Saturday, October 17, 2009

A Crash Course on Plants

Plants are those green things that grow all around us. If you live in the city surrounded by inorganic matter, plants are those green things that protrude from the sidewalk and fight against all odds to live within the hostile urban environment. Plants are truly amazing things.

You see, were it not for plants, humans would die. In fact, we would not even exist, and neither would the animal kingdom. The earth would be another gaseous rock in the solar system hostile to all but the most primitive forms of life...

kinda like Rush Limbaugh.

Simply put, the entirety of animal life on Earth has evolved thanks to the supportive diversity of the plant kingdom. With this in mind, it's not really that much of a stretch to say that animals, and the social intelligence of animals, have evolved symbiotically with plants. For while it is true that plants have shaped animal evolution, likewise, animals have shaped plant evolution. The fact that plants produce animal neuromodulators is itself a strong indication of our mutual symbiosis.

Modern anthropologists classify humans as "Homo sapiens" within the taxonomy of the animal kingdom. Although this nomenclature nicely describes our humanity in the scientific sense, I prefer to use the term "Homo botanicus" because, really, the "sapiens" began once we became gardeners. And so, it came to pass that humans began using plants for spices and not just emergency foods. We began using plants for fibers and dyes, and textiles, and shelters. We discovered how to turn plant parts and substances in commodities, and economies. We learned how to eat better foods, ferment better drinks, and "clean" the air around us (i.e. incense). And all this was fine and dandy, but like in Genesis, someone ate from the tree of knowledge, and the human experience became radically different.

Somewhere along the way, we began realizing how to use plants as medicines, and for vehicles to access the "spiritual" depths of the human psyche. Thus, certain nightshades containing cholinergic tropane alkaloids became tools for accessing lost ancestors and the gods. Certain mushrooms and cacti became known for opening doorways to the spirit realm and peeking at enlightenment. People began sculpting iconic deities in the shape of poppy pods. And certain plants in the taxonomic family Cannabaceae became valued for their fibers, food, and medicines.

It's hard to say what came first, knowledge, or the cognitive capacities for knowledge. Regardless, plants had a lot to do with how we humans and our distant ancestors evolved. And this is why we should not take them for granted.

If all of this is new news to you, then you probably live among inorganic matter, and you probably receive most of your information from other inorganic matter that is regulated, in some way, by the economy and government. I don't hold this against you, though. I'm just saying, maybe one should step outside of the censors.

If you would like to learn more, the easiest thing to do is start growing plants, and pay attention to them, because they will teach you what you need to know. This is both good for the plants, and it'll make you, in the truest sense, more human.

If all of this is not news to you, then I'm sorry for wasting your time. But I still hope you grow a plant anyway.


Blogger sourmonkey said...

Cnidoscolus chayamansa, aka "Chaya" is a large, leafy plant in the family Euphorbiaceae. It is related to the much disliked "Bull Nettle" that takes over barren and worked pastures in Texas. But unlike Bull Nettle, Chaya produces no fertile seeds, and it, like Salvia divinorum, is solely propagated by human cloning.

Chaya was raised and consumed by the Yucatec Maya 1,000 - 2,000 years ago. No one today really knows which pre-columbian culture "invented" Chaya. Still, Chaya is yet one more living artifact of ancient horticulture that we in the modern world have much to learn from.

Chaya is rich in nutrients and minerals. The leaves are toxic if consumed raw, so they must be cooked for eight minutes. Chaya is a nutritious living artifact that offers new possibilities for foods, especially in hot regions of the world. Hopefully, no one on earth would think about making this plant illegal, although it does contain metabolites that might be useful as medicines if the toxins can be regulated. There is nothing in chaya that will get a person "high", only, if prepared properly, more healthy.

And so in this plant we have an example of a potentially harmful cultigen that, when used wisely, offers many great benefits.

It's amazing what knowledge can do. When we combine knowledge with how to use plants, our options improve. We adapt, we progress, and we evolve.

It's only natural. And natural laws are almost impossible to break.

12:22 PM  
Blogger sourmonkey said...

Peyote is an interesting case.

Lophophora williamsii is a small, round, spineless cactus that grows in south Texas and North Mexico. Modern encroachment has made it an endangered botanical species. However, this is probably not important to you if you wish it would go away.

Peyote has been used by native people for curing and divination ceremonies for thousands of years. Peyote consumption was an integral part of the Ghost Dances of the 19th century, when white Americans were using military might (guns, germs, and steel) to force the survivors of the New World holocaust to move away from the expanding frontier and into specially allotted ecological "prisons."

Peyote was consumed across the North America, meaning that there existed at the time many trade routes that carried the cactus away from its native land. The Aztecs, and according to some scholars, the Maya too mentioned peyote in their respective written histories (translated by the Spanish, of course) and used it during special curing and divination ceremonies. Peyote, and more importantly, the "hunt" for peyote involved many ceremonial traditions that had been preserved for hundreds of generations. Some of these traditions survive still today.

It's funny, when one looks at a pre-Columbian maps of Central American and Mexican trade routes, they seem to match DEA and CIA maps of modern drug trafficking in the region. This is no coincidence.

