Every garden tells a story, a tale about nature written by our species and starring an obliging cast of plants. In our time, most of these stories are idylls of one kind or another, with the plants chosen for their beauty or fragrance or outward form, but always for their willingness to gratify human desire and do our bidding. Happy endings are the rule.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time, before the industrial revolution lulled us into believing that the human conquest of nature was real and something to celebrate, when gardens told much more ambiguous stories about nature. The medieval and renaissance “physic garden” was less concerned with the beauty of plants than with their spooky powers: whether to heal or poison, they could change us in some way, whether in body or in mind.
Even today, long after the environmental crisis has rendered the phrase “the control of nature” impossible to deploy without irony, our gardens remain more concerned with celebrating our power than that of the plants in them. I suppose we will always go to the garden to idealise our relationship to nature, but lately I’ve been looking to my garden to do something a little different, something a bit more like the old physic gardens.
I’ve begun to pay more attention to the invisible chemistries percolating through it than to its outward forms and pleasures. You could say that all gardens are psychoactive in one way or another, in that they’re designed to change how we feel. But some take that idea more literally than others.
Take mine. Yes, what you first see as you come through the gate are flowering plants and tasty things to eat — another garden telling that comforting old story in which nature gratifies human desires for beauty and nourishment. But look a little closer and you will spot, mixed in with the others, a group of plants that have a very different agenda and speak to a more ambiguous desire: to alter human consciousness.
This season I’m growing opium poppies (papaver somniferum); wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), the source of thujone, the alleged hallucinogen in absinthe; cannabis (which it is now legal to grow in California); morning glory, tobacco and three species of mescaline-producing cacti that go under the common name San Pedro or Wachuma: trichocereus pachanoi, t. bridgesii and t. macrogonus.
Wanting to add caffeine to the collection of psychoactive molecules being synthesised in my garden, I recently added a tea plant (camellia sinensis).
Though it turns out that caffeine is already being produced in my garden by my lemon tree, albeit in quantities too small to be of any use to me. Researchers recently discovered that several species of flowering plants, including members of the citrus family, produce caffeine in their nectar.
This came as a surprise, since caffeine is a defence chemical, a toxin evolved to poison pests and discourage other plants from germinating nearby. But the genius of plants is such that they can deploy the same chemistry to attract or repel, please or poison, depending on their objectives.
It seems honeybees exhibit a preference for blossoms that offer them a shot of caffeine, and are more likely to recall and reliably return to the flowers that supply it. Caffeinated nectar thus improves the performance of pollinators, which means that caffeine does for bees the same thing it does for us: make us more focused and efficient workers.
Yet the benefits flow mainly to the plants, since the bees are so avid for caffeine they will return to blossoms long after they’ve been depleted of nectar, cutting into honey production. It’s an eerily familiar story: a credulous animal drugged by a plant’s clever neurochemistry to act against its interests.
So I am not the only animal in this garden with an interest in plant drugs. But for me, ingesting them is not the point. (Or at least not the whole point.) When I first grew cannabis and opium poppies 30 years ago, it was mainly to see if I could do it.
Deep down, I suspect that many of us gardeners regard ourselves as minor alchemists, transforming the dross of compost and water and sunlight into substances of beauty and power.
Could I make a powerful intoxicant, a psychedelic or a painkiller without purchasing anything (other than a packet of seed), leaving the property or setting up a chemistry lab? One of the greatest satisfactions of gardening is the sense of independence it can confer — from the greengrocer, the florist, the pharmacist and, for some of us, the drug dealer.
I sense you, reader, wondering about the whole question of legality. It’s complicated — and slightly different in the US and the UK. According to Nell Jones, the head of plant collections at the Chelsea Physic Garden in
London, with a few notable exceptions, “You can grow whatever you like as long as you don’t prepare it as a drug.” The exceptions are cannabis, khat and coca, the cultivation of which require a licence from the government that only an institution is likely to secure.
In my American garden, all of the psychoactive plants currently in residence are legal to grow here in California, with one unsettling caveat: it is a felony to grow papaver somniferum with the intent to manufacture a narcotic.
How would the authorities prove such an intent? Well, one way would be if your seed pods have been slit by a razor; the milky sap the pods bleed is opium. Another would be if you were in possession of an article explaining how simple it is to turn poppy seedpods into a mild narcotic tea (simply crush and soak them in hot water) or laudanum (soak them in vodka instead).
However, if your sole purpose is to admire the ephemeral tissue-thin blossoms or the stately seed pods, you should have nothing to worry about. Though you might want to dispose of this article before any visits from the police.
The status of San Pedro is slightly different: it is legal to grow these handsome columnar cacti, no matter your intentions. However, the moment you begin cutting up and cooking a chunk of the cactus (slowly simmer a stock from its flesh and drink a cup or two of that, or so I’ve been told) you are guilty of manufacturing mescaline, a felony that in the US carries a prison sentence of five to 20 years.
Peyote, the other mescaline-producing cactus, is straight-out illegal to grow or possess in the US, which is the only reason I don’t grow this lovely pin-cushion-shaped cactus.
