Bringing you plants with history; plants with a story; plants with important connections to mankind; plants of beauty and plants of power. Simply Plantasmagorical!
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After several formatting and design headaches, I am glad to say that my book, DAMASK ROSE: THE INTIMATE HISTORY OF AN INCREDIBLE PLANT is at last finished. I don’t want to say too much just yet, but the book is in electronic format although presented in a novel format making it a great item for sale through any retail outlet. If you’re interessted in stocking this unique publication then please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here’s a summary:
Be warned, you may never look at roses the same way again!
The damask rose is one of the oldest, and arguably, one of the most enigmatic plants to ever grace the gardens of Europe. Sadly, the ancient damasks have been completely swamped and pushed into the background by the continuous stream of new rose varieties produced by modern breeders. Damasks though are still critically important to rose breeders as they shore up the new varieties with their genes for perfume and hardiness. It is also sad to say that most people nowadays would not know one rose from another and view roses as nothing more than a pretty garden distraction or a gift for a loved one. We have lost our connection to the natural world and have become blissfully unaware of the intimate and centuries old connection that has existed between human beings and the damask rose. If we look at the perfume industry for example, the damask rose is of vital importance in maintaining this multi-million dollar industry and provides, not just work for thousands of people, but essential support to the economies of the countries involved in growing the roses for the perfume trade. In this book, Stuart looks at the origins of the damask roses involved in the perfume industry, how they were chosen, where they came from and why. He analyses the essential oil of damask rose itself in order to discover the chemicals responsible for creating the signature scent of damask rose. Stuart also asks if there is any reason why this one plant and its scent, more than any other, has become so inextricably linked with love and human sexuality. He arrives at some interesting conclusions!
The connection this plant has, not just with sex, but with God and religion, is investigated.
Several other extracts of the damask rose, such as damask rose wax, are also of pivotal importance to the cosmetic industry and we can assert that these damask rose extracts are among the oldest, if not the oldest cosmetic products on Earth. Stuart explains the reasons for this long and continued reliance on extracts of damask rose in the cosmetic industry and describes exactly why damask rose is so good for the skin?
How many of us realise that this beautiful plant has been a pivotal medicine in the great medical traditions of the world? The Chinese tradition, the Ayurvedic tradition, the European tradition, the Graeco-Roman tradition and the Arabic tradition have all relied upon the healing properties of this amazing plant. Stuart, an herbalist himself for over 25 years tells us why damask rose has been relied upon for its medicinal benefits, what it is used for and how it has been a consistent and sought after remedy for millennia.
Apart from the cosmetic and medicinal uses of damask rose it also qualifies as a popular food and even as a clothing item! Find out why.
As Stuart examines the important connections damask rose has had with humanity through time he also tries to answer a question that has been asked by rose lovers for centuries…where, when and who was it that first bred or found the damask rose? Where exactly did this wonder plant come from…the plant that is far more than a just a pretty flower? The plant that is in almost every perfume, the plant that is the mother of all anti-ageing, skin preserving cosmetics, the plant that has helped to heal our illnesses, helped us attract a mate, flavoured our food, has been worn and has even helped us find God! We urgently need to re-connect with this, our most beautiful plant ally, the incredible friend that is the damask rose.
Even though they are unusual and interesting on the outside, the most interesting feature of Acacia maidenii plants is what they hide inside. Several Acacias, such as the more commonly available longifolia, as well as many other plants, and animals (including humans), contain a group of chemicals known as tryptamines. The main tryptamine of interest is di-methyl tryptamine, DMT. A close chemical relative of DMT is psilocin, the psychoactive/psychedelic substance found in the so-called “magic mushrooms”. Why plants manufacture and store such chemicals is not understood, but these chemicals incorporate nitrogen into their structure, an important element required for plant growth. So, it could be that plants evolved to construct these chemicals to fix nutrients in the plants tissues ready for use if the plant finds itself in difficult times.
