Wicked Plants: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities - Amy Stewart (2009)
THE DEVIL’S BARTENDER
The plant kingdom furnishes an astonishing array of intoxicating ingredients. A well-stocked bar owes its provisions to everyday crops like grapes, potatoes, corn, barley, and rye. But alcoholic beverages used to include far more interesting plant ingredients. Vin Mariani was a potent brew of coca leaves and red wine that was popular in the nineteenth century. Laudanum, a medicine made from alcohol and opium, was not only prescribed by doctors until the early twentieth century but also tipped into brandy for an addictive cocktail. (King George IV favored this drink.) The ancient Greeks wrote about a fermented barley drink called kykeon that would cause psychoactive episodes. Scholars speculate that it was brewed from ergot-infected rye, making it a sort of ancient precursor to LSD.
Consider some of the wicked plants lurking behind the bar today:
The flavor—and bad reputation—come from Artemisia absinthium, or wormwood. This low-growing, silvery perennial has a bitter, pungent fragrance. Wormwood is one of the many herbs used to flavor absinthe, that pale green, highly alcoholic drink from the nineteenth century that was believed to cause hallucinations and madness. “The Green Fairy” became an essential part of bohemian café life in Paris. Oscar Wilde, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were all notorious absinthe swillers. The drink was banned throughout Europe and the United States in the early twentieth century as part of the prohibition movement.
Wormwood is one of the many herbs used to flavor absinthe, that pale green drink from the 19th century that was believed to cause hallucinations and madness.
What makes absinthe so wicked? Wormwood contains a potent ingredient called thujone that at high concentrations can cause seizures and death. Recently, however, mass spectrometer analysis has demonstrated that the level of thujone in absinthe is minuscule, and that the beverage’s intoxicating effects can only be blamed on the fact that it is a 130-proof spirit, almost twice as alcoholic as gin or vodka.
Absinthe is now legal in the European Union, as long as the level of thujone is below a specific threshold. In the United States any product containing thujone is strictly banned, but new, thujone-free absinthes are permitted.
MEZCAL AND TEQUILA
Made from the flowers of the agave plant, whose sharp thorns and highly irritating sap are so forbidding that jailers planted them around Alcatraz to discourage escape attempts. The blue agave, Agave tequilana, goes into the popular spirit that bears its name, but Americans are probably more familiar with the century plant, A. americana. In spite of their prickly thorns and preference for dry, desert climates, these plants are actually not cacti. They are in the Agavaceae family and are more closely related to hostas, yuccas, and the popular houseplant Chlorophytum comosum, or spider plant. The worm in mezcal is the larvae of a moth or weevil that feeds on the plant.
A traditional Polish vodka flavored with a blade of bison grass (Hiero-chloe odorata), also called sweet grass or holy grass. The grass is native to both Europe and North America, and Native Americans have used it for basketry, incense, and medicine. The plant is a natural source of the blood thinner coumarin, which is not permitted as a food additive in the United States, so zubrowka has been banned since 1978. New technology allows the vodka to be distilled without any coumarin so that it can be imported, and the grass still lends a faint vanilla or coconut flavor. In Poland the unadulterated version is often mixed with apple juice for a sweet, cold drink.
A popular German drink made from steeping leaves of the ground cover sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum syn. Asperula odorata) in white wine, giving it a sweet, grassy flavor. Ingesting the plant at high doses could bring on dizziness, paralysis, and even coma and death; recipes for home-made May wine recommend picking young leaves in spring before the plant blooms, and using them sparingly. In the United States the plant is not considered a safe food additive except as a flavoring in alcoholic beverages.
AGWA DE BOLIVIA
A new liquor with a green, herbal flavor made with an extract of coca leaf (Erythroxylum coca). The drink contains no cocaine, however—the alkaloid is removed during the manufacturing process, much as it is believed to be for the soft drink Coca-Cola. The liquor contains other herbal stimulants, including ginseng (Panax spp.) and the extract of the guarana fruit (Paullinia cupana).
A hempseed-infused vodka made in the Czech Republic. A handful of Cannabis sativa seeds float in the bottom of the bottle, but the manufacturers assure drinkers that it contains nothing but alcohol to get you high—and it doesn’t taste like bong water.
An anise-flavored Italian liqueur made from elderberries (Sambucus spp.), which contain cyanide in their raw form. However, imbibers have nothing to fear but a hangover from the drink itself.
A nonalcoholic mixer made from the African kola nut (Cola spp.), another original ingredient in Coca-Cola’s formula. The nut contains caffeine and is chewed in West African countries as a mild stimulant. It also contains compounds that can cause miscarriage, and one study showed that extracts of the nut could bring on malaria-like symptoms, including weakness and dizziness. Kola nut is considered a safe food additive by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but cola tonic is rarely sold in the United States.
The bitter flavor comes from quinine, the extract from the bark of the cinchona tree in South America (Cinchona spp.). Quinine is the medication that saved the world from malaria, and its addition to tonic water gave rise to that classic summer drink, the gin and tonic. (This proved to be an easy way for British colonists in India to take a mild dose of their medicine.) The drug is still found in tonic water today, although at lower doses. In fact, the quinine content in tonic water is what gives the beverage its fluorescent glow under ultraviolet light. Quinine is also found in certain brands of vermouth and bitters. Although it is perfectly safe at low doses, an overdose can cause quinism, also known as cinchonism. Symptoms include dizziness, stomach problems, tinnitus, vision problems, and cardiac symptoms. Overdoses of quinine are so risky that the FDA has issued warnings about using the malaria drug for “off label” uses like the treatment of leg cramps. Pilots in the armed forces are advised not to consume tonic water for seventy-two hours before flying, and to avoid drinking more than thirty-six ounces of tonic water per day.
