You say cacao, I say cocoa…

You say cacao, I say cocoa…

“After water, cacao is the single healthiest substance you can put in your mouth. It can easily replace a number of psychiatric drugs for mood, plus it produces the same chemistry in the brain that occurs when we fall in love.” – Chris Kilham, WellBella (Medicine Hunter, Author, Traveller and Researcher)

 

So now it’s time for one of my favourite plants of all time, a magical plant which has inspired legend, influenced the introduction of economy, carries a rich trade history and is now a key player in the booming confectionary industry. It’s pretty popular actually…totally mainstream in fact, albeit it pretty hard to propagate out of its natural habitat…almost growing exclusively from 20 degrees north of the equator to 20 degrees south of the equator…Yeah that’s right guys and dolls it’s Cacao...well Theobroma cacao to be exact! The scientific name Theobroma cacao was given to the species by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (the big daddy of modern-day taxonomic plant classification and also the man who likened the irishman to sparrows due to their “noise, squabbles and ubiquity”…stick to plants love)  in 1753, when he published it in his famous book Species Plantarum.  Theobroma translating as ‘food of the gods’ in Latin, as cacao was revered as a very sacred plant by ancient civilisations. Cacao is derived from the Nahuatl (Aztec language) word xocolatl, from xococ (bitter) and atl (water). Possibly bitter water due to the Aztecs and Mayans love of grinding up the cacao beans and mixing it with water to make a potent drink. Unbeknown to most people however it was not the Mayans and the Aztecs to first discover this rich brew, but a civilisation called the Olmec. The history of the Olmecs is not as widely reported upon and is still deemed as somewhat of a mystery due to a poor representation of archeological material. However it is widely accepted that they were a pre classical Mesoamerican civilization that were to predate all subsequent Mesoamerican cultures, namely Aztecs and Maya. Details of the Olmec are pretty sketchy but it’s expected they practiced similar beliefs such as lovely sacrifices and lovely ball games….oh and ‘Olmec’ roughly translates from Aztec as ‘rubber people….’ I like that so I do.

 

The Mayans were a very sharing bunch when it came to cacao, women and all classes could be seen drinking it, possibly due to a more abundant production of cacao by the Mayans. However Aztec women were forbidden to drink the stuff and it was generally seen as a drink for the more upper class men or for warriors to drink before battle…I don’t like the Aztecs, they seem entirely unreasonable to me. Sometimes i’m so glad to have been born into this time and culture as I would most definitely been burned at the stake for being a saucy witch or had my hands cut off for coveting the lovely jubbly little cacao beans…

Cacao was so revered that images of cacao pods were painted on the walls of stone temples and Mayan artifacts have been found that show kings and Mayan gods drinking chocolate. Look at how beautiful those pods are, the delightful looking little creations…

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Cacao can be seen in modern day synonymous with love, comfort and even sin…what about warfare, anyone? Ever chomped down on your Cadburys, or for the more refined of us, black and gold, and thought oh…I wondered what great battles this special little bean was known to entice? No? Well news flash people….the humble cacao bean was thought to have been a catalyst in the fall of one of the world’s first great empires, The Maya. By 1400AD the Mayan power was decreasing, the Aztecs were ruling the highlands of Central Mexico, far from the rainforests of the Maya. The Aztecs had power, however they could still not grow their most coveted beloved, the devilish, bewildering and beautiful; Theobroma cacao.

The Aztecs then had to trade to get their bean, some even making counterfeit beans….IMAGINE…counterfeit beans, i’ll remember that name when I form my imaginary band…This demand for the delectable bean quickly lead Cacao to become the driving force behind the Aztec economy.

The bean at this time was the epicenter of their civilisation, this wasn’t a mere treat or a little side entertainment to eat during your evening netflix binge. No, this bean controlled movement of the masses, ceremonies and attributed wealth and status to those lucky enough to be in possession of it.

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Wee fella and his bean..

The need for this valuable resource further fueled the Aztecs need to conquer the Maya and eventually when they did the Maya were forced to pay their defeaters “tributes” which were of course, you guessed it, paid in Cacao. So the Aztecs, who couldn’t grow their own Cacao, would always have their own supply….kind of like that fat kid at school who was a big bully but would always have chocolate smeared round their face and NEVER EVER share…even if there was enough to go round.

However, even though I am an absolute sucker for a bit of bloodshed and chocolatey treats it is not just the rich and somewhat violent history that draws me so to Cacao but the chemical contents it wields within its sumptuous form. Cacao in its rawest form is known to contain anandamide….’ananda who?’ I hear you say…well how about if I tell you that anandamide is derived from the sanskrit ‘ananda’ meaning bliss, and ‘mide’ meaning chemical. Funnily enough anandamide, which is only found in cacao is a cannabinoid, yup, just like THC and CBD found in another much loved medicinal plant (Cannabis, for all you extremely sheltered individuals).