Several other plants, including some types of grass, Phalaris for example, contain DMT. Perhaps the most well known and studied home of DMT containing plants is the Amazon Jungle. In the Amazon, native peoples have, for time immemorial, used the DMT containing plants in a serious medical and spiritual context. In the western world, we have lost the appropriate respect for such plants and sadly they find their way into hands of thrill seekers and idiots! As I hinted earlier, being related so closely to psilocin means that DMT has a powerful psychotropic effect. The effect of DMT was once described to me by comparing its activity to the well known semi-synthetic psychotropic agent LSD. This is how it was described…
“LSD is sold impregnated onto little squares of blotting paper, no bigger than 1cm square. One of these doses will enter the system over the first 30-40 minutes following consumption. The effects of a single dose, build-up, peak and wane slowly over time with one dose lasting last up to 16 hours. Now, just imagine one of those blotters A4 sized and the whole effect of it entering your brain all at once in a matter of seconds after consumption. That’s DMT!”
We are obviously talking about an extremely powerful mind altering substance here. However, if we step aside from the way these substances are abused in our society and look at the history of the use of DMT containing plants and combine that with modern research then we are faced with a startling possibility. Some researchers and scientists (and I stress scientists and researchers, not drug users!) have suggested the incredible possibility that DMT may actually be the molecule responsible for human spiritual experience! A quick review of the facts will demonstrate why this conclusion has been reached.
DMT, along with the enzymes responsible for its manufacture, has now been found in very small amounts in various tissues of the human body, including cerebro-spinal fluid, the fluid that bathes the brain and central nervous system. It is a normal part of us. Structurally, it is very similar to the well known neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and adrenalin that are the chemicals responsible for human behaviour, mood etc. Our brain cells and nerve cells have receptor sites onto which these chemicals bind in order for them to exert their effect. It is now known that some of these receptor sites are the ones onto which psychotropic/psychedelic drugs such as DMT also bind. Why the human body makes DMT is not exactly clear, but as we know its effects in isolation are startling to say the least. One of the main effects of taking DMT in large doses is that it propels the user into another dimension where they may encounter all kinds of aliens, creatures etc., and where our concepts of space and time no longer hold. Because of this effect DMT has been suggested as the dream chemical, responsible for creating the other worlds we enter when fast asleep. It was also thought to be a causative factor in schizophrenia, and urine levels of DMT were said to be higher in sufferers. We now know this to be untrue, but it’s an interesting possibility. It is also suggested that DMT has a close relationship with the pineal gland in the brain. We still have no real idea what all the functions of the pineal gland are in scientific terms but it is the gland that is most important in the ancient systems of meditation, spiritual enlightenment, yoga etc. The gland itself occupies a central position between the two brain hemispheres and is represented in the mystical traditions as the “third eye” or “crown chakra”. What we do know of the pineal is that it is thought to be derived from a group of light sensitive cells, yes, just like an eye, that sense light levels and give the brain information on wake/sleep cycles, season etc. This internal measurement of light gives the brain information as to the time of day it is, the time of year it is and therefore adjusts behaviour such as breeding habits, accordingly, setting up the so-called “circadian rhythms”.
