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

Thorny Emergency Poses Puncture Problem


Q. I came in contact with a cactus while working. I was punctured by it and need to know if I  should be concerned. Any help is appreciated. Thank you.

A. Yes, you should be concerned. Besides the formidable tissue damage that a spine entering  your body can do, puncture wounds from plant spines can cause other problems as well. Spines  such as those found on cactus, bougainvilleas, roses and other ‘armed’ plants can carry soil  born bacteria like tetanus etc. If your wound is deep (has gone past the skin ) you should  take the same precautions as you would any dirty puncture wound -see a doctor immediately or go  to an emergency room. Cactus-like plants with spines such as the Euphorbia may also contain  irritating chemicals and can be quite painful for a period of time afterwards, and spine wounds  from certain species of Agave can cause a painful swelling in some individuals that can last  weeks.

So if your wound has broken the skin, please, see a physician immediately and pay attention to  when you last had a tetanus shot. Deep cactus spine punctures are considered ‘dirty wounds’ and  if you have not had tetanus shot within 5 years it’s a good idea to have a booster within 72  hours of receiving the wound.

When dealing with spiny plants it’s best to take several precautions. Plants with large spines  can enter your boots and pierce your feet, so when you are trimming them remember to place the  trimmings in a discreet pile that you can avoid walking on, wear boots with thick soles, and  wear thick, long sleeved shirts, gloves, and goggles. Garden centers carry long sleeved leather  gloves for pruning roses. It’s a real bad idea to trim spiny bushes or palm trees with a chain  saw, as the chain can catch a spiny branch and whip it into your face (if you insist on doing  this besides the clothing mentioned above wear a helmet with a full face, clear snap down  visor, although your neck will still be vulnerable; it would also be a good idea to take out  life insurance -using a chain saw to prune anything but large, woody branches over 3 inches thick is a real bad  idea).

Trimming and handling cactus is best done with the cactus parts to be handled or trimmed  wrapped first in thick cardboard or layers of newspaper wrapped around the stems so that the  wrapping material remains until the procedure is through. Large cactus should be trimmed with a  hand-saw. If you are moving or transplanting a cactus wrap it in a sheet or sheets of box  cardboard and use duct tape to keep the cardboard from unwrapping . Fit the cardboard so that it  has a taper below the main part of the cactus so that it does not slip out of the cardboard  sleeve when you move the cactus. You may also use tie-down straps to secure the wrapped cactus and provide a  grip for handling the plant. Wrapping the cactus in carpet will work as well as tying it up with old garden hose.


Nissl, Jan,  “Puncture Wounds” University of Michigan Health System Healthwise Knowledgebase, 1998

Cooperative Extension University of California Environmental Toxicology Newsletter, v. 3, no. 1, September 1982

 McLaughlin, John,  “Caution These Plants Might Rub You The Wrong Way,” University of Florida IFAS Extension, Urban Horticulture, 2009

Baker, David E. & Bruce E. Cutter, Basic Chain Saw Safety and Use, University of Missouri Extension, 1998.

Kelly, Jack, “How to Transplant a Cactus”, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, 2005

Arboretum Library Exhibit: Seeing the Details. On View April-June

Silk Floss Tree (Chorisia speciosa) by Akiko Enokido
Seeing the Details:  an Exhibition of Southern California Botanical Art in The Arboretum LibraryApril 1-June 30; April 7 from 5-7pm: Opening Reception
The Botanical Artists Guild of Southern California will be exhibiting their work in The Arboretum Library, April 1 to June 30, 2010.  Botanical accuracy and artistic merit will ensure a detailed and breath-taking view of Southern California plants, both native and ornamental. The show will be juried by Olga Eysymontt, Guild Member and Botanical Illustration Instructor at The Arboretum, James E. Henrich, Arboretum Curator of Living Collections, and Susan Eubank, Arboretum Librarian.  Many works will be available for purchase, with a percentage of sales supporting The Arboretum Library.  An opening will be held with the artists, Wednesday, April 7. Watch The Arboretum website for the reception announcement.  The Guild is dedicated to encouraging the development of botanical art and the promotion of public awareness of this very old and established artistic tradition. Guild members are committed to improving their artistry and technical abilities through supporting and sponsoring workshops with local experts and visiting lecturers in areas such as drawing and painting botanical subjects, botany, calligraphy, and resources.

March Reading the Western Landscape news; April Selection

Here is my favorite passage from our March Reading the Western Landscape selection.
Amy Stewart's From the Ground Up (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of North Carolina, 2001)  It is bottom of p. 235 onto p. 236.     “When my Aunt D’Anna was in town from Dallas, I took her with me to see the monarchs.  D’Anna and I have always been close.  We understand each other, we speak the same secret language.  Even now, when I see her, she leans over and whispers to me, “You’re my child.  I loaned you to your father and he never gave you back.  He has all my Aretha Franklin records, too.”  I knew she would love the monarchs.       When we got to the eucalyptus grove, people were standing around in dignified groups, craning their necks up at the butterflies and whispering to each other as if they were in a museum.  The monarchs were mostly stuck together like wet leaves clinging to the trees, only the pale dusty undersides of their wings exposed, holding onto the branches for their lives.  But as the sun came out and warmed their wings, they shook themselves loose from their huddle and hundreds of them took flight at once.  The sky filled with orange butterflies soaring up to the tops of the trees, then drifting calmly down again.  Each wing appeared in sharp relief against the blue sky, a perfect symmetry of black, orange, and white, thousands of them floating above us.     D’Anna and I lay right down on the observation platform, among the schoolchildren tugging on their parents’ sleeves and the nature enthusiasts snapping pictures.  Lying there on our backs, gazing up at a sky filled with fluttering wings, it was difficult to feel anchored to the ground.  They drifted down around us, landing on the platform, on our shoes, on the camera bag, then soared up again.  We felt suspended in the sky with them, as if we were flying ourselves.  Speech became difficult; we were in awe.”The whole section is evocative of the west, but my really favorite part is the “You’re my child…” part.Here are the questions I concocted for the book:Tell me some parts of this book that resonated for you in terms of landscape.Tell me some parts of this book that resonated for you in terms of gardeningDid any of the gardening adventures seem to feel especially western or “not” western?Tell me about Amy Stewart’s growth as a gardener.Tell me you favorite line or image from the story.The next book is Gary Paul Nabhan’s Coming Home to Eat (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002) 
Here is the WorldCat link to find it in a local library.
The next meeting is Thursday, April 1 at 7:00 p.m. at the Arboretum Library.

Santa Anita Depot Open for Visitors!

On March 2nd, 2010 the Santa Anita depot reopened for visitors. After several months of construction during which the brick paving was repaired and the railings replaced, the Depot is back in business.

The Santa Anita Depot is open on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10 AM to 4 PM and on Sundays from 1 PM to 4 PM. The Depot is at the southern edge of the Arboretum grounds on Baldwin Avenue. A walkway leads from Circle Road through the Palm Garden to the Depot.

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© 2015 Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden • 626.821.3222 • 301 North Baldwin Ave, Arcadia, CA 91007 • Website Design by Kirk Projects.

© 2015 Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens

Phone: 626.821.3222

301 N. Baldwin Ave, Arcadia, CA, 91007

Site Design by Kirk Projects