Anandamide is thought to be as important as the more well-known neurotransmitters: dopamine and serotonin. Anandamide is also thought to act as a component in the control of cognition and expression of emotions. Also linked to the feeling of a high after exercise….so really instead of going on a run you could just lie in your PJs and eat a big slab of raw Cacao….just saying…On a more serious note it is also currently being studied as a treatment for anxiety and depression. Even more interestingly the alkaloid found in black pepper, Guineensis, is thought to increase the activity of this neurotransmitter in the brain….black pepper and dark chocolate anyone?

This blissful chemical found in cacao is not the only one of titillating interest however (yes, it gets better!), what about the name Theobroma cacao? Shall i repeat it…Theobroma cacao…nothing? Okay i’ll let you in on a little family secret, theobromine is caffeine’s more beautiful sister (also known as Cinderella) and it is found in high doses in cacao and yes, chocolate. Theobromine is actually what gives chocolate that bitter taste and ever heard of that old wives tale that chocolate is bad for dogs? Well it’s actually totally true, theobromine is completely toxic to dogs and just 2 squares of high percentage dark chocolate is enough to kill your little furry friend. But anyway, enough about pet death, theobromine is actually great for humans and is known to improve cognition, energy and memory. What can get better than this, I hear you say? Well what about LOVE people? Oh and SEX, LOVE and SEX! Yeeeaaaah…that’s right! Cacao also contains high levels of phenylethylamine. Phenylethylamine is a psychoactive and stimulant that is released in the body during excitement and arousal…also known as the ‘love’ drug….and is what is released in the body when we are ‘in love’. That’s it, i’m becoming a spinster who never exercises and just bathes in hot frothy raw Cacao pleasuring myself all day long…. as if I need much convincing.

You say Cocoa, I say Cacao, same difference right? WRONG! Cacao is the raw unadulterated form, Cocoa and most cocoa powder, also known as coco powder is “Dutch processed” which means temperatures up to 150c are used to extract the cacao, this process destroys much of the nutritional benefit of the cacao. Most of the dark chocolate (and cocoa) available today is so highly processed that the most of the nutrient and antioxidant strength has been lost leaving only excess sugar and fat. So to get nature’s intended Cacao hit, you really must get on the raw stuff lads, I promise you it’s pretty beautiful and an extremely bountiful source of antioxidants, stimulants and psychoactives to enhance energy, balance mood, provide sensual energy with that warming spooning hug after….oh mummy jeggies i’m in love.

186938662_XS Raw unadulterated goodness

Knowing this, I decided I must go to a CACAO ceremony to fully understand the benefits and medicinal properties of this plant in its rawest form. What I got was a form of ‘Cacao liquor’ which is Cacao in its purest form, similar to how the ancient Mesoamerican cultures would have consumed it. The Cacao powder was dry and pulverised raw Cacao beans which was mixed into hot water to make a rich frothy brew.

Before the ceremony began I was asked to write down three intentions, three things that I might want to focus on during my meditation. I had heard that due to the theobromine and caffeine, raw cacao can rapidly increase your heartbeat. Not going to lie I was totally hungover and worried I would die, but what is an experience if you aren’t worried you are going to die? So, the ceremony in itself was very casual, a way of opening myself and connecting with a stranger to share life experiences and to learn from getting to know a new being in a completely non judgemental sense.

So in a dimly lit circular purple carpeted room with paintings of parrots on the wall, much like a vaginal dream of birds, I  drank the rich brew and lay down to let this new lady of my life guide me through what turned out to be an unexpected and pretty interesting journey into my subconscious.

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Oil painting by Michael A. Wilson, but also apparently what my subconscious looks like…

This type of meditation is seen to be a ‘heart opening’ form of meditation due to the high content of theobromine, an alkaloid much similar to caffeine, which is responsible for dilating blood vessels, increasing the blood flow and raising the heart beat. During this meditation I had many interesting realisations which were all extremely personal to me, however they kept being clouded by a vision of the back of somebody’s head that kept obscuring my view. Through each vision this happened. Until through the guided mediation we reached the ‘third’ vision. I began to envision the back of this woman’s head more clearly. She was full of life and perfectly happy in a desert city scape, effortlessly free and abundantly joyous, it was only after her face came into vision that I realised this woman was me. I really REALLY nearly cried. I have gone through life having this idea that I somehow don’t deserve true happiness, nor is it possible for me to achieve this, but this vision was so clear and true with it’s telling that I know I am worth the love and happiness she held, just like all other beings and souls around us. I would also like to write that by no means was this some ‘hippy dippy’ ceremony meant to reenact the ways of our ancestors gone before us but used as a modern day tool to help cope with the constant pressures and anxieties experienced through excess stimulation from modern life.