Cells of the pineal gland, in humans, produce the hormone melatonin, which is another tryptamine, and plays a part in our sleep/wake cycle. It is believed by some researchers that at times of spiritual enlightenment, spiritual ecstasy, call it what you will, the pineal releases larger than usual quantities of DMT into the brain creating these altered perceptions and changes in consciousness. It is further thought that “near death” experiences and even “alien abduction” experiences are related to sudden alterations in DMT levels. The reason why these apparently unrelated events have been connected by researchers is that all these experiences share a remarkably uniform set of “symptoms” suggesting a common underlying cause. Common “symptoms” include, altered space/time appreciation, bright light, travelling through space, time or out of the physical body, interaction with “alien” entities (commonly the grey, bug eyed type of creature that has been adopted in popular culture as being the typical alien), poor memory of the events of the experience, especially as time goes by. An obvious comparison here is with dreaming of course. A comparison I find particularly interesting is with the ancient yogic practice of raising kundalini energy. Kundalini is said to be powerful, residual energy derived from the desire that brought the whole Universe into being, and it resides at the base of the spine like a coiled serpent. It is only through slow, cautious, patient and strict meditation and exercise that this coiled serpent of energy can be raised through the chakras and up the spine into the brain where it is said to fill the mind with the bliss of an expanded universal consciousness or the ultimate enlightenment. Interestingly, it is said that if you rush into this or raise the energy too fast it can literally blow your head off. Anecdotal tales are indeed told of impatient yogis found in this state of decapitation. The reason this ties in with DMT experiences is that subjects testing DMT for the first time often describe the onset of the experience as being like having your head blown off or even like the whole known Universe tearing apart and the whole of reality being destroyed in an instant! Brings a whole new meaning to “dead heading” doesn’t it?
Now, before you start burning your Acacias or your Phalaris or all the other plants that contain DMT, do not panic! You could eat as much as you like or handle as many of these plants as you like and rest assured that you will not suddenly enter realms of consciousness reserved for asylums! These plants are perfectly safe because the DMT has to be extracted in a specific way before it can get anywhere near your blood stream or brain. This is where the Amazonian Indians come in!
For centuries Amazonian Indians have been observed preparing mixtures of herbs for use in medical or religious rituals. The medicine man or elders would prepare mixtures of herbs that were drunk or snuffed. The medicine man would then be observed to enter different realms of consciousness where he would interact with ancestors or the spirits of the plants, asking them how a certain illness could be cured or how any problem the people may have might be solved. The Amazon rain forest, as it turns out, is awash with plants that contain DMT, and it is these plants that are being used in the native traditions. The most commonly known ceremony/ritual of Amazonian origin is the “Ayahuasca” ceremony. “Ayahuasca” means the “vine of the soul” and refers to a plant called Banisteriopsis caapi. We think we are good at chemistry, but these people have known for ever that if you mix Banisteriopsis with DMT containing plants then it renders the DMT orally active. Normally, any DMT you may eat, if you grazed on Acacia for example, is broken down by enzymes in the gut and neutralised. The body in fact has an incredibly efficient system for breaking tryptamines down. However, Banisteriopsis contains chemicals that neutralise the enzymes that break down tryptamines and the DMT is allowed into the bloodstream and thence to the brain where it exerts its effects. In modern research experiments with DMT the pure chemical is inhaled/smoked or injected. In the Amazon the usual source of DMT for native rituals are species of Psychotria. The Banisteriopsis is often called the “force” whilst the DMT containing plant is called the “light”. There was even a time when the active components of the Banisteriopsis were called “telepathine” because early European observers were so impressed with the traditional ceremonies and the way the people did indeed seem to be connected to another realm using the conduit of the plant chemicals. Interestingly, there is no evidence that indigenous Australians ever used Acacia species in a similar fashion, but then, as they tell us, they came from Dream Time anyhow!
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Once upon a time it was the summer of 2011 and Mr. Plantasmagorical was really happy because so far he had experienced no nasty garden or greenhouse plant chomping infestations of any appreciable kind. Even the greenfly seemed to have taken a vacation. However, you can be guaranteed that every fairy tale has at least one hideous, child scaring monster lurking in the wings, just waiting to leap from behind the curtain to throw a spanner in the “happy ever after”. In the case of the summer of 2011 bliss the monster had no spanners to toss but a whole biblical plague of earwigs. I have never seen so many of the little devils. they even crawled into and lined the fluting in plastic greenhouse panels. Normally, earwigs are no problem, they leave well alone, but this kind of infestation leaves its mark. Some of my precious seedlings first leaves and even some of my cactus began to show the tell tale signs of what happens when too many earwigs have too much time on their hands (or mandibles). Little earwig mouth sized nibbles began to appear everywhere!
