Nature’s Pharmacy


These days one cannot think of any UK-based apothecary without triggering internal images of aisles upon aisles of overpriced, gaudy cardboard enshrined creams and tablets, guarded by busy, white-coated workers; each infused, in equal measures, by a discrete ambience of detachment and patronization.

It was, however, the ancient Greek civilisation that first termed the word pharmakos, which initially meant a ritualised human sacrifice – the pharmakoi. The pharmakon, or necromancer, would choose his pharmakoi to serve as a scapegoat for whichever misfortune was on the day’s agenda. References to such events, and to Greek necromancers, are to be found within the New Testament: Revelations 9:21; 18:23; 21:8; 22:15, and within Galatians 5:19-20. Sorcery of this kind was condemned, by the early Christians, to dwell amongst other vices including: adultery, heresy, murder and uncleanliness. So began the Christian anti-polytheistic dogma that still, to this day, seems to haunt the context of engrained, reactionary Western thought processes.

Pharmakeia, was the practice of pharmakos, with all its other myriad nuances, each far too myriad to list in this article, but it included the production of psycho and somatically ameliorative medicines.  For example, in Homer’s  Odyssey an elixir known as ‘nepenthe’ is administered by Helen of Troy to help those in pain, both of a physical and metaphysical persuasion.

 Then Helen, daughter of Zeus, took other counsel.

Straightway she cast into the wine of which they were drinking a drug

to quiet all pain and strife, and bring forgetfulness of every ill.,

(Odyssey Book 4, v. 219–221)

Scholars are divided about what exactly this ‘nepenthe pharmakos’ consisted of, but as a matter of circumstances the ‘what’ is less important than the ‘why’, as akin to a modern-day chemist, the nepenthe was dispensed to help ease a symptom, and not treat the cause.

As must be blindly obvious by now, the practice of pharmakeia is the foundation of the etiology of our  present day use of the word ‘pharmacy’ and all of its subsequent derivatives. Yet today the meaning implied in the word ‘pharmacy’ is almost entirely based on the restoration of health, having ditched the ancient Greek corollaries of necromancy, scapegoating and poison (to name a few). If I may cheekily postulate here that this might simply be a ploy by the pharmacies PR department as most people should know  a saying or two, or have had an experience or thrice, or, at the very least, seen a film once, that portrays the negative side of pharmaceutical medicines, which are designed to help ease a sufferers’ symptoms.  It’s not as if one can pop down to Boots of an afternoon to pick up some Mandrake, for example, when the day is wet and boring.

So as the proliferation of research chemicals continues exponentially, with little on-going analysis of their effects, let alone their effects on the human creature, it could be time, maybe, to spend a few moments looking over some of the lesser appreciated and, dare I say, lesser known, legal  inhabitants of that original benevolent pharmakos—nature.

It has long been known that 80% of domesticated felines have an affinity for a particular species of plant within the family Lamiaceae, or more commonly known as ‘the Mints.’ Nepeta cataria, or catnip, contains two active psychotropic compounds: actinidine and nepetalactone. Actinidine is also present in Valarian (Valeriana officinalis,) which suggests it contains some sedative and anxiolytic effects, whereas Nepetalactone has been described in many subjective reports as a ‘mildly toxic hallucinogen.’ Such reports are born out via the infusion of catnip into a strong tea, or the smoking of correctly prepared and dried  wild plants (apparently shop bought catnip is far too weak for this job) in a bong or vaporizer. Effects described as ‘euphoric, drowsy, relaxative’ and even ‘cathartic’ have all been reported. So instead of letting the cats have it all, perhaps one should consider catnip as a viable, legal cannabis replacement, and a plant that should definitely be worthy of any ethnobotanical garden.

That odoriferous seed husk known as Myristica fragrans (nutmeg) has been used by humans in food and beverage preparations for eons. But less appreciated in the West is the fact that 20 grams of fresh nutmeg will produce a hallucinogenic experience not dissimilar to a ‘heroic dose’ of more commonly known psychedelics. In PiHKAL, Alexander Shulgin suggested that nutmeg’s active ingredient, myristicin, could be metabolized into MMDA by the liver. MMDA has been described by Shulgin as being ‘like cannabis or psilocybin’ in its action (#134 PiHKAL). Subjective reports of nutmeg’s use as a psychoactive can also be found in the works of Albert Hoffman (The Botany and Chemistry of Hallucinogens) and the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Nutmeg’s almost complete lack of use as a psychoactive in the West is somewhat puzzling however. But if a reader is to make inroads in this direction I must draw their attention to that most boring of side effects concerning the ingestion of too much myristicin in one sitting—death (be warned!)