So as Charles M Schulz once said, ‘All you need is love, but a little bit of chocolate now and again doesn’t hurt’…now and again doesn’t even come into it…get that brown wonder in its raw unadulterated form into your life this instance…open your mind to plants and you shall receive their blessings.

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Saint Peter and the Spiritual Cactus

Saint Peter and the Spiritual Cactus

 

‘If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.’ Aldous Huxley, The doors of perception

I am VERY SUPER much excited to share this post to you all as you now all already (I hope) know about alkaloids from my previous posts, so now I get to introduce you all to entheogens. An entheogen (/en·the·o·gen/), from Greek, translating as ‘generating the divine within’ are usually totally awesome plants used in shamanic ceremonies and rituals and have been for thousands of years, which must account for something, right? There are many plants that fall into the entheogenic group, a topic greatly covered by the ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes in his book ‘Plants of the gods.’ However since i’ve recently been in Malaga where the San Pedro cactus is grown ornamentally, I thought what better place to study this plant steeped in mysticism and a rich history of cultural use medicinally and spiritually, which I guess are really one and the same.

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Image of San Pedro growing ornamentally…somewhere..

Trichocereus pachanoi, synonym Echinopsis pachanoi is in the Cactaceae family and is a fast growing columnar cactus native to the Andean mountains, found in Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, while also being grown widely as an ornamental. It has been used for its healing and divination properties for over 3,000 years, with the earliest archaeological evidence being the discovery of a stone carving of a Huachumero (male shaman) found at the Jaguar temple of Peru with the cactus, which has been thought to date back 3,500 years ago. The name San Pedro refers to the hispanic christian name of Saint Peter who is the holder of the gates to heaven, illustrating the ability of this plant’s properties to open the gates to another world. Other names among these healers include “El Remedio” or the Remedy, which refers to its healing and visionary powers which, they say, can help us to let go of “the illusions of the world”. A passage in Richard Evans Schultes book can be found to illustrate this idea, where participants in ceremonies are described ‘to become entirely in tune with animals and nature, set free from matter and engage in a flight through cosmic regions, transporting through time in a rapid and safe fashion’….safety first kids….DISCLAIMER: always ensure to wear one’s seatbelt when taking a trip into the cosmos.

An adventure into ‘time’ and space was actually undertaken by a man much closer to home by the watchful eyes of the BBC of all people! Christopher Paget Mayhew, Baron Mayhew was a British politician who was a Labour Member of Parliament from 1945 to 1950 and from 1951 to 1974, when he left the Labour Party to become a Liberal. In 1955 he decided to take part in a social experiment where he was administered 400mg of mescaline, the alkaloid derived from our dear saint Peter (among other psychoactive cactuses) to open the gates of another world. In an interview 30 years on Mayhew’s still describes the experience as ‘The most interesting thing I have ever done and profoundly thought provoking’. He described it as a very real experience that took place outside of time. During the interview he comes to the conclusion that there is no absolute time and no absolute space, time is merely something imposed by us on the outside world. The BBC was worried to show the film publically, the committee had no hesitation in banning the film from being shown to the public. Religious theologians and philosophers believed that his experience was unauthentic and not valid, however Mayhew disagreed up until his death in 1997, claiming what he had experienced was not merely so many minutes spent in his drawing room interrupted by strange excursions in time, but instead years and years of heavenly bliss interrupted only by short minute periods in his drawing room. I’m not quite sure if this was an experience that led him from labour to liberal but sure….

 

mayhew   Image of the man himself during the Panorama experiment, clearly having a pure geg…

The alkaloid in question here is mescaline, which is a psychoactive compound which belongs to a family of compounds in the phenethylamine class, making it quite distinct from the other major psychedelics which belong to the indole family. LSD, psilocybin, harmaline, and DMT are all indoles. Mescaline is absorbed through the intestinal tract and then processed through the pancreas, liver, kidneys and spleen, then binds to serotonin receptors in the brain and stimulates the cortical area. Phenethylamines occur in many living organisms and are associated with elevated mood and energy stimulants, such as chocolate for example. It is no wonder then that mescaline or brews made from San Pedro are sometimes used medicinally to alleviate drowning feelings of depression…fuck galaxy, next time I read a good book I know what i’ll be indulging in!

