Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities - Amy Stewart (2009)
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is scarcely able to keep up with the public’s appetite for mind-altering plants. While some of these plants are not necessarily illegal, they are highly sought after among people looking for a “natural high.” Unfortunately, most people are not experts at plant identification and can’t be sure what they’re taking. Also, the level of active ingredient can vary from plant to plant and may even rise and fall throughout the day as weather conditions change. Here are just a few of the psychedelic plants making their way around the counterculture scene:
A tender perennial sage native to Mexico that resembles many other garden sages. It has gained popularity on the Internet as an easy high. The leaves are smoked or chewed to produce a hallucinogenic effect, but many users report a short and frightening experience that’s not worth the effort. Although the plant isn’t included on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA’s) list of controlled substances, the agency has identified it as an area of concern. Several states have outlawed it; it’s banned on most military bases; and some European countries have banned it as well. Unfortunately, news reports often fail to distinguish between this particular species and the many varieties of salvia that are popular in gardens and have no psychoactive effects.
SAN PEDRO CACTUS
Trichocereus pachanoi, syn. Echinopsis pachanoi
A columnar cactus with few spines that grows throughout the Andes mountains, where it’s used in tribal ceremonies. Like peyote, the San Pedro cactus contains mescaline, but it’s not listed on the DEA’s controlled substance schedule. As a result, the plant is widely cultivated, but someone growing it with the intent of producing or distributing mescaline could risk prosecution. Another, less-documented cactus relative is Echinopsis lageniformis, called the penis cactus for its anatomically correct shape.
Mitragyna speciosa Korth
A Southeast Asian tree whose leaves are chewed as a stimulant in the same manner as coca or khat. At higher doses it delivers a mild euphoria and possible unpleasant side effects including nausea and constipation. Though not illegal in the United States, it’s been banned in Thailand, Australia, and a few other countries for its addictive qualities.
A South American tree with long, brown seedpods. The seeds contain a psychoactive compound called bufotenine, which has been used as a snuff in the religious ceremonies of some indigenous tribes. The seeds are taken for their hallucinogenic effects, but they can also trigger seizures. Bufotenine is also secreted by certain species of toads. People actually lick toads in an attempt to get high, an act that could land them in the hospital with convulsions and heart problems.
Bufotenine is listed as a Schedule I controlled substance by the DEA, but yopo seeds (or toads, for that matter) are not specifically identified as illegal. A few clinical studies have shown that people with schizophrenia and a few other mental disorders excrete bufotenine in their urine. Yopo is also rumored to contain dimethyltriptamine, or DMT, the active ingredient in ayahuasca, but tests show no traces of it in the seeds.
Seeds contain small quantities of lysergic acid amide, which may produce an LSD-like trip if eaten in large quantity. The seeds are popular among teenagers who either chew them or soak them in water to make tea. Recent news reports indicate that many owners of garden centers are unaware of the trend and had been selling the seed packets to teenagers in hopes that young people were starting to show an interest in gardening. Kids who consume the seeds have been hospitalized with dangerously high heart rates and frightening hallucinations.
One day in 1845 a Scottish tailor named Duncan Gow ate a sandwich made with wild greens his children had collected for him. Within a few hours, he was dead. The children had made the fatal mistake of confusing the lacy foliage of parsley with that of poison hemlock. It was the last (and, one suspects, the only) lesson in botany the children ever got from their father, and one they would never forget.
Fields and pastures throughout the Northern Hemisphere; prefers wet soils and coastal areas
Spotted parsley, spotted cowbane, bad-man’s oatmeal, poison snakeweed, beaver poison
The death that hemlock delivers is, from outward appearances, an easy one. Mr. Gow stumbled about drunkenly, his limbs gradually became paralyzed, and eventually the poison stopped his heart and lungs. The doctor attending the death reported that “the Intellect was perfectly clear until shortly before death.”
Hemlock’s most famous victim was the Greek philosopher Socrates, who in 399 BC was convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens, among other offenses, and sentenced to death. His student Plato witnessed his death. When the time came, a guard brought Socrates a drink made from the poison, which he drank calmly. The condemned man walked around his cell until his legs felt heavy; then he lay down on his back. The guard pressed his feet and legs and asked Socrates if he had any feeling left in them; he did not. “And then he touched him,” Plato wrote, “and said that when it, the coldness, reaches his heart, he’ll be gone.” A short while later, Socrates grew quiet and still, and then he was dead.
Poison hemlock, a plant in the carrot family, is so toxic that it is known in Scotland as “deid men’s oatmeal.”
