Phytochemical Research On Sacred Plants

Plants of the gods interest various disciplines: ethnology, religious studies, history, and folklore. The two major scientific disciplines that concern themselves with these plants, however, are botany and chemistry. This chapter describes the work of chemists who analyze the constituents of plants used in religious rites and in the magic of medicine men and discusses the potential benefits from such research.

The botanist must establish the identity of plants that in the past were used as sacred drugs or which are still employed for that purpose today. The next step to be explored by scientists is: What constituents—which of the substances in those plants—actually produce the effects that have led to their use in religious rites and magic? What the chemist is looking for is the active principle, the quintessence or quinta essentia, as Paracelsus called the active compounds in plant drugs.

Among the many hundreds of different substances that make up the chemical composition of a plant, only one or two (occasionally up to half a dozen) compounds are responsible for its psychoactive effects. The proportion by weight of these active principles is usually only a fraction of 1 percent, and frequently even of one part per thousand of the plant. The main constituents of fresh plants, usually more than 90 percent by weight, are cellulose (which provides the supporting structure) and water (as the solvent and transport medium for plant nutrients and metabolic products). Carbohydrates (such as starch and various sugars), proteins, fats, mineral salts, and pigments make up several more percent of the plant. Together with these normal components, they constitute practically the whole plant, and they are common to all higher plants. Substances w h unusual physiological and psychic effects are found only in certain special plants. These substances as a rule have very different chemical structures from those of the usual vegetal constituents and common metabolic products.

It is not known what function these special substances may have in the life of the plant. Various theories have been offered. Most psychoactive principles in these sacred plants contain nitrogen, and it has therefore been suggested that they may be waste products of metabolism—like uric acid in animal organisms—their purpose being the elimination of excess nitrogen If this theory were true, one would expect all plants to contain such nitrogenous constituents: that is not the case Many of the psychoactive compounds are toxic if taken in large doses, and it has therefore been suggested that they serve to protect the plants from animals. But this theory likewise is hardly convincing, because many poisonous plants are in fact eaten by animals that are immune to the toxic constituents

It remains, therefore, one of the unsolved riddles of nature why certain plants produce substances with specific effects on the mental and emotional functions of man, on his sense of perception, and actually on his state of consciousness

Phytochemists have the important and fascinating task of separating the active principles from the rest of the plant materials and of producing them in pure form. Once active principles are thus available, it is possible to analyze them to determine the elements of which they are composed; the relative proportions of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, etc.; and to establish the molecular structure in which these elements are arranged. The next step is the synthesis of the active principle: that is, to make it in the test tube quite independently of the plant.

With pure compounds—whether isolated from the plant or synthetically produced—exact pharmacological assays and chemical tests can be made. This is not possible with whole plants because of the varying content of the active principles and interference from other constituents.

The first psychoactive principle to be produced in pure form from a plant was morphine, an alkaloid present in the opium poppy. It was first iso lated by the pharmacist Friedrich Sertürner in 1806. This new compound was named for the Greek god of sleep, Morpheus, because of its sleep-inducing properties. Since then, enormous strides have been made in developing more efficient methods for the separation and purification of active principles, with the most important techniques evolving only during the last decades. These include the techniques of chromatography: methods of separation based on the fact that different substances adhere in varying degrees on absorbent materials or are more or less readily

The psychoactive latex of the Poppy (Papaver somniferum) emerges white and turns to a resinous brown substance: ra/v opium. In 1806 morphine was successfully isolated out of the poppy, the first time in history that a single constituent was isolated.

Below Papaver somniferum from Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen Atlas, 1887. This atlas is one of the outstanding plant books of the twentieth century. Morphine is not hallucinogenic; it has been classified as a euphoric drug

Papa Ter soMi-isrul" L.

Some psychoactive compounds are also proauced by animals. The Colorado River tcad (Bufo alvarius) secretes considerable amounts of 5-MeO-DMT

taken up in solvents that do not mix. The methods used in qualitative analysis and to establish the chemical structure of compounds have also undergone fundamental changes in recent years. Formerly, several generations of chemists would be needed to elucidate the complex structures of natural compounds- Today, it takes just a few weeks or even only days to determine them with the techniques of spectroanalysis and X-ray analysis At the same time, improved methods of chemical synthesis have been developed. The great advances made in the field of chemistry and the effi cient methods now available to plant chemists, have in recent years made it possible to gain appreciable knowledge of the chemistry of active principles found in psychoactive plants.

