News and Events

Botanical Buzz - Mind altering plants

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Visitors to the Dubbo Regional Botanic Garden will find plants that have played an extraordinary part in the development of civilisations. By providing food, shelter and medicine these plants have fulfilled our essential needs.

But there is a different side to plants and fungi, a darker side, which has always held an irresistible and often fatal attraction to humans.  Here desire and danger are inseparable.

Humans dabble with poisonous flora for three major reasons: enhancement of physical abilities or to relax and forget or the hope of entering into a more enlightened state of thinking or being.

Plants and fungi produce poisons to help ensure their survival against predation. A billion years of evolutionary trial and error have resulted in plants developing the ability to manufacture a multitude of complex chemicals (the exact number may never be known) with a level of efficiency that will always surpass that which can be achieved in the laboratory. These complex molecular compounds support a number of strategies to protect the plants from being eaten.

One of those strategies involves disabling, over stimulating or confounding predators with mind altering substances ranging from opium in the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) to the caffeine in our morning coffee.

It is puzzling why plant and fungi produce mind altering substances rather than simply kill their predators with a deadly toxin. Perhaps the answer lies in a lesson learned by farmers. The use of a powerful deadly poison to kill a particular pest places enormous pressure on that species to evolve and become resistant to that toxin. Consequently the poison eventually becomes ineffective and another has to be developed. A substance, on the other hand, which mentally or physically incapacitates may result in the predator forgetting about food altogether.

Be safely intoxicated by the beauty of the Dubbo Regional Botanic Garden by affording the plants the respect they deserve.