Humans have had a symbiotic relationship with plants since before recorded history. Ancient cultures around the world had a deep respect and understanding of the native plants in their region and the effects they had on the human mind, body, and soul. Below are 12 plants from around the world that have been used for various reasons during the course of thousands of years.
Who used it: Egyptians.
What it does: Similar to a weaker version of MDMA or ecstasy, blue lotus causes a state of relaxed inhibitions in which users are more talkative, comfortable, and aroused. It’s not a psychedelic, but personal stories of the drug (as used today) often note that it induces lassitude and blissful sleep. In The Odyssey, Homer described it as robbing Odysseus of any willpower: “Once tasted, no desire felt he to come with tidings back or seek his country more.” The most common method of consumption is to brew the flowers into a tea or steep them in alcohol for up to three weeks; the alcohol enhances the effects of the active chemicals.
Who used it: Ancient Greek oracles.
What it does: “Pythia” was the name for the Oracle of Delphi, a priestess in the Temple of Apollo on Mount Parnassus in ancient Greece. The oracle was said to inhale the gases, go into a trance, and recite prophesies. The ritual ended in 393 A.D. Academics debate if the Pythia gases were real or mythological, but some writers have posted theories on what chemicals the gases might have been made of. Ethylene, benzene, and methane are all possibilities.
Who used it: Sumerians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Indians, Greeks, and Romans
What it does: Opium comes from the latex embedded in the husk of the poppy flower, which contains up to 12 percent morphine, the active ingredient in the drug. It has historically been used as medicine to induce sleep, relieve pain, and cure diarrhea, as well as to improve sex in 16th-century China.
The drug has a long history: It was first cultivated by Sumerians in 3400 BC, who referred to it as the “joy plant.” The Greek gods of sleep, night, and death are often pictured wreathed in or holding poppies. Today, opium is often distilled into derivatives like heroin, but the flowers can also be turned into a potent tea.
Who used it: Ancient peoples around the Saharan desert, Central and South American cultures.
What it does: Psilocybin mushrooms, or “magic” mushrooms have been spotted in Algerian murals dated 9000 to 7000 BC and were featured in small carved sculptures made in Central and South America from 1000 to 500 BC. Eating the ‘shrooms causes nausea and hallucinations, which were ritualistically embraced by ancient users. Shamans were often believed to receive insight from mushroom-induced hallucinations.
Some modern students of drug history even believe that these hallucinations kick-started humanity’s cultural and spiritual evolution. Hallucinogenics scholar Terence McKenna wrote, “I am convinced that if there were no shamanic pipeline, there would be no higher life, as we know it, on this planet.”
Who used it: Eurasian cultures.
What it does: Black henbane, also known by names ranging from “stinking nightshade” to “apollinarix” (after the Greek god Apollo), was used as a medicine, and its seeds were often brewed into beer as a way to increase its intoxicating effects. It impairs vision and causes deep sleep, but too much of it is poison — Shakespeare cited it in his plays as a murder weapon.
Who used it: Mayans
What it does: Way before anyone was distilling the plant into powder, coca leaves were chewed and brewed into tea by Mayans for its powerful stimulating effects. Coca is an extremely functional drug: Beyond its capacity to act like strong cup of coffee, a dose of 100 grams of coca leaf contains your daily recommended intake of calcium, phosphorus, iron, and several vitamins, though putting it in your breakfast cereal is definitely not recommended.
Who used it: Native Americans.
What it does: Tobacco was used as a ritual substance and trade item for Native Americans long before it was discovered by western settlers in the 16th century and became one of the most widely used drugs in the world. The natives believed that tobacco was a holy gift and the tobacco smoke carried the smoker’s prayers to heaven. The tobacco used today in Western cultures and around the world is usually grown with toxic pesticides and then treated with chemical additives.
Who used it: Central and East Asian cultures.
What it does: Areca nut, known more commonly as betel nut, has been chewed as a stimulant for tens of thousands of years. Evidence has been found of its use 13,000 years ago in Timor, an island to the north of Australia. Consuming the areca nut comes with an elaborate preparation process: Slices of the spicy, sweet nut, along with additives like tobacco and dried fruit, are wrapped in a betel leaf that is sometimes brushed with lime chalk, and then inserted into the mouth. Mmm!
Chewing the nut causes a warming sensation in the body and heightened awareness, not unlike coffee. Unfortunately, it also causes gum damage and oral cancer. The habit is dying out today both because of the health risks as well as its aesthetics — the betel chewer’s saliva turns a shade of bright red and their spit looks a lot like blood.
Who used it: Central and South Asian cultures.
What it does: Though cannabis has been cultivated for millennia for its useful hemp fiber, the earliest recorded evidence of the drug being used as a psychoactive is a 2700-year-old grave site in western China. A shaman’s grave was found to contain a bag with 789 grams of cannabis. Clearly, he was a huge stoner — that’s 1.7 pounds of the green stuff.
The plant has also been used as an intoxicant in bhang, a beverage drunk by Sikhs to honor Shiva and as a meditation aid and painkiller. Medicinally, cannabis is used to heighten appetite, treat glaucoma, and even heal cancer!
Who used it: Indian and Asian societies.
What it does: Nutmeg, more commonly known as a cooking ingredient, has long been used medicinally to combat asthma and heart complaints, as well as a popular sedative, according to the 1998 Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances. The spice was believed to have magical, lucky properties, but it has also been used for more… functional applications: Malcolm X drank water mixed with nutmeg as a marijuana substitute while in prison. Just don’t take too much of it, like this poor guy did.
Who used it: West Indian, Iranian, and Andean cultures.
What it does: Harmal, a flowering plant that can be distilled into the chemical Harmine, has recently been discovered in the hair of an adult male mummy as well as a mummified one-year-old baby in northern Chile, dating back to 800 to 1200 AD. The chemical is a powerful antidepressant and may increase the effects of other hallucinogens, as well as treat inflammation and fever. The male mummy was found with an elaborate set of snuffing trays and pipes, status symbols which would have been used to consume the drug.
Who used it: Native Americans.
What it does: This desert plant, which causes intense hallucinations, is known to have been in use since the Archaic period of North America, from 8000 to 2000 BC. Specimens have been found in grave sites dating back to 3000 BC. The drug is thought to have been part of religious ceremonies, rituals which continued until the US attempted to ban it in the early 20th century. Peyote buttons are generally chewed or boiled in water to make hallucinogenic tea — civil war soldiers in Texas, lacking anything better to do, made peyote tea.
The sad truth is that humans have lost their connection to the natural world and Mother Earth. We no longer live in harmony with the environment and our way of life is not sustainable. The equivalent of seven football fields of land is bulldozed every minute to create more room for factory farmed animals. The U.S. National Cancer Institute claims 70% of the plants effective in treating cancer are found only in the rainforest and more then 2000 plants have been identified as having anti cancer properties. At the current rate of forest loss 5-10% of tropical rainforest species will be lost per decade. The most shocking fact of all is less then 1% of the species of plants in the tropical rainforest have actually been analyzed to determine their value in the world of medicine. Imagine all the amazing plants that have yet to be discovered that we are destroying each day. Protecting the environment to ensure plants like the ones above and ones yet to be discovered are still available for future generations is crucial to the well being of our species and the planet.