Pollan, Michael. 2002. The Botany of Desire. pg. 113-179. Random House Trade Paper Backs, United States of America.
Many people that do appreciate plants feel that way for their beauty, their produce yield, or just their presence as “green space.” My enthusiasm for the botanical world often breeds questions as to where my passion comes from. Frequently my response is that their metabolism is nothing short of magical. In fact, the entire reason why I study the physiology and biochemistry of plants is because of how diverse and incredibly adaptive it is to their sedentary lifestyle. From photosynthesis to pigment production, plants do it all, but they do it mostly in secret.
Pollan discusses this feat of the plant kingdom in his chapter discussing Cannabis sativa. In particular, he addresses that this plant is able to alter our consciousness due to its active components, that is, molecules that have activity within living organisms that are fairly exclusive to certain plant groups. I’ve never been an advocate of using a plant’s biochemistry recreationally to alter one’s sense of consciousness, but I cannot deny it is a major factor that has formed the basis of many cultures around the world. Indigenous people used a variety of plants with bioactivity on our central nervous system to become “closer with the gods” or visit the “spirit world.” While many people view this as an important cultural attribute that has participated in the formation of many civilizations, my own cynical, overly-practical mindset just perceives it as an incredible feat of plant biochemistry. The compounds produced by these plants are so effective at causing mischief in mammalian biochemistry, affecting tissues that plants don’t even have! It’s easy to glance over when everyone moons over what happens to us, but the plant is the one in control here; it’s the only one that knows the secret recipe.
Cannabis is definitely not the only plant with unique biochemistry. As I discussed in my last post, peppers produce a compound called capsaicin which has strong activity in mammalian metabolism, and it also works to inhibit the growth of fungi looking to degrade the plant. Many other plants produce powerful toxins that poison the soil, such as Sisymbrium loeselii (Loesel Mustard) which is allelotoxic, which is a fancy way of saying it prevents the germination of surrounding plants allowing it to colonize disturbed areas quickly and more effectively than other plants. The activity of these compounds, obviously having a distinct impact on our physiology, are also obviously used in medicine. Plants that have psychoactive activity are also used for medicines, even if people often use them for recreation. One such example is Papver somniferum, the Opium poppy, containing a special class of chemicals called opiates. Though historically it was used at length for recreational/spiritual psychoactive effects, we owe opium poppy for sparing so many human lives of insurmountable pain due to morphine.
I can’t say I approve of the recreational use of psychoactive drugs, but I do tolerate it as is necessary in our society. What I do find remarkable, however, is the hugely distinct effect on our physiology that plants have evolved to possess. Be it by accident or by co-evolution for defence mechanisms, plants concoct a myriad of incredibly diverse potions, and only their metabolism knows the secret.