Psychedelic compounds can be found throughout a range of different groups of flora. With this thought in mind it is surprising to think that so few of these plants are actually discussed or experienced within drug circles in the Western World. It doesn’t stop at plants either, what with certain fungi and animals also producing mind bending chemicals. For instance, one quick dabble with the process known as ‘doing Kermit’ can convert huge chunks of one’s time and energy into ‘toadishness’. Having said this, plants and fungi are the foremost natural industries within this particular biochemical venture, and it is upon these types of organism that I will focus here.
It is generally considered that plants and fungi have two evolutionary strategies to choose from; either give a benefit to those that try to eat you, or instead, try to fend them off with spikes, stings or latent toxins within their cells that poison aggressors internally. The pleasant eating strategy allies itself most notably to the agricultural development of humans. ‘Taste nice and prosper’ is the maxim here, and certain species have conquered the world in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without humans facilitating the action. Zea mays (Maize), Solanum tubersum (Potato) and Malus domestica (Apple) being the most notable achievers. The second evolutionary tragedy of ‘don’t touch me or I will defend myself and hurt you in the process’, is less agreeable than the previous one discussed, but still it is a very profitable. Just look at the way Pteridium aquilinum (Bracken) poisons the soil as it grows, dominating vast patches of Great British wood and scrubland as it endures. More pertinently, just think of the way numerous plants in the UK try to fend you off with barbs and resistive incisions.
Now, it is my thought that the psychoactive plants and fungi fall into a third, undisclosed, category that borrows from both of the two groups previously mentioned. This thought can be mirrored in the polarisation of public perceptions of opium. On the one hand there are opinions that state that psychoactives are inherently dangerous and are to be controlled and avoided (don’t touch me or I will poison you), or conversely the increasingly more logical opinion that, if used in the correct manner, psychoactives can aid people in numerous ways. So, in short, substances, from chocolate to opium, contain compounds that may have started off, in evolutionary terms, as defensive in nature. It takes the evolution of a primate (in this case ourselves) capable of understanding and enjoying allegories to come along and shift the boundaries of what constitutes a poisoning and what constitutes a beneficial expedition.
The subject of psychoactive fungi is most commonly centred on Amanita and Psilocybe varieties. Both utilise different biochemistry to produce their own particular psychoactive compounds, and have been analysed scientifically and socially in volumes of literature. Yet there are numerous other species of fungi that contain psychoactive compounds. One of the most intriguing of the ‘apocryphal’ species is part of a symbiotic lichen called Parmotrema menyamyaense or ‘Rock Blooms’, as they are found growing on rocks in the Arctic. Lichen are a symbiotic relationship between a fungi and another, autotrophic (‘self-feeder’), organism – usually a cyanobacetria or an algae. A trip report from a difficult to obtain article ‘’Stoned on Stones’’ on the Vice blog makes for an interesting subjective report. It is, however, one of the only examples of journalism reflecting the existence of this new known psychoactive:
“It was the most intense hallucinogenic experience that I’ve ever had, and I’ve done every trip there is,” says Icelandic writer Smari Einarsson. “DMT, peyote… you name it. We have these magic mushrooms here that grow wild. I’ve eaten those more times than I can count. They cannot even come close to the effect of these rocks.” Volcanic rocks, which cover the Icelandic landscape, have been getting local kids high for five years now, ever since a local artist did a performance piece called Rock Soup. Jon Sigmundson’s art piece was meant to make a commentary on Icelanders’ high standard of living, which he believes relies on taking for granted third-world suffering. He made Rock Soup, he said in a written statement, to “try and live on nothing.” The serendipitous discovery he made is that these rocks get you fuggin’ wasted.
It is actually the lichen that lives on the rocks that gets you off. You take a few stones, boil them in a pot of water, strain it all through a colander, and drink it down like tea. Some people add ginger and honey, but it supposedly has a nice taste undiluted. It’s very earthy. People, who have ‘taken stones’, as it’s called, share strikingly similar stories. “Trolls,” says a young Icelandic girl who was interviewed at the local Reykjavik bar Sirkus. “Every time we do stones, we see the same group of trolls. They are no unkind, but they aren’t overly friendly either,” she says. “Mostly what they do is advise you. You always come away from a stones trip with a question that you had on your mind answered. You also have the most vivid colours ever. It’s like living in Fantasia!”
Alex Shulgin also references to psychoactive lichen, in PiKAL (1991), as a source of synthetic tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Shulgin, however, is talking about a different species of lichen to the one referenced in Stoned on Stones. Shulgin, in this case, is referring to lichen known as Evernia prunastri. The different psychoactive effects of Parmotrema menyamyaense and Evernia prunastri would be detectable upon reflection after reading both the quoted trip report above and Shulgin’s reference to THC within PiKAL. THC is not generally known for giving experiences deeper than DMT or peyote, so a misalignment must be present here between the biochemistry of the two species.
There is also a reference to an ‘unidentified lichen’ located around the south-western US in a book called By the Prophet of the Earth: Ethnobotany of the Pima by L.S.M Curtin (1984), however, that location is a sizable distance away from the Arctic Circle. This means that the lichen mentioned by Curtin is more likely to be the lichen Shulgin alludes to in PiHKAL, over the one referenced in the Stoned on Stones article. It will be interesting to find out exactly how many psychoactive lichen species there are out there, clinging to barren rocks in exposed territories. It does prove one point however; that the more you look at psychoactive compounds the more nature provides a new avenue for investigation. It is humbling to be taught more about the frontiers of one’s ignorance via symbiotic lichen.
These two following verses from William Wordsworth poem Leech–Gatherer (1802) serves as an useful allegory here, in respect to the intriguing details around a concept akin to psychedelic lichen found growing on Arctic rocks:
Now, whether it were by peculiar grace,
A leading from above, a something given,
Yet it befell that, in this lonely place,
When I with these untoward thoughts had striven,
Beside a pool bare to the eye of heaven
I saw a Man before me unawares:
The oldest man he seemed that ever wore grey hairs.
As a huge Stone is sometimes seen to lie
Couched on the bald top of an eminence;
Wonder to all who do the same espy,
By what means it could thither come, and whence;
So that it seems a thing endued with sense:
Like a Sea-beast crawled forth, that on a shelf
Of rock or sand reposeth, there to sun itself.
The environment of windswept desolation encapsulates the wise old lichen clinging to a rock. If prepared correctly, for consumption, such lichen tea can allow for ‘the eye of heaven’ to be seen through. Yet the rock itself seems to betray the hallucination as it ‘is sometimes seen to lie’. As the effects take hold we are given the chance to ‘wonder’ at the mind bending qualities that produce feelings and predicaments which are so palpable to our senses, ‘‘So that it seems a thing endued with sense: Like a Sea-beast crawled forth…’’ is upon us.
The existence of a psychoactive compound within Parmoteema menyamyaense, and numerous other lichen species, is another example of how certain chemicals can have emergent or secondary effects if prepared correctly. Such levels of complexity only hint at the vastness of the threads with which nature weaves its tapestry. If the report is to be given some credit then there is a deeply profound psychedelic study waiting to be undertaken in the northern hemisphere, which can only provide us with more information on the subject of psychoactives as a whole.