From the Stairway to Heaven to the Gates of Hell:  Part 1

(This is the first of several installments describing the “Around the World in 127 Acres” tour series given by Arboretum Botanical Information Consultant Frank McDonough. Please check back as we will publish more tours in this series on the Arboretum's web site.)
Our relationship with plants may be the most involved and complex among all the animals on earth. We cultivate, breed and select them for reasons as mundane as food to as exciting as curing cancer. Probably no aspect of that relationship is as mysterious or controversial as man's use of plants for religious and spiritual purposes. We have used plants to represent myth, to aid in rituals and as psychic gateways to the spiritual realm. The Arboretum's collection, which is roughly organized in sections corresponding to geographic regions around the world, contains hundreds of plants that have some sort of mythic, religious or spiritual significance. 

The serpent trail in the Australian section of the L.A. County Arboretum & Botanic Garden
Australian aborigines have extensive knowledge of native plants for food, medicinal and survival purposes. They would use plants like the Brachychiton spp. as an emergency water supply, burn Eucalyptus spp. leaves to relieve headaches and gather the hard seeds of wattles (Acacia spp.) to grind into flour. Although myths vary from tribe to tribe, many did believe that animals, people and plants existed before creation during a period called “Dreamtime.” The Arboretum's “Serpent Walk” reflects a mythological creature known as the “Rainbow Serpent,” a protector of people and a punisher of those who would break the laws meant to protect the relationship between humans and the fragile Australian environment.

Adansonia grandidieri (image: ino paap)
Some 4,300 miles away from Australia, the island of Madagascar is home to a type of tree that appears even more interesting than the religious beliefs associated with it. The baobab trees of Madagascar are comprised of 6 species that can be found only on the island. They have massive trunk-like structures that store water and nutrients in order for them to survive the not-too-uncommon droughts that visit the island. One of the species, Adansonia grandidieri, can reach over 50 feet in the air. The native Malagasy consider these trees to be the daytime domicile of spirits active during the night and will place offerings of grass at the base of the trees for them. This belief probably serves as a form of protection for the trees from over use as they are an invaluable source of food, fiber and medicine for the Malagasy.

 Echinocactus grusonii growing in the Arboretum's cactus and succulent garden; although a member of the same family as Peyote (Lophohora williemsii) it is not known to be hallucinogenic.
The cactus family, unique to the New World, has many species that contain nitrogen containing compounds known as alkaloids. Some of these bitter tasting compounds can affect the chemistry of the brain; because of this, several of them are considered sacred plants by various peoples in the New World. Most of these sacred cacti contain mescaline, a “psychotomimetic” that, like the more notorious compound lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), mimics the psychotic state experienced by people suffering from schizophrenia. Research on the effectiveness of using these compounds as treatment for mental health conditions such as anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and depression to name a few is controversial and inconclusive. In the right settings, hallucinogens like mescaline can produce profound spiritual experiences in individuals. Such experiences are termed “entheogenic” and the compounds that produce them “entheogens.”  The Native American Church, a religious organization comprised mostly of native Americans, employs peyote as an entheogen in their ceremonies.  Interstingly, peyote was not traditionally used by most tribes in North America before its introduction in the late 19th century, however tobacco (Nicotiana sp.) has a long history of spiritual and medicinal use among native North Americans. The use of peyote (Lophophora williamsii) as an entheogen was introduced to native North Americans by tribes in Northern Mexico and Southern Texas where its use dates back over 3,000 years. Another mescaline containing cactus in the genus Trichocereus is used by shamans in Peru to divine illnesses.
Vitex agnes-castus; 'Monk's Pepper'
While the native Americans were using peyote to communicate with the divine, some Europeans were using a plant to help remove certain “distractions” to spiritual enlightenment. Vitex agnus-castus has an interesting common name in Europe, “monk's pepper.” Why? Reportedly, monks used the shrub's berries as a food additive to help them maintaining their vows of chastity.  It turns out that the plant contains compounds similar to progesterone, a human sex hormone that helps to regulate the levels of other sex hormones in the body.  Thus, any sex hormone whose levels are in excess (say in a monk's case, testosterone) would see their levels lowered and leveled out, but not completely eliminated. Why would a monk want to lower testosterone levels? Since testosterone is responsible for the male (and female) sex drive, lowering the testosterone level can lower the sex drive.  Consequently, you have happy monks, because it becomes much easier to control, um, the urges. It was also used by ancient Greek women to maintain the period of chastity that was required just before the Thesmophory, a festival in honor of the goddess Demeter. Today, extracts from Vitex are used as a treatment for premenstrual syndrome and other hormonally linked conditions. Next in part II…A tree with a temple at its base turns out to be a living fossil…a beautiful but dangerous flower used by shamans in Peru…and a seed used by newlyweds in Europe to ensure fertility.  To learn more about the interesting facts regarding plant, animal/human and environment interactions among more than 18,000 acessioned plants in the Aboretum's extensive collections, be sure to sign up for the “Around the World in 127 Acres” tours led by the Aboretum's Botanical Information Consultant, Frank Mcdonough.  To be continued…..
Refrences, including call numbers from the Arboretum Library.
A. R. Radcliffe-Brown,  (1926) “The Rainbow-Serpent Myth of Australia,” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 56,, pp. 19-25 Sandy Toussaint ; Patrick Sullivan ;Sarah Yu (2005) “Water Ways in Aboriginal Australia: An Interconnected Analysis,” Anthropological Forum, Volume 15, Issue 1  pages 61 – 74    Everett, T. H. (1968). Living trees of the world. New York: Doubleday, pp 237-238.  QK475 .E94 1968Pakenham, T. (2004). The Remarkable Baobab. New York; London: W.W. Norton.Wickens, G.E. & Lowe, P.  (2008). The baobabs: pachycauls of Africa, Madagascar and Australia.  Springer Science + Business Media, BV. pp. 54-61, 63, 139.Rätsch, C. (2005). The encyclopedia of psychoactive plants : ethnopharmacology and its applications. (J.R. Baker, Trans.). Rochester,VT: Park Street Press.  QK99 .A1 R38 2005 Ref. Aghajanian, G.K. & G.J. Marek,  G.J. (1999). “Serotonin and Hallucinogens,” Neuropsychopharmacology, 21(2S), 16-23. González-Maeso, J., Ang, R.L., Yuen, T., Chan, P., Weisstaub, N.V., López-Giménez, J.F., Sealfon, S.C. (2008). “Identification of a serotonin/glutamate receptor complex implicated in psychosis,” Nature, 452, 93-97. Anderson, E.F. (1980). Peyote, the divine cactus. Tucson : University of Arizona Press E98 .R3 A52pB. Meier, C. Allemann & M.H. Kreuter. “Vitex agnus-castus and the way of the drug to the clinical approved herbal medicinal product.”Baumann, H. (1993) The Greek plant world in myth, art and literature(W. T. Stearn & E. R. Stearn, Trans). Porland, Oregon: Timber Press. . p.50  BL715 .B347g
 

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© 2014 Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens

301 N. Baldwin Ave, Arcadia, CA, 91007

Site Design by Kirk Projects