The same is currently true for psilocybin mushrooms, except in a handful of jurisdictions — including Oakland, Santa Cruz, Denver, Oregon and Washington, DC — that have recently decriminalised “plant medicines”. I look forward to the day when my city of Berkeley follows suit, allowing me to expand my psychoactive garden to include peyote and magic mushrooms.
It is already legal to grow small quantities of cannabis in California (as it is in 17 other states and Washington, DC), and although I have yet to see cannabis seedlings for sale in the nurseries I frequent, you can find them in some of the licensed pot dispensaries.
This spring I bought a single clone of a hybrid called “Brr Berry” for $30. The description of this cultivar had a slightly different flavour from the sort of catalogue copy gardeners are accustomed to. Indeed, it will be opaque to anyone who isn’t a connoisseur of cannabis flowers, which few gardeners would grow strictly for their looks or scent — the buds resemble small turds glazed with psychoactive hoar frost:
“This lady is icier than an electrified ice-cream cone, cooler than a polar bear’s toenails and frostier than a snowman’s snowballs. Brrr! With such a frosty exterior, it’s hard to believe that she has such a sweet centre, but if you get close to her you will notice that her core is nothing but bubblegum, sweet berries and acetone; a strangely intoxicating combination that is sure to excite your senses and put a little tingle in your jingle.”
My cannabis plant hasn’t yet thrown any buds, but I must say it is a handsome and hard-to-miss character in the garden, its seven-fingered pattern of deeply serrated leaves by now as iconic as any leaf on earth. I have not met another plant that grows so lustily or is quite so avid for sunlight and water. It has a drive for life few plants can match.
The one that comes closest is the tobacco plant, a powerful psychoactive that we westerners unjustly demonise. Unable to find seeds for Nicotiana tobacum or rustica, I planted the more common and floriferous sylvestris, whose tubular white blossoms perfume the evening air in summer.
But the elephantine leaves of the original tobacco plants, their undersides sticky with nicotine resin, deserve a place in the psychoactive garden, in spite of the plant’s evil reputation. Long before European colonists transformed this New World native into a lethal addiction, tobacco was revered by indigenous peoples as a sacred medicine with the power to purge ill health and evil spirits.
Tobacco’s double identity — at once a medicine and a poison, depending on context — goes to the heart of the paradoxical story that the psychoactive garden wants to tell. Since they can’t locomote, plants have had to master biochemistry both to defend themselves and to attract the attention of animals who would disseminate their genes.
Plants produce all manner of poisons, but as Paracelsus, the Swiss Renaissance medical pioneer, famously observed, “the dose makes the poison”. Many of the dangerous alkaloids plants manufacture to defend themselves do other, more interesting things at low doses, including changing the texture of animal consciousness. There it is, right in the middle of the word intoxicate: toxic.
Why this ambiguity? Perhaps because plants have learnt over the course of their evolution that simply killing your pests outright is not necessarily the best strategy. A lethal pesticide would soon select for resistant members of the pest population, rendering it ineffective. How much cleverer to invent molecules that merely mess with the minds of animals, disorienting or distracting them or ruining their appetites. This is precisely what a great many plant alkaloids — including caffeine, mescaline, morphine and nicotine — reliably do.
We humans have been the greatest beneficiary of this sophisticated chemical warfare — and I say that fully aware that the use of psychoactive plants can end badly. The opiates produced by papaver somniferum can be curse or a blessing.
But there is something in us that isn’t satisfied with everyday normal consciousness, and seeks to change it or even transcend it from time to time, despite the risks. How amazing is it that a chemical invented by a plant — a plant I can grow in my garden! — should turn out to be one of the molecular keys to human consciousness?
Does welcoming this age-old dance of plant neurochemistry into the garden change our experience of it, even if we don’t partake? It can. Merely to gaze at a poppy is to feel dreamy, to judge by Impressionist paintings, or the experience of Dorothy and friends, interrupted on their journey through Oz when they passed out in a field of scarlet poppies. It’s hard to look at a cannabis plant in full flower without feeling the stir of something psychoactive. One doesn’t necessarily have to ingest these plants in order to register some of their power.
FT Weekend Festival
The festival is back and in person at Kenwood House (and online) on September 4 with our usual eclectic line-up of speakers and subjects. Infusing it all will be the spirit of reawakening and the possibility of reimagining the world after the pandemic. To book tickets, visit here
Yet imagine what could become of our gardens, and our relationship to them, if we won the right not only to grow but to prepare and take these psychoactive plants into our bodies, so that they might change our minds every now and again. I can attest to the fact that plants appear different when under the influence — in my experience, their agency and their subjectivity become blazingly apparent.
One might argue that the legal and moral ambiguities shadowing the psychoactive garden lend it a certain edginess. I’d happily trade that for a greater measure of horticultural freedom. To me, the very idea of a criminal plant seems wrong.
Using plants to alter the textures of consciousness is a practice as old as our species, an essential part of our relationship to the natural world. What better, safer or more interesting place to explore the possibilities of that relationship than in our gardens?
This is Your Mind on Plants, by Michael Pollan, Allen Lane £20/Penguin Press $28