Iboga is a flowering shrub that reaches about six feet tall in the tropical undergrowth of forests on the central part of Africa’s west coast. It produces clusters of small pink, yellow, or white flowers, followed by elongated orange fruit that resemble habanero peppers. The plant contains a powerful alkaloid called ibogaine, which is especially concentrated in the roots and is used to make a controversial medicine that some believe can cure heroin addiction.
Black bugbane, leaf of God
Members of the Bwiti religion in West Africa use iboga as a kind of ceremonial sacrament. The hallucinations brought on by the plant are believed to allow members a way to connect with their ancestors, undergo initiation rites, and heal medical or emotional problems. The practice has attracted Western journalists, including explorer Bruce Parry, who made a documentary about his experience for the BBC series Tribe. It has also spawned drug tourism fueled by outsiders who want to travel to the African jungle and participate in the ritual, which usually includes a long night of hallucinations and vomiting.
In 1962 a nineteen year-old American named Howard Lotsof got hold of the drug and decided to give it a try. He may have been expecting a recreational drug experience, but he was surprised to find that ibogaine left him with no desire to use heroin, which had been his drug of choice. He invited a few friends to try it, and some of them had similar outcomes. Twenty years later, he was still interested in the ability of this plant to cure people of the addiction brought on by another wicked plant, the opium poppy. He obtained patents for ibogaine-based drugs and founded the Dora Weiner Foundation to support research into alternative treatments for drug addiction. Drug users report varying levels of success with ibogaine therapy. Some believe that the treatment
Iboga has also spawned drug tourism—outsiders travel to the African jungle and participate in a ritual, which usually includes a long night of hallucinations and vomiting.
can “reset” their brain chemistry so that they do not crave drugs and that the hallucinations give them new insights into the underlying reasons for their drug use. However, ibogaine remains a Schedule I controlled substance, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved it for any medical use.
There have been several reports of ibogaine-related deaths around the world, including the 2006 death of punk rocker Jason Sears, lead singer of the band Rich Kids on LSD. He had taken the drug at a detox facility in Tijuana in an attempt to cure his addiction problem.
Meet the Relatives Same family as the fragrant tropical shrub plumeria, as well as a number of poison plants. Oleander is a relative, as is the poison arrow plant Acokanthera and the suicide tree Cerbera odollam.
Settlers arriving on Jamestown Island in Virginia in 1607 probably thought they had picked a perfect spot for an outpost. There was excellent visibility to look out for Spanish conquerors, a deep channel to allow ships to navigate, and best of all, there were no Indians on the island. Before long, the ill-fated settlers would find out why.
Temperate and tropical climates
Devil’s trumpet, thorn apple, Jamestown weed, moonflower
In addition to the mosquito population, the dirty, brackish drinking water, and the lack of wild game or any other reliable food source, the island was overrun with a seductively beautiful weed. Some made the terrible mistake of trying to add this weed—datura—to their diet. Their gruesome deaths, which were probably marked by delusions, convulsions, and respiratory failure, were not forgotten by the survivors or their children. Some seventy years later, British soldiers arrived to quell one of the first uprisings at the fledgling colony, and the settlers remembered the toxic plant and slipped datura leaves into the soldiers’ food.
The British soldiers did not die, but they did go crazy for eleven days, temporarily giving the colonists the upper hand. According to an early historian, “One would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey, grinning and making mows [grimaces] at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions.”
It took more than datura to overthrow British rule, but the plant’s role earned it the nickname Jamestown weed.
It took more than datura to overthrow British rule, but the plant’s role earned it the nickname Jamestown weed, and over the centuries that became Jimson weed. The plant, which flourishes throughout most of North America and is common in the Southwest, grows to two or three feet tall and produces striking six-inch-long, white or purple trumpet-shaped flowers that close at night. A datura’s fruit is about the size of a small egg, pale green, and covered in thorns. In fall, the fruits release a generous handful of highly toxic seeds.
The effects of datura poisoning are similar to those of Atropa belladona. All parts of the plant contain tropane alkaloids that cause hallucinations and seizures, but those alkaloids are especially concentrated in the seeds. The levels vary greatly over time and in different parts of the plant, making experimentation dangerous. One recreational user wrote that “the scariest part of this trip was that I stopped breathing automatically and had to make myself breathe with my diaphragm. These conditions lasted all night.”
A woman in Canada added datura seeds to hamburger patties, thinking they were a seasoning. (The seedpods had been drying above the stove for next year’s garden.) She was in a coma for twenty-four hours before she recovered enough to tell the doctors what she had done. She and her husband spent three days in the hospital.
Teenagers (and adults behaving like teenagers) have made a tea of the leaves in search of a cheap high, but drinking such a tea could be a deadly mistake. Frightening and disturbing hallucinations can come on slowly and last for days. Other common side effects include fevers high enough to kill brain cells and a failure of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates the heartbeat and respiration, leading to coma and death.
Meet the Relatives Members of the nightshade family, all daturas are poisonous. The dramatic bluish purple moonflower, Datura inoxia, flourishes throughout the Southwest. Closely related brugmansia is a popular garden specimen.