Man has had a profound impact on the ecology of the planet since our rise to dominance, becoming masters in shaping the world around us and bending nature to our whims. Many plants and fungi have grown strong associations with our species. Although unable to move, plants have managed to exploit animals into pollinating them and spreading their genes far and wide. Animals are again exploited in the movement of plant seeds and fungal spores, so as to spread their influence further. When Man enters this picture, things become yet more complex. Through our long term association with plants and fungi, we have discovered a vast array of species we consider valuable for a multitude of different reasons; as foods, building materials, medicines, poisons and intoxicants. Any species we deem to be of value have tended to benefit in our association with us, by our spreading them far beyond what their range would otherwise be, and often by our manipulation of the surrounding ecology to provide them with optimal habitat while markedly reducing their competition with species we find less favourable.
Grasses have done very well through their association with Man. The domestication of grasses such as rice, wheat, oats and maize lies at the foundation of human civilization around the world. These plants, in effect, domesticated us by causing us to largely reject a hunter-gatherer existence in favour of a more sedentary, agricultural based life, and allowed higher numbers of people to live within closer proximity to each other than they could before. We have chopped down forests and altered our surrounding ecology to an incredible degree to provide habitat for our favoured grasses at the expense of many other species that share the biosphere. These grasses included the species grown for food, as well as grass pastures which sustain our livestock. From these grassy habitats have emerged some powerful and important psychedelic fungi.
The liberty cap (Psilocybe semilanceata) is a species that is widespread in temperate parts of the world. It is one of the more common and most potent of psilocybin mushrooms known. The fungus is saprobic, the mycelium feeding on decaying grass roots. The grass habitat within which this species thrives has done very well due to human influence, and open grassland is a great deal more common than it otherwise would be. Furthermore, the species thrives in nitrogen rich pastureland fertilised with dung, although it is not directly associated with dung. Thus our manipulation of our ecology in this manner has vastly increased suitable habitat for this species, while at the same time increasing the likelihood of human encounters with it. Psilocybe mexicana, an important species to the Aztecs and the Mazatec also appears to favour human made habitats, such as along trails and roads, and in meadows and cornfields, and in grassy areas bordering deciduous woodland. The species Psilocybe cubensis has spread so widely around the world in tropical and subtropical regions that it isn’t entirely clear where its original native range is. Due to its coprophilic or dung loving nature it has done very well following our domestication of a number of bovine species, and is widespread in subtropical and tropical pastures all over the world. The coprophilic and highly potent Panaeolus mushroom genus has also benefitted through our actions.
LSD is a semi synthetic derivative of alkaloids from the fungus ergot (Claviceps purpurea). Like P. semilanceata, C. purpurea is another species that lives in close association with grasses and has done very well via our actions on the environment. The grasses in question are this time arable instead of pastoral, with the fungus being a parasite on the ears of cereals such as rye and related plants. Man has known of ergot for some time, and cases of ergot poisonings were common in the Middle Ages. It is unlikely that the invention and discovery of the very powerful psychedelic compound LSD would have occurred were it not for our domestication of grasses and manipulation of our surrounding ecology.
Some grasses themselves are known to be potent psychedelics. Phalaris is a widespread group of grasses and some species such as P. aquatica, P. brachystachys and P. arundinacea have been found to contain high levels of tryptamine psychedelics such as DMT and 5-MeO-DMT. They have found use in ayahuasca analogue concoctions by intrepid psychonauts in recent times. Phalaris species such as P. aquatica and P. arundinacea have also been found to be highly invasive species in some parts of the world, thriving in disturbed areas, and members of this group have certainly benefitted through Man’s actions on the biosphere.
Visionary fungi have benefitted markedly through our association with trees. The fly agaric Amanita muscaria lives in symbiotic association with pine trees, and through our actions with forestry has spread to many parts of the world unintentionally, and should be considered a cosmopolitan species (Geml et al. 2006). The wood loving Psilocybes such as P. cyanescens and P. azurescens are among the most potent psilocybin-containing mushrooms and have also benefitted markedly through our actions manipulating our surrounding ecology. These species would have occupied highly specialised niches previously, but due to actions of forestry and the ability of their spores to travel far and wide, they have benefited vastly via spreading through wood chips. Thus, on a global scale, our species’ modification of our surrounding ecosystems can be seen as increasing both habitat and the likelihood of encounters with these psychedelic fungi. It is interesting that these species have the ability to greatly and reliably enhance ecological awareness and aesthetic appreciation in humans that consume them, and tend to proliferate in ecologically disturbed areas. Furthermore, the cultivation of Psilocybes around the world and deliberate seeding of wood chips with psilocybe mycelium has only assisted in their spread. Mycologist Paul Stamets has referred to the wood loving Psilocybes as anthropophilic in nature, but this description applies to all the species discussed here to some degree. So what may have evolved as some kind of defensive compound inferring evolutionary advantages on the fungal species in question seems to have further evolutionary benefits once Man enters the picture.
Other visionary plants have benefitted from us in a global sense. Syrian rue, cannabis and tobacco are all ruderal plants, thriving on disturbed ground and areas associated with human activity. The psychedelic ergoline alkaloid contacting plants, the Morning Glory (Ipomoea purpurea) and the Hawaiian Baby Woodrose (Argyreia nervosa) have profoundly benefited through the actions of Man, the former species being naturalized throughout warm temperate and subtropical parts of the world, having spread well beyond its native Mexico and Central America. A. nervosa has been introduced to Hawaii, Africa and the Caribbean and has spread far beyond the Indian subcontinent to where it is native, and it is considered an invasive species. The species Acacia confusa, known as the rainbow tree, has one of the highest DMT concentrations yet reported in a plant; with the highest concentrations occurring in the root bark, like iboga. It has become invasive on Hawaii (Luken & Thieret 1996), supplanting the native Acacia, on an island with a long history of ecological disturbance that was ignited following the arrival of Man to the islands and continues to unfold. Elsewhere in the tropics, the ayahuasca vine Banisteriopsis caapi has been reported as a feral species, and has spread its tendrils of influence far beyond its Amazonian home. Thus its alliance with Mankind may have assured its long term survival on the planet. Its increasing use by urban sects of the Santo Daime Church allow people a deep contact with Nature even while being largely cut off from it.
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