What gets me is that while Peyote is illegal for a citizen outside of the Native American Church to possess (btw, doesn't this violate the Establishment Clause?), it's pharmacological cousin San Pedro (Trichocereus peruvianus) is legal to grow in the U.S., just illegal to eat.

12:23 PM  
Blogger sourmonkey said...

Isn't it interesting that in the wild many (though certainly, not all) psychotropic mushrooms grow on the dung of mega fauna like horses, cattle, and even deer?

I guess it would be more interesting if you were a male hunter-gatherer stalking the great plains looking for big game. Hunters, being what they are, would initially be looking for signs of the big game to track, like dung. A tracker can tell a lot about where an animal has been and where it is going by examining the dung. And what are the odds that on a cool damp morning this hunter finds odd little mushrooms growing on these piles of fecal matter?

Now, what if it is winter, and the frost has killed off most of the plants, and this hunter, cold and hungry, decides to sample these mushrooms for food. In low doses, the hunter would get an energy boost as the tryptamines in the mushroom stimulate the hunter's nervous system. His body buzzes, the light is now bright, his vision, vibrant. Suddenly, the hunter's weariness goes away, and he can continue his hunt for the big game.

If the hunter happens to eat too much of the mushroom, he suddenly finds that he is in the world of the spirits. This, of course, makes him vulnerable to predators, but we can be rest assured that this hunter is wise, and he knows how to titrate his doses of the mushroom to achieve his desired goal of survival.

12:24 PM  
Blogger sourmonkey said...

Ah, tobacco.

Is there a better legal, non-medicinal, abusively addictive plant? I think not.

Most modern doctors will encourage one to not smoke, or to stop if one is a smoker. There are very real, quantifiable studies that show that smoking tobacco is very bad for one's health. Tobacco smokers pay more for health insurance because they have higher risk of terminal disease; smokers will cost more to keep alive. Yada yada.

But, until recently, tobacco wasn't even considered a drug. Tobacco has been a major American commodity since the foundation of the U.S. If tobacco smoking made a person high, it would've been banned with opium, amphetamines, etc. But tobacco doesn't make one high, so it's addictive death sentence is deemed less of a threat than other botanical drugs like Cannabis. While Cannabis was once a recognized medicine by the U.S. Pharmacopeia, Tobacco's medicinal potential has always been less emphasized. Today, most doctors would say there is none.

The Native Americans, including Mesoamericans like the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec people, were well aware of the medical applications of tobacco. To them, tobacco was useful as an incense to repel flying insects, as a tea for ridding the body of parasites, and as an antiseptic for skin wounds.

But there is something else going on with tobacco, a medical application that was recognized in antiquity but forgotten today, or rather, unrecognized in the modern mainstream sense. People who smoke tobacco do so to help alleviate stress and anxiety. Thus, it does have a psychotropic medical application, even if it isn't recognized by mainstream science.

So, the government provides the market for it's citizens to self-medicate with a highly toxic, highly addictive, and highly destructive botanical drug (if you're over 18, or 21 if you want to add alcohol to this mix, and why not, they're both legal).

But, the government will lie to keep people from self-medicating with the less toxic, less addictive, less destructive, more benign botanical drug in Cannabis.

It's almost like the government wants us to kill ourselves. Of course that's not true. The War on Drugs exists to destroy the lives of other people, not us.

The politics of plants are in play, and these games pay little reverence to true science, history, antiquity, and the constitution. But still, as I write this, these arcane plant laws continue to be in effect. Few in office seem eager to correct the socially corruptive policies of the War on Drugs.

They just don't get it, and it's painfully obvious.

12:25 PM  
Blogger sourmonkey said...

Papaver somniferum.

Popularly known as "Poppy" or Opium.

The most well known alkaloid that is produced in the sap of the immature seed pod is morphine, the scientific name ascribed with the Greek God of Dreams in mind.

This alkaloid inspired early twentieth century scientists to examine how the drug interacts with the human nervous system. Scientists discovered the nervous receptors that engage with morphine, and then they discovered the endogenous version that is produced in the human body. Thus, the human neurotransmitters that bind to opiate receptors in the central nervous system are called ENDORPHINS (short for endogenous-morphine).

Of course, modern chemists eagerly learned how to extract, refine, and synthesize botanical opiates. Patents were assigned, profits were had, but only "legal" opiates were to be used. This changed, not just the course of modern medicine, and the economics of pharmacology, but also the long-term survival rate of soldiers in war.

And all because a bunch of smart guys decided to figure out why plant sap binds to selective human nervous receptors. It was easy for them to do. Poppies can grow just about anywhere.

If you believe the modern media, the general belief is that 90% of illegal opiates originate in the fields of Afghanistan. This may or may not be true. But despite being a controlled substance under the U.S. '70 C.S.A., many American gardeners are free to grow poppies, as the seeds of Papver somniferum in various varieties are sold all across the country. Hard to keep pretty wild flowers away from passionate gardeners (and maybe that's why Cannabis never made it in the annual garden, the flowers just aren't pretty enough).