Lurking within many tropical aquariums is an ornamental seaweed belonging to the family Caulerpaceae. One particular species contained within its echelons is Caulerpa taxifolia. This rather pleasant looking marine alga produces an active ingredient known as caulerpenyne, which is known to produce effects such as amnesia, vertigo and hallucinations in humans. Such psychoactive properties relating to humans seem to be emergent, as caulerpenynes are produced as defensive compounds. C. Taxifolia uses caulerpenyne to retard the growth of rival seaweeds and it is known to be toxic to such seaweed grazers as sea urchins and certain fish species.  For example, if a human eats a fish that has been grazing upon C.taxifolia a condition known as ‘icthyoallyeinotoxism’ can occur. Such fish have been dubbed ‘dream fish,’ by certain island inhabitants, due to the strong hallucinations they can cause in those that eat them. Encounters with ‘dream fish’ have in antiquity been localised to the usual waters one would find C.taxifolia growing – the Indian Pacific – yet cases of icthyoallyeinotoxism have been reported in recent years around the south of France, after a fish not usually found in Mediterranean  waters, Salpa salpa (a species of Sea Bream,) was caught and eaten on a few occasions. The effects of these particular cases of ‘Franco-icthyoallyeinotoxism’ lasted for 36 hours, so if you fancy experimenting with ‘dream fish’ be sure to clear your diary for at least a few days beforehand.  Even more interestingly for the UK based readers is that Salpa salpa has been caught off the south coast of Cornwall. So my only advice here would be to be wary of the ‘catch of the day’ around the eateries of the Penwith area of Cornwall. The reason for this movement in the geography of icthyoallyeinotoxism has been linked to the invasion of C.taxifolia in salt based waters via the carelessness, or ignorance (or both), of aquarium keepers, as they discard their unwanted tank based flora and fauna back into the local marine waterways.

Benzodiazepines were first synthesised by Leo Sterbach in 1955, and from that day onwards research based around these compounds became a stalwart part of the treatment in psychiatry of the Western world. A 1991 research paper by Jorge Medina et al. shook up the assumption that benzodiazepines, such as Valium, were in fact the product of man. Medina and his team discovered that ‘Benzodiazepine-like compounds’ were actually being synthesised via an interaction between certain field plants and the micro-organisms found within the bovine rumen. Plants such as certain species of Festuca (grasses) and Trifolium (clovers) could produce part of the benzodiazepine ring (the chemical structure that is a fusion between benezene and diazepine), and after a 48 hour incubation period within the specialized intestine of bovine beasts, the indigenous bacteria then finished off the job of chemical synthesis; thus producing  a ‘benzodiazepine-like compound.’ This could account, if I may be permitted some room to speculate here, for a way of grazed flora to pacify and domesticate its grazing fauna; the quantities of grazing that a cow undertakes may stem, partly, from a rather startling addiction to benzodiazepines—a quick gaze into the vacant eyes of a bovine drug addict should only lay weight to this claim! On a more serious note, however, the idea that benzodiazepines can be produced endogenously is very interesting, to say the least.

Finally we have Rhodedendron adamsii , which is an evergreen shrub purported to contain psychoactive properties. The ancient Greek historian Xenophontus reported how a battalion of warriors became placed into an unintentional stupor by R.adamsii after eating honey made from its pollen. R.adamsii‘s psychoactive properties have long been known to the indigenous people of Russia, Mongolia and Tibet, where it was used for medicinal and shamanistic purposes. Here one must be very careful, however, as most Rhododendron species are laced with cyanide—a chemical most notably used by Dr. Crippen as an antidote to his rather overbearing wife.

The preceding list is by no means exhaustive, and its design is only meant to illuminate how many unreported and unstudied psychoactives may and do dwell out there in nature. Each one may yet hold a new compound that could be used to treat a serious disease or be a catalyst for any other application that one could possibly think of. It is hard to give an example of an ‘unknown unknown’ as I am perfectly aware of the paucity of my imagination. But to destroy before study and research is carried out is the worst possible crime, and it is an on-going crime that blights all of human history. It is imperative that we try, at least in principle, to overturn the reality of history being a tragedy, as it regrettably is, and endeavour instead to convert our history into a tale of morality. For here salvation of the pharmakos must surely be found?

This article is for information only, some of the plants mentioned are potentially lethal.

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