The contribution made by chem_sts to the study of sacred plant drugs may be illustrated with the example of the Magic Mushrooms of Mexico. Ethnologists had found Indian tribes in the southern parts of Mexico using mushrooms in their religious ceremonies. Mycologists identified the mushrooms used in these rituals. Chemical analyses showed clearly which species were psychoactive. Albert Hofmann tested one species of mushroom on himself; he discovered that it was psychoactive, that it could be grown under laboratory conditions, and he was able to isolate two active compounds. The purity and chemical homogeneity of a compound can be demonstrated by its ability to crystallize, unless of course it be a liquid. The two hallucinogenic principles now known as psilocybine and psilocine, found in the Mexican Magic Mushroom Psilocybe mexicana, were obtained in the form of colorless crystals

Similarly, the active principle of the Mexican cactus Lophophora willi^msli, mescaline, had been isolated in pure form and crystallized as a salt with hydrochloric acid.

With the active principles of the mushrooms available in pure form, it became possible to extend research into various fields, such as psychiatry w;,"h useful results.

By determining the presence or absence of psi-locybine and psilocine, an objective method was now available for distinguishing true hallucinogenic mushrooms from false ones.

The chemical structure of the hallucinogenic principles of the mushrooms was determined (see structural formulas in the next chapter), and it was found that these compounds were closely related chemically to substances (serotonin) occurring naturally in the brain that play a major role in the regulation of psychic functions.

As the pure compounds can be given in exact doses, their pharmacological actions could now be studied under reproducible conditions in animal experiments, and the spectrum of their psychotropic actions in man determined. This was not possible with the original mushrooms, because their content of active principles tends to vary, between 0.1 and 0.6 percent of the dry we.'ght of the plant tissue The greater part of this content is psilocybine, with psilocine present usu ally only in traces. The median effective dose for humans is 8 to 16 milligrams of psilocybine or psilocine. Instead of swallowing 2 grams of the dried mushrooms, which have a rather unpleasant taste, one merely needs to take about 0.008 gram of psilocybine to experience the hallucinogenic effects, which generally last for several hours.

Once the active principles were available in pure form, it was possible to study their use and effective application in medicine. They were found to be particularly useful in experimental

Mescaline—HCI Psilocybine

(mescaline-hydrocnloride, crystallized from alcohol) (crystallized from methanol)


(crystallized from methanol)

psychiatry, as valuable aids to psychoanalysis and psychotherapy

One might think that with the isolation, structural analysis, and synthesis of psilocybine and psilocine, the mushrooms of Mexico had lost their magic. Substances that because of their effects on the mind had led Indians to believe for thousands of years that a god dwelt in those mushrooms can now be synthetically produced in the chemist's retort. It should be remembered, however, that scientific investigation has merely shown that the magic properties of the mushrooms are the properties of two crystalline compounds. Their effect on the human mind is just as inexplicable, and just as magical, as that of the mushrooms themselves. This also holds true for the isolated and purified active principles of other plants of the gods.

Many alkaloids crystallize poorly as free bases. They will separate as a crys tallized salt, however, when neutralized with a suitable acid, either by cooling the saturated solution or by evaporation of the solvent. Crystallization of substances from solutions is carried out mainly far purification, since by-products remain in the solvent.

As each substance has its own specific crystalline form, this form serves for identification and characterization of a substance. A modern method for the elucidation of chemical constitutions is the X-ray structure analysis. For the application of this method, alkaloids and other substances must be available in crystallized form.

"The largest river m the world runs through the largest forest. . . By little and little, I began to comprehend that in a forest which is practically unlimited— near three millions of square rr;les clad with trees and little else but trees, and where the natives think no more of destroying the noblest trees, when they stand in their way, than we the vilest weed, a single tree cut down makes no greater a gap and is no more missed, than when one pulls up a stalk of groundsel or a poppy in an English cornfield." —Richard Spruce

Below: The photograph depicts an aerial view of the Kuluene River, the southernmost tributary of the Xingu River, a main affluent of the Amazon.

Right: 'There were enormous trees, crowned with magnificent foliage, decked with fantastic parasites, and hung over with lianas, which varied in thickness from slender threads to huge python-like masses, were now round, now flattened, now knotted and now twisted with the regularity of a cable. Intermixed with the trees, and often equal to them in altitude, grew noble palms; while other and far lovelier species of the same family, their ringed stems sometimes scarcely exceed g a finger's thickness, but bearing plume-like fronds and pendulous bunches of black or red berries, quite like those of their loftier allies, formed, along with shrubs and arbuscles of many types, a bushy undergrowth, not visually very dense or difficult to penetrate it is worthy to be noted that the loftiest forest is generally the easiest to traverse- the lianas and parasites . being in great part too high to be much in the way..." —Richard Spruce

Continue reading here: Geography Of Usage And Botanical Range

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