catha edulis), and coffee beans (Coffea arabica) and deer have been reported as having a fondness for consuming Cannabis and have had a long association with Peyote in Huichol Indian mythology. In a similar vein, the Bwiti credit the forest people of Gabon with the discovery of iboga, who in turn credit the discovery to their observations of warthog, porcupine and gorillas feeding on the roots of the plant (Barabe 1982). The forest people were happy to share their knowledge of iboga and its special properties with neighbouring tribes such as the Apindji and Mitsogho, as it was a seen as a way of reducing inter tribal warfare. Animals are deeply embedded in the ancient folklore of the discovery of this and other psychedelic plants, and they are known to self medicate with plants; chimpanzee’s have been observed consuming plants to treat themselves with parasite infections; with the same plant Vernonia amygdalina, the bitter-leaf tree, being used by local indigenous people for the same purpose, and baboons have been observed eating small amounts of Datura inoxia and Datura stramonium.
The purpose of some active plant compounds seems clear. For example, tobacco plants have evolved nicotine as it acts in a powerful way on the nervous systems of insects that feed on it, acting as a potent insecticide. However a number of plants and fungi, and some animal species, can produce psychoactive compounds capable of exerting powerful effects on human consciousness. Precisely why these particular organisms have evolved these compounds is somewhat more mysterious. Some of these compounds do appear to have antibiotic, as well as antifungal and antiviral effects and so may confer broad spectrum immune resistance. Indeed some of these plants are ingested for these effects alone, and ayahuasca has a long documented history of being used to remove gut parasites by indigenous Amazonian people. There is evidence that some plants produce more of these compounds when stressed but the presence of these alkaloids does not always prevent them from being consumed. Mysteries remain regarding exactly why these plants and fungi have evolved production of these alkaloids and exactly what advantages their presence confers. Clearly they are of use to the species in question as evolution doesn’t tolerate wasting of energy and resources, and these agents certainly cost their respective species their precious life energy to produce. Ibogaine, the dominant alkaloid active in Tabernanthe iboga, is a highly complex molecule and a difficult and expensive compound to synthesise from scratch in a lab, and it appears much simpler to allow nature to do the job.
The plot thickens and the mystery deepens when looking at ayahuasca and the DMT containing plants. The ayahuasca vine (B. caapi) is a rich source of monoamine oxidase inhibitors, in the form of Beta-carboline compounds. Some of these closely resemble endogenous human compounds such as pinoline. At high doses B. caapi can induce psychedelic effects. However it is the synergy with the DMT containing plants chacruna (Psychotria viridis) and chaliponga (Diplopterys cabrerana) where an amazing feat of plant alchemy takes place. The MAOI’s present in the vine allow DMT that would otherwise be rapidly broken down by the enzymes they inhibit to pass into the blood stream and cross the blood brain barrier. Furthermore, one of the most ancient of human technologies, fire, is employed for cooking up the brews to release the active alkaloids from the plant material and prepare this as a tea for drinking. The standard anthropological theory of how the indigenous people in Amazonia discovered the powerful synergistic visionary effects when combining the plants is that it was via trial and error of different species they encountered in their environment. This however is not a view shared by the people in question, claiming that their knowledge came directly from “the plant teachers” (Luna 1984) of the synergy of combining the two species of plant. Amazonia is one of the most biodiverse parts of the world, with many thousands of plant species, and many different tribes across Amazonia have made this discovery, suggesting that there may be something more than trial and error at work. Ayahuasca itself has been seen as an agent that transcends this system of trial and error. According to Kaxinawá legend, it was an ayahuasca experience that bestowed upon them knowledge of the kambo medicine. A shaman was attempting to heal his tribe and he had exhausted other remedies from the forest that were available to him. So he took ayahuasca as a last resort to seek advice on how to help his people. The ayahuasca showed him a vision of the monkey tree frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor) and gave him advice on how to use its venom secretions to heal.
DMT is a simple molecule closely related to serotonin and derived from the amino acid tryptophan which is very widespread and abundant in the natural world and the compound has been detected in a number of species, including humans, and appears to be highly abundant and widespread in the botanical realm. Interestingly the precise role it plays in humans and other species remains unknown. It seems that the enzymes responsible for its synthesis are ancient and shared by many different species, so DMT can act as a common biochemical denominator that can transcend species across the biosphere. This emphasises on a tangible, biochemical level that we are all interconnected and interrelated. With the MAOI’s and DMT, plants have found a way to powerfully hack into the nervous systems of other species. DMT has recently been found to be present in the pineal glands of live rats (Strassman et al. 2013), and there may also be evidence for its in situ synthesis there. The pineal gland is an extremely ancient evolutionary development in vertebrate brains, and is present in all but the most primitive vertebrates and a few evolutionary exceptions. The rodent and primate lineages only parted on the evolutionary tree of life around 70 million years ago, which in terms of evolutionary time on this planet, all of 3.7 billion years, isn’t that long. Rodents make excellent model animals due to the profound biochemical and physiological similarities in which their cells function compared to us. Thus DMT is very likely present in our and many other species’ pineal glands, although its physiological role remains shrouded in mystery.
The psychedelic plants, fungi and animals that are a part of the biosphere may have some extremely valuable lessons and insights relating to life on this planet, and our species would be foolish to disregard these agents. We are currently in the midst of the sixth global mass extinction, which is down purely to our actions on the biosphere, never before in Earth’s history has a single species wielded such terrible power over all over life. With the destruction of the natural world and the rainforest we are continuously losing species, some of which may have highly valuable properties, but will be lost forever. Man would be wise to broaden its cognitive horizons and pursue any avenues that allow for a more tangible, all encompassing view of the natural world, and our part in it. Human exploration by way of these transformative agents may be highly valuable in instilling in us these values, and this will be of benefit to ourselves, all life, and our long term future on this planet.
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Luken, James O. & Thieret, John W. Amur honeysuckle, its fall from grace. Bioscience. 46. (1996): 18-24.
Luna, Luis E. “The concept of plants as teachers among four mestizo shamans of Iquitos, northeast Peru.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 11.(1984): 135-156.
Strassman, Rick; Barker, Stephen A. & Stone, Andrew C. DMT Found in the Pineal Gland of Live Rats. Biomedical Chromatography (forthcoming; 2013).
Wasson, Gordon R. Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, p. 238. Harcourt, 1972.
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