 

In smaller doses brews made from the San Pedro are thought to be a good treatment for nerve disorders, joint disorders, drug dependence, heart disease and hypertension and also has antimicrobial properties. San Pedro ceremonies have also been reported to alleviate symptoms experienced by those with Multiple Sclerosis, an autoimmune condition where the immune system attacks the myelin sheath, the protective covering around nerve cells. Mescaline has also been reported to sharpen olfactory senses and also be used as an aphrodisiac as well as inspiring literature that has gained cult followings such as Aldous Huxley’s through the doors of perception and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson.

However the use of San Pedro was made illegal by the American drug association in 1970 but made legal for use by the Native American church to protect its cultural value. However buying dried cactus in the UK is legal but Mescaline in powdered form is a strict class A substance. The fact this plant contains alkaloids that can lead to profound visions and insights as well as alleviate mood disorders, hypertension and nerve disorders is illegal, begs the question what is so fearful about this plant and its containing alkaloids? why does modern medicine demean it’s value? I even asked Frank and Frank said it can lead to pleasant hallucinations and an overall feeling of relaxation (PLEASE NOTE I AM NOT ENCOURAGING YOU TO ACTUALLY TRY IT BUT JUST TO THINK ABOUT THE BOUNDARIES OF YOUR OWN MIND, not to be confused as the same thing). Is it that plants with psychoactive compounds are illegal in our culture because it makes you question the unfathomable, visit the unquestionable and return with new wisdom to share with your fellow humans? Well I can’t answer that, but i’ll tell you something for free, I’m sure as hell CURIOUS anyways! Having said that, mind altering substances can cause severe mental harm if used in large doses for extended periods of time…..but so can most things, honour the balance peoples!

My plant quests have reached another level here in Malaga and I have seeked out a fellow seed collector, San Pedro harvester and Mescaline brewer to get an idea of this mystical alkaloid and for you all to hear his side of the story. His name is Janus and we are sitting across from each other under the shade of a Citrus tree opposite the Castillo Gibralfaro, he has a guitar on his back and a mysterious look in his eye, his dog Sirius is beckoning me with his jovial doggyness, I feel like I could never write again and just frolic through the long grass with his dog. I LOVE his dog, but anyway here we go….

Well Janus, I’m an emotional wreck when it comes to plants, I could look at a wilting Rose and want to cry because it makes me feel all the pain in the world at that precise second or smell a Mimosa on a hot day and feel my insides brimming with happiness like I might JUST SPONTANEOUSLY COMBUST and my ashes scattered like stars across the sky on a cloudless winters evening……on that note do you have any personal feelings or emotions toward the San Pedro cactus?

Well after all that, Janus didn’t feel comfortable commenting on this due to the legality status of San Pedro in Spain, however I had the pleasure of sharing the brew with him. I was told it was not too strong and it is a calming trip with not much visuals at this dose. As we sat on the beach surrounded by naked hippies under the shade of some beautiful swaying Eucalyptus trees I knocked back the thick green concoction. I was slightly apprehensive, however as I noticed the shedding and peeling of the eucalyptus bark and guitar chords travelling along on the breeze I felt thoroughly relaxed. Me and a friend shared a drawing, both drawing twin headed creatures without noticing the others and not exactly sure how the pen could change colour all on its own accord. When asked questions I felt the answer came to me in a profound sense of

knowing, even if the question was “who would win in a fight? Tony Blair or a Tyrannus Saurus rex?” Tony Blair, obviously, I could vividly see the blood dripping from his vile little reptillian teeth in the reflection of his character….overall the experience was extremely calm and relaxing, with a sense of clarity riding through. I felt my body loose and floaty like walking on a pleasant dream during an afternoon nap, this was not without a slight feeling of nausea, which in hindsight was probably because I did not eat much before.

However I do not believe that plants should be used and abused as a recreational drug without caution and respect being given to it first. As I expect many people when casually hearing the alkaloid ‘mescaline’ being batted about in conversation, the plant they may think of first is Peyote (Lophophora williamsii). However this sweet little nubbin of a thing is now listed as a vulnerable species due to vast popularity incurred by the writings of Carlos Castaneda and his book entitled; ‘The teachings of Don Juan’ Suddenly foreigners from all round the world were flooding in to try a taste of this spiritual cactus. These foreigners, also known as ‘drug tourists’ or ‘Peyoters’ are sadly decimating this once rich population of Peyote. Another problem is that this small little nubbin of wonder takes around 10 to 15 years to grow back to original size once harvested. Newbie harvesters