Who’s tripping whom?

By Sam Gandy on Monday, 28 April 2014, hits: 13691


Psychedelic plants and fungi, for the most part, have done well having developed a relationship with humans, and it could be argued in some cases that there is a kind of symbiosis going on, especially if you look at it from the ecosystem level. In a more localised sense, association with these plants may have conferred and continue to confer a slight evolutionary advantage to indigenous people that use them. The alkaloids in ayahuasca, iboga and peyote have both been reported to have antibiotic effects, and both of the latter two plants are used in small doses by indigenous people in different parts of the world to reduce the effects of thirst, hunger and fatigue, and this may be of benefit while hunting. With this positive association come collateral effects for the plants; ayahuasca vines are planted near human habitation, iboga is widely planted at Bwiti temples. While Peyote has become more restricted in range due to over exploitation, this is no fault of the traditional and sustainable Huichol and Tarahumara Indian harvesting methods, which emphasise the importance of cutting the plant above the root stock, which allows it to regrow.

Man’s observations of animal species have also affected his interactions with psychoactive plants. Reindeer are well documented having a profound fondness for the fly agaric mushroom A. muscaria, and that they can be round up using this fungus, and will consume it until they take on a state resembling a trance (Wasson 1972). Goats have a fondness for khat (Catha edulis), and coffee beans (Coffea arabica) and deer have been reported as having a fondness for consuming Cannabis and have had a long association with Peyote in Huichol Indian mythology. In a similar vein, the Bwiti credit the forest people of Gabon with the discovery of iboga, who in turn credit the discovery to their observations of warthog, porcupine and gorillas feeding on the roots of the plant (Barabe 1982). The forest people were happy to share their knowledge of iboga and its special properties with neighbouring tribes such as the Apindji and Mitsogho, as it was a seen as a way of reducing inter tribal warfare. Animals are deeply embedded in the ancient folklore of the discovery of this and other psychedelic plants, and they are known to self medicate with plants; chimpanzee’s have been observed consuming plants to treat themselves with parasite infections; with the same plant Vernonia amygdalina, the bitter-leaf tree, being used by local indigenous people for the same purpose, and baboons have been observed eating small amounts of Datura inoxia and Datura stramonium.

The purpose of some active plant compounds seems clear. For example, tobacco plants have evolved nicotine as it acts in a powerful way on the nervous systems of insects that feed on it, acting as a potent insecticide. However a number of plants and fungi, and some animal species, can produce psychoactive compounds capable of exerting powerful effects on human consciousness. Precisely why these particular organisms have evolved these compounds is somewhat more mysterious. Some of these compounds do appear to have antibiotic, as well as antifungal and antiviral effects and so may confer broad spectrum immune resistance. Indeed some of these plants are ingested for these effects alone, and ayahuasca has a long documented history of being used to remove gut parasites by indigenous Amazonian people. There is evidence that some plants produce more of these compounds when stressed but the presence of these alkaloids does not always prevent them from being consumed. Mysteries remain regarding exactly why these plants and fungi have evolved production of these alkaloids and exactly what advantages their presence confers. Clearly they are of use to the species in question as evolution doesn’t tolerate wasting of energy and resources, and these agents certainly cost their respective species their precious life energy to produce. Ibogaine, the dominant alkaloid active in Tabernanthe iboga, is a highly complex molecule and a difficult and expensive compound to synthesise from scratch in a lab, and it appears much simpler to allow nature to do the job.

The plot thickens and the mystery deepens when looking at ayahuasca and the DMT containing plants. The ayahuasca vine (B. caapi) is a rich source of monoamine oxidase inhibitors, in the form of Beta-carboline compounds. Some of these closely resemble endogenous human compounds such as pinoline. At high doses B. caapi can induce psychedelic effects. However it is the synergy with the DMT containing plants chacruna (Psychotria viridis) and chaliponga (Diplopterys cabrerana) where an amazing feat of plant alchemy takes place. The MAOI’s present in the vine allow DMT that would otherwise be rapidly broken down by the enzymes they inhibit to pass into the blood stream and cross the blood brain barrier. Furthermore, one of the most ancient of human technologies, fire, is employed for cooking up the brews to release the active alkaloids from the plant material and prepare this as a tea for drinking. The standard anthropological theory of how the indigenous people in Amazonia discovered the powerful synergistic visionary effects when combining the plants is that it was via trial and error of different species they encountered in their environment. This however is not a view shared by the people in question, claiming that their knowledge came directly from “the plant teachers” (Luna 1984) of the synergy of combining the two species of plant. Amazonia is one of the most biodiverse parts of the world, with many thousands of plant species, and many different tribes across Amazonia have made this discovery, suggesting that there may be something more than trial and error at work. Ayahuasca itself has been seen as an agent that transcends this system of trial and error. According to Kaxinawá legend, it was an ayahuasca experience that bestowed upon them knowledge of the kambo medicine. A shaman was attempting to heal his tribe and he had exhausted other remedies from the forest that were available to him. So he took ayahuasca as a last resort to seek advice on how to help his people. The ayahuasca showed him a vision of the monkey tree frog (Phyllomedusa bicolor) and gave him advice on how to use its venom secretions to heal.

