PLANTS THAT INTOXICATE FOUND IN ALL PARTS OF THE WORLD

Intoxicating plants from around the world

A new exhibition at Kew examines humans’ relationship with mind-altering plants. Here are some of the most fascinating

deadly_nightshade family of plants image www.druglinks.info

Powerful: plants of the nightshade family have long been used for their delirium-inducing toxins

From magic mushrooms to tobacco, we as humans have a long history of getting a buzz from powerful intoxicating plants.

A new exhibition at Kew Gardens in London, [Intoxication] takes a closer look at our relationship with plants with the capacity to alter our minds.

Here are some of the more known ones.

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TOBACCO (Nicotiana tabacum)

A tobacco field in Switzerland (ALAMY)image www.druglinks.info

A tobacco field in Switzerland (ALAMY)

On arrival in the Americas, Christopher Columbus was struck by the sight of the inhabitants smoking leaves they called “tabaco”. Tobacco rapidly became the first global drug habit and a key commodity in international trade.

Tobacco has been used in the Americas for at least 8,000 years and is the most commonly used drug in American shamanism, regarded as pleasing to the spirits and an “ally” to other plant intoxicants. The Warao people of the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela use tobacco to achieve states of trance, swallowing vast quantities of smoke to produce hallucinations and out-of-body experiences

Hallucinogenic plants: are humans hard-wired to seek them out?

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PEYOTE and SAN PEDRO (Lophophora williamsii, Echinopsis peruvianus, syn. E. pachanoi)

The peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii), in flower. It has long been used for its hallogenetic effects (ALAMY)image www.druglinks.info

The peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii), in flower. It has long been used for its hallogenetic effects (ALAMY)

The San Pedro cactus grows in the Andes and contains the powerful psychedelic compound mescaline. It was used by many cultures in ancient Peru, and traditional healers still use it to treat illness, solve problems and predict the future. The tiny, spineless peyote cactus, from the Mexican desert, produces an even higher concentration of mescaline, and was used by the Aztecs for healing and divination. Adopted by the Lakota (Sioux) tribes from the late 19th century, it later became fashionable among Western experimenters such as Aldous Huxley.

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THE NIGHTSHADES (Datura stramonium, Brugmansia arborea, Hyoscyamus niger, Mandragora officinarum, Atropa bella-donna)

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Plants of the nightshade family contain delirium-inducing toxins that have been used as remedies, poisons, magic potions and knockout drops. Daturas grow across the world, from the jimson weed of North America to the thorn apples of India, where they were reputedly administered by canny prostitutes to avoid servicing their clients and rob them as they slept.

The angel’s trumpet, brugmansia, comes from South America, where it was widely used for mystical exploration. The same constituents are found in the European “witching weeds” – henbane, mandrake and deadly nightshade.

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COCA (Erythroxylum coca)

cocoa pods on plant image www.druglinks (3)

Sacred to the Incas, and used in religious rites, the leaves of the coca plant contain many minerals and chemicals, including the stimulant and euphoric drug cocaine. Traditionalists still chew it as an aid to physical work, adding a lime powder to release the alkaloids in the leaf – though it may now be more conveniently enjoyed, in Bolivia at least, as a soft drink or tea.

Cocaine was first isolated from the plant in 1860 and soon became a popular pharmaceutical, appearing in tonic wines, pills and the original Coca-Cola recipe. But the drug proved dangerously addictive, and its sale was banned in the early 20th century.

AYAHUASCA (Banisteriopsis caapi* and Psychotria viridis)

Banisteriopsis caapi, one of two plants used in the Amazonian drink ayahuasca (ALAMY) image www.druglinks.info

Banisteriopsis caapi, one of two plants used in the Amazonian drink ayahuasca (ALAMY)

Ayahuasca is an Amazonian brew made from two different leaves – the ‘vine of the soul’ Banisteriopsis caapi, and the shrub Psychotria viridis, each innocuous drunk on its own, but which combine to produce a powerful hallucinogen. While its use by indigenous peoples has all but vanished, ayahuasca has been enthusiastically taken up by new religious movements in Brazil such as the Santo Daime Church, in which the Virgin Mary is identified with the spirit of the rainforest, and also by Western ‘ayahuasca tourists’ flocking to the Peruvian Amazon in search of enlightenment.

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Intoxication runs at Kew Gardens until October 12. For further information, see kew.org/intoxication

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