It's interesting that while many gardeners in America grow poppies, they don't know (or don't want to know) what is genetically destined to develop inside of the young poppy seed pods. Perhaps it doesn't even cross their minds that they are enjoying the aesthetics of a plant that has helped to fuel wars across the centuries, and inspire art and spiritual experiences spanning many millennia. Perhaps they fail to connect the dots between Al Qaeda, prohibition, drug addiction, modern medicine, and their own garden.

It's just a hunch, but I'd bet that most of these gardeners are public school educated, church-goin' voters with decent incomes (no offense to other church-goers on the forum).

I only know this because plants are ubiquitous, and there is a lot of truth in ubiquity, if it can be perceived.

12:25 PM  
Blogger sourmonkey said...

Theobroma cacao

This soft wood tree is native to Central and South America. Actually, though it looks like a tree, botanically, it is more like a giant fruiting berry shrub. Precolumbian Mesoamericans often called it cacao, and the seeds of this plant were used for a variety of purposes.

One cacao seed represented the base unit for Mayan economic and numerical systems. The seeds were also crushed and combined with chiles and other herbs to create a frothy, sacred drink enjoyed by Mayan Kings. The fruiting body encasing the highly valued seeds is roughly the size and shape of the human heart, and it turns red when ripe. In this way, cacao fruit symbolized the center of the human heart and it's role in the cycles of time. Stylized cacao seed pod images are often found on the artifacts associated with human sacrifice (like the Chac Mool).

Today, we know this plant by the extract derived from its oily seeds: chocolate. In American culture, chocolate is also associated with many things of the red color... like love, sex, and more hearts (see also Valentine's Day). Also, chocolate gifts are given at Christmas, Easter, and Halloween. But for some, this is not enough. Chocoholics, of whom I am one, will attest to the cravings/reward/ pleasure complex associated with eating chocolate, often on a daily level. Part of what makes chocolate so addictive is the sugar (more craving/ reward/ pleasure complexes here too). But, we should not forget that chocolate contains many alkaloids. It is, fundamentally speaking, a highly complex drug.
" Chocolate is not only a delicious treat, it is a very complex food: it contains at least 380 chemicals that contribute to its taste."
"The newly discovered compound, tetrahydro-beta-carboline, and the family of chemicals it belongs to, beta-carboline alkaloids, affect the central nervous system in several ways:
-They are mild inhibitors of an enzyme called monoamine oxidase (MAO). MAO is an enzyme that destroys monoamine neurotransmitters (norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin).
-They work by inhibiting the reuptake of the serotonin. The net result is an increase in the amount of serotonin within the synapse.
-They inhibit the binding of benzodiazepines on their receptors. This results in a decrease in the level of the neurotransmitter GABA."

As a young child, I sure did like chocolate. For many children, it is the primary gateway drug. (Arguably, then comes sugar, then coffee, then tobacco, then alcohol, and somewhere along the way, capsaicin factors in too).

But chocolate isn't illegal. Hell, we hand it out to kids on Halloween, for FREE. Chocolate only makes people a little high, not enough to rattle their worldview. Plus, it generates a lot of wealth, and most people don't think of chocolate as a drug. So Theobroma cacao is legal today.

And if we took out all that junk sugar, it just might have promising medical applications too!

12:26 PM  
Blogger sourmonkey said...

Coffea arabica

In America today, one can drive to just about any corner in any suburban or urban population center and purchase a drink containing the water-extracted alkaloids of roasted and crushed seeds.

If one were to drink water-extracted alkaloids from the crushed seeds of Ipomoea violacea or Argyeria nervosa, one would be breaking the law. But the alkaloid rich seeds of Coffea arabica, with toxicity and tolerance scales well established by science, have become a daily part of the morning commute to work. If by some rare circumstance you are not near a Starbucks, you can usually get your fresh coffee fix at the nearest gas station.

Coffee is a drug with addictive, toxic, and medical potentials. It alters the human nervous system in many ways (it is a diuretic and a stimulant), but it does not cause a radical shift in personal worldview or identity. On the contrary, it can make people more alert, and thus, better workers. This is why it is legal today (although it, like tobacco, has flirted with prohibition through various periods in Old World history).

Camellia sinesis, the Green Tea plant, is one more among many other plants that produce the botanical alkaloid caffeine. For me, at least, I find it interesting that these plants produce human neurotransmitters. So much so that I have found a way to grow these plants in the hostile environment that surrounds me. They have taught me many things, such as their resistance to hungry insects (like crickets), their various tolerances to cold, and their light, water, and soil requirements. These things give me a better understanding of what ancient people needed to know to cultivate these plants.

I know my state and federal representatives would have no problem with me harvesting the leaves/ seeds of my own Camellia and Coffee plant for personal consumption. I rarely do this though, because these plants are beautiful, and I treat them with great respect.

I still enjoy coffee though. I do consider my consumption of it an addiction, albeit an almost manageable one ( almost being manifested in merciless withdrawl headaches). But humans and plants are meant to have symbiotic relationships, and this is beautiful too.

12:26 PM  

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