The first course of action was the usual clean-up. All those piles of pots and anything laying around was cleaned, moved, removed or whatever it took to reduce the classic hiding places for the wriggly beasts. All though was to no avail. I was overrun, they just kept on coming.
I have never been a great lover of using chemicals in my cultivation exploits but I came very close to ordering a ten tonne handy family pack of napalm when I discovered I was wearing down so much shoe leather from stomping on the earwigs! Anything that moved in the greenhouse got sole! Yes, the cat may never forgive me, but I’d developed a hair trigger response to mobile critters on the floor of the greenhouse.
A habit I have got into over the years in my pest control exercises is that I place sundews (Drosera spp) in every spare spot in the greenhouse. These are the sticky plants that all those flying bugs such as greenfly, whitefly etc. can not resist. For me there is no more effective biological control of aerial pests than the use of these carnivorous Drosera spp. There is a slight eco downside involved in the maintenance of the carnivores however…they only grow in peat. You can add vermiculite to the peat though, and this helps aeration of the soil as well as moisture retention whilst helping to reduce the amount of peat per pot. You also have to keep them in a tray filled with water at all times. My usual trick is to use carbonated water from Tesco at 16 pence a bottle! This approach works for most of the carnivores you may encounter. So, I wondered if any of the carnivores would be useful in my anti-earwig war. My wondering came to an end when I happened to be wandering through Perrywood Garden Centre in Essex during early summer, as I do. They had just got their stock of carnivores in and they were not in the usual boring, brown, plastic pots but inside a plastic flask. It was this format that initially caught my eye…being a sucker for a good point of sale idea! However, on closer inspection the carnivores were really healthy and I thought I must try a few different types in my earwig war.
The Sarracenias are the pitcher type carnivores with modified leaves that have evolved to wrap around into a tube shape. The mouth of the tube has glands that produce nectar like substances to attract the bugs. The tube itself is lined with hairs and waxes that do not allow the bugs to get a grip when they get inside the tube, thus trapping them. The lower part of the tube contains a fluid into which digestive enzymes are secreted by the cells of the plant. Bugs attracted to the nectar generally fall into the tube whilst “high” on nectar and once inside are unable to exit, leaving them to be slowly dissolved by the enzymes within in good old fashioned, wicked witch, I’m melting stylee! This process of bug bashing is so highly advanced in some carnivores that they also produce chemicals to “anaesthetise” or immobilise bugs. Some Sarracenias produce conine for example, the poison found in hemlock. The fact that carnivores produce so many chemicals has led to their use as medicines by mankind. One of the most important chemicals produced by these plants is plumbagin, a substance that is extremely useful in the treatment of lung complaints ranging from asthma to TB. In my time as a herbalist a syrup made from Drosera was a standard issue item in the dispensary!
However, when I first got the Sarracenias into the greenhouse nothing happened. I also got a couple of Venus fly traps and they had more success in catching a few simply from the random wanderings of the earwigs. Then I decided to experiment. It seemed to me that the tubes of Sarracenia were natural hiding places for earwigs and I could not understand how not a single one had wandered in yet. So, what I did was to place a couple of earwigs into the tubes and observe how they got on. I kind of suspected they may be able to climb out. Indeed, once inside, they could not get out. So with a smile on my earwigicidal face I left them to be slowly dissolved by Mr. Sarracenia. That, I thought, was that. I didn’t really think that any more would wander into the Sarracenia, and I was certainly not going to feed them to the plant, so at the very least, I got another very interesting plant in the greenhouse. To my surprise though, over the next few days, earwigs seemed to beat a path to the Sarracenia and a big mess of part digested earwig mush appeared at the bottoms of the Sarracenia tubes. The Sarracenia itself was obviously benefiting big time, its growth took off, and last week I had to sign it up for Weight Watchers! I was so surprised by this effect that I now have several Sarracenias in strategic positions doing a fantastic job on the earwigs!