DMT is a simple molecule closely related to serotonin and derived from the amino acid tryptophan which is very widespread and abundant in the natural world and the compound has been detected in a number of species, including humans, and appears to be highly abundant and widespread in the botanical realm. Interestingly the precise role it plays in humans and other species remains unknown. It seems that the enzymes responsible for its synthesis are ancient and shared by many different species, so DMT can act as a common biochemical denominator that can transcend species across the biosphere. This emphasises on a tangible, biochemical level that we are all interconnected and interrelated. With the MAOI’s and DMT, plants have found a way to powerfully hack into the nervous systems of other species. DMT has recently been found to be present in the pineal glands of live rats (Strassman et al. 2013), and there may also be evidence for its in situ synthesis there. The pineal gland is an extremely ancient evolutionary development in vertebrate brains, and is present in all but the most primitive vertebrates and a few evolutionary exceptions. The rodent and primate lineages only parted on the evolutionary tree of life around 70 million years ago, which in terms of evolutionary time on this planet, all of 3.7 billion years, isn’t that long. Rodents make excellent model animals due to the profound biochemical and physiological similarities in which their cells function compared to us. Thus DMT is very likely present in our and many other species’ pineal glands, although its physiological role remains shrouded in mystery.

The psychedelic plants, fungi and animals that are a part of the biosphere may have some extremely valuable lessons and insights relating to life on this planet, and our species would be foolish to disregard these agents. We are currently in the midst of the sixth global mass extinction, which is down purely to our actions on the biosphere, never before in Earth’s history has a single species wielded such terrible power over all over life. With the destruction of the natural world and the rainforest we are continuously losing species, some of which may have highly valuable properties, but will be lost forever. Man would be wise to broaden its cognitive horizons and pursue any avenues that allow for a more tangible, all encompassing view of the natural world, and our part in it. Human exploration by way of these transformative agents may be highly valuable in instilling in us these values, and this will be of benefit to ourselves, all life, and our long term future on this planet.



Barabe, P. The Religion of Iboga or the Bwiti of the Fangs. Medicina Tropical. 12. (1982): 251-257.

Geml, Jόzsef; Laursen, Garry A.; O’Neill, K.; Nusbaum, C. & Taylor, D. Lee. Beringian origins and cryptic speciation events in the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria). Molecular Ecology. 15. (2006): 225-239.

Luken, James O. & Thieret, John W. Amur honeysuckle, its fall from grace. Bioscience. 46. (1996): 18-24.

Luna, Luis E. “The concept of plants as teachers among four mestizo shamans of Iquitos, northeast Peru.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology. 11.(1984): 135-156.

Strassman, Rick; Barker, Stephen A. & Stone, Andrew C. DMT Found in the Pineal Gland of Live Rats. Biomedical Chromatography (forthcoming; 2013).

Wasson, Gordon R. Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, p. 238. Harcourt, 1972.


+2 # Jamie 2014-04-28 17:19
Wonderful article, as always Sam!

..lots ot think about..
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+3 # Pandora 2014-04-28 23:31
Extremely well written, researched an edited article. Too bad no psilocybe shrooms have seem to grow in the wilds of my area, which certainly does have its' share of modern urban issues and disturbances. Huzzah for grow teks. :D

This article was a pleasure to read and I found myself coming to the final paragraph all too soon. Immersive head feeding work this.

Thank you.
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+3 # Entheogenerator 2014-04-29 08:30
Excellent article! I loved the part where you pointed out that Psilocybe sp. possess the power to enhance ecological awareness in people who consume them, while simultaneously thriving in the areas where we have created ecological disturbance. There is some very potent food for thought in this article. Thanks! :-)
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+1 # psyconaught89 2014-04-29 13:21
Wow.great stuff really made me think about alot of things....
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+1 # Ayawasqero 2014-11-22 15:03
Phytochemistry: drugs plants make are drugs people take. :D
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