Hemlock poisoning was not always believed to be so gentle. Nicander, a Roman army doctor who lived from 197 to 130 BC, wrote a prose poem about poisons in which he said: “Take note of the noxious draught which is hemlock, for this drink assuredly looses disaster upon the head bringing the darkness of night: the eyes roll, and men roam the streets with tottering steps and crawling upon their hands; a terrible choking blocks the lower throat and the narrow passage of the windpipe; the extremities grow cold; and in the limbs the stout arteries are contracted; for a short while the victim draws breath like one swooning, and his spirit beholds Hades.”
Scholars eventually concluded that Nicander must have been describing another plant, perhaps monkshood or water hemlock. Definitive proof came from John Harley, a British doctor who took small amounts of hemlock experimentally and reported his remarkably different findings in 1869.
“There was a distinct impairment of motor power,” he wrote. “I felt, so to speak, that ‘the go’ was taken out of me.” He continued, “The legs felt as if they would soon be too weak to support me . . . The mind remained perfectly clear and calm, and the brain active throughout, but the body seemed heavy, and well-nigh asleep.”
Poison hemlock, a plant in the carrot family, is so toxic that it is known in Scotland as “deid men’s oatmeal.” The young plants emerge in spring, and their finely cut leaves and pointed taproots looking deceptively like those of parsley or carrots. They can reach over eight feet tall in one season, producing delicate flowers that resemble Queen Anne’s lace. The stems are hollow and speckled with purple blotches that are sometimes called Socrates’ blood. If you’re in doubt, crush the leaves and smell them. The odor is enough to deter most animals and has been described as smelling of “parsnips or mice.”
Meet the Relatives Poison hemlock is the bad boy in a family that includes dill, celery, fennel, parsley, and anise, which is poisonous if eaten in large quantities.
Charles Darwin was enamored of loosestrife. In 1862 he wrote to his friend Asa Gray, a noted American botanist, hoping that Gray might have some specimens for him. “For the love of heaven,” he wrote, “have a look at some of your species, and if you can get me seed, do . . . Seed! Seed! Seed! I should rather like seed of Mitchella. But oh, Lythrum!” He signed the letter, “Your utterly mad friend, C. Darwin.”
Temperate meadows and wetlands
Purple lythrum, rainbow weed, spiked loosestrife
Darwin wasn’t the only one who was mad about loosestrife. European settlers brought the meadow plant to America, where it quickly established itself. Gardeners and naturalists had a real affection for the tall, vigorous wildflower and its gorgeous spikes of purple blooms. For most of the twentieth century, horticulturalists enthusiastically recommended it for difficult spots in the garden, such as shady areas or beds with poor soil or bad drainage. As late as 1982 garden writers recognized its weedy tendencies but still referred to it as a “handsome rascal,” as if to suggest that boys will be boys, and gardeners should love the plant for its aggressive nature.
How wrong they were. Purple loosestrife is surely one of the worst invaders the American landscape has seen. It has marched across forty-seven states and most of Canada, and has also made its way into New Zealand, Australia, and across Asia. The plant easily reaches ten feet tall and five feet wide, and as many as fifty stems can sprout from a single, sturdy perennial tap root. If the rootstock wasn’t vigorous enough, a single specimen can produce over 2.5 million seeds in a season. Those seeds can live for twenty years before they sprout.
A single specimen of purple loosestrife can produce over 2.5 million seeds in a season. Those seeds can live for twenty years before they sprout.
Purple loosestrife clogs wetlands and waterways, choking out other plant life and eliminating food sources and habitat for wildlife. An estimated sixteen million acres have been infested with purple loosestrife in the United States alone, and eradication campaigns cost about $45 million per year. The plant is classified as a federal noxious weed and is also illegal to transport or sell in many states. Although other species are sold as noninvasive or sterile alternatives to the dreaded purple loosestrife, native plant experts recommend steering clear of anything labeled Lythrum.
Loosestrife is native to Europe but does not cause the same damage there. That fact provided a clue to controlling it in the United States. Chemical sprays, mechanical cultivations, and other controls weren’t particularly successful, but then researchers tried importing the same bugs that feed on the plant in Europe. Now a few species of root weevils and leaf-eating beetles have been released as a form of biological control, and it’s working. So far, it does not appear that the bugs eat native plants, but introducing one exotic creature to control another always has its risks.
Meet the Relatives Crape myrtles and cuphea, a genus of shrubs with fuchsialike flowers.