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I’ve been growing Acacia maidenii for some 15 years, and I must say I have always been impressed with its hardiness and ability to cope with all the British weather, and for that matter, British insect life, and assorted other pests, can throw at it. Considering the plant is native to Australia it has made me giggle on the odd occasion I have had to shake the snow off their branches, and I have never yet seen an Acacia maidenii suffering a pest or disease problem requiring “hospitalisation” or intensive treatment.
So what’s the story with Acacias? Well, as I said it is a plant native to Australia, specifically occupying the edge of rainforests on the coastal areas of Queensland and New South Wales. There are Acacias that are indigenous to Africa, and other areas of the world. Interestingly, African Acacias tend to be called “Acacias“, whilst Australian Acacias are called “Wattles“! Acacia maidenii is commonly known as “Maiden’s wattle”, for example. This is one plant I have found that can grow quite fast, and it can reach 30-40 feet in height in its natural habitat. However, they are easy to keep in check by simple pruning, and look great at about 15-20 feet high. I also find they can make a great screen, hedge or fence if a row of them is kept to a specific height. They can be quite “leggy” as youngsters, with one main trunk reaching upwards rapidly, but a canopy forms as they attain their maximum height. They do prefer warmth but withstand a pounding from the British weather if they have to. All they need really is to be outside during British spring and summer and then offered the protection of a greenhouse, conservatory or lean-to during the colder months of winter. They do like moisture, but “well drained” is the name of the game as they will not appreciate getting water-logged.
Acacias are members of the family of plants known as the Leguminosae of Fabaceae. This is the pea, bean and pulse family. There are over a thousand species world-wide. One of the characteristics of this family of plants is that they “fix” nitrogen from the soil. What this means is that most of the plants in this family have nodules on their roots containing bacteria called Rhizobia. These bacteria take Nitrogen out of the surrounding atmosphere and hold onto it in a process called “fixing”. They then use this nitrogen to aid their own growth but also give some to the plant, helping it to grow healthily too. Importantly, when the plant dies, or is cut down/harvested, the nitrogen is left in the soil, thus enriching it in a sort of natural fertiliser cycle. Planting large areas of Acacias is one technique being used by scientists to enrich the soils in countries such as Africa. Apart from this potentially planet saving effect, Acacias have been used throughout history for the valuable gifts they yield. Native Australians have used several types of Acacia for food, for both animals and humans. Some Acacias provide an excellent wood suitable for joinery or craft purposes. The “Ark of the Covenant” is said to have been made of Acacia wood. “Gum Arabic” is derived from Acacia senegal and has had innumerable uses over the years, such as being used to add the chewiness to sweets and candies as well as being the glue used for cigarette papers! Acacia farnesiana yields a perfume oil highly prized in the perfume industry as a blender and fixing agent in scent blends. Arguably, the most commercially important product of Acacias has been the tannin they contain. Tannins are essential in the leather production process, being used to transform what is effectively dead skin into the everyday item we use to make our shoes, bags, clothing etc. Tannins act by precipitating proteins and forming a seal. This process is not just good for making leather it is one of the most important tools in herbal medicine the world over. Tannins are used to dry up fluid exudations wherever they may be! An example on the inside of the body would be the fluid produced during a gut infection as in dysentery. On the outside of the body weeping ulcers or other infected, oozing, bleeding conditions can be cleaned up and dried using the high tannin herbs. Wounds can be sealed using tannins and low concentrations of tannins are great for reducing the itching and redness that can occur with allergic skin disorders such as eczema. The great world traditions of herbal medicine, the Western/European, the Chinese and the Ayurvedic systems all have Acacias official in their pharmacopoeias.
Acacia is a name derived from the Greek word “akis”, meaning thorn or barb. Whilst most of the African species of Acacia bear thorns most Australian species including maidenii do not. In fact, one of the most interesting features of Acacia maidenii is its bark. The young plant particularly has a green colour that is dappled with white/silver flecks or spots. I often think it looks a bit reptilian, making a great visual spectacle in any garden. The leaves also provide an interesting feature as they are not true leaves at all, but phyllodes. Phyllodes are basically adaptations of the leaf stalk. Most of us recognise the usual situation in which true leaves are attached to a branch or a trunk by a stem, but in the case of Acacia the stem has enlarged to take over the function of the leaf. In the young plant you get the situation in which the true leaves are attached to the end of a phyllode, which also looks like a large leaf itself. The older the plant gets, less and less of the true leaves appear, leaving just the phyllodes which look like elongated, blade shaped leaves. You will also note that the texture of these phyllodes is quite hard and tough and is thought to be an adaptation to living in harsh climates. Take a look at the pictures I have posted along-side this article, you will see the typical arrangement of true leaves and phyllodes in the young plant. In fact, looking at the young true leaves you will see their feather like shape, just like mimosas. Well, mimosas belong to the same family as Acacias, hence the similarity. The flowers of maidenii are also a little unusual being cream to yellowish coloured spikes and having the typical “pom pom “ appearance of other Acacias. I always think they look like those big, fat, colourful caterpillars you sometimes see!
When it comes to growing Acacia maidenii it can be a bit tricky. You need seed that is as fresh as possible. Then you have to get through the really hard seed coat itself. The seed coat is incredibly tough in Acacias and this is once again thought to be an adaptation to living in a harsh climate. To protect the embryo inside the seed the plant gives it a tough shell, but to initiate growth water has to penetrate the shell and the growing plant has to be able to bust out! So, to soften up the shell I usually scarify the seed which means nicking each one individually with a clean scalpel blade. Then I drop them into hot water and leave them overnight. The water is hot initially and left to cool down naturally whilst the seeds are in it. This has always done the trick for me and within 2 weeks you should see new Acacia maidenii babies emerging. Be aware that Acacia maidenii was classified as an endangered species by the Australian government several years ago. I therefore think that the more we can grow the better!
The reason for my interest in Acacia maidenii is not just because it is a beautiful plant with a great history and potential but because of its chemistry. Every plant is one of God’s own chemical factories. Every chemical in humans can be found in a plant somewhere! As a trained herbalist I have an intense interest in plant chemistry and the useful compounds that can be extracted from them. As I have said, every major world herbal tradition has one species or another of Acacia in its materia medicas, usually because of the tannins. However, the most interesting chemicals in Acacia are rarely if ever mentioned. The chemicals in question are tryptamines, specifically di-methyl tryptamine (DMT) and N-methyl tryptamine. The reason DMT is interesting is because it has a powerful psychotropic, hallucinogenic effect. As a pure chemical it is ranked right alongside of LSD and psilocybin mushrooms as one of the most powerful mind altering substances there is. Other plants containing DMT, Psychotria viridis for example, are use by indigenous peoples of the Amazon jungle for healing and other ritual/religious purposes. Do not panic though, DMT can not be absorbed through the skin if you touch a plant containing it, and it is not even effective if you eat the plant containing it. It has to be processed specifically first. What the indigenous peoples of the Amazon discovered is that if you mix the DMT containing plant with other plants containing chemicals that allow the body to absorb the DMT, then extract them appropriately, the full effect of this powerful chemical is experienced. Pure DMT, or the traditional extracts made from DMT containing plants, can also be smoked or snuffed. Many other plants contain DMT and chemicals related closely to it, even certain types of grass manufacture it. Why chemicals like this are made by plants has always been a mystery, but it is most likely that they serve as a way to store certain vital nutrients such as nitrogen for times when the plant finds itself in harsh conditions such as drought.
So, there we have Acacia maidenii, not only a wonderful plant to look at and to grow, but one with a fascinating chemical tale to tell. Just think how you could amaze your friends with information about this plant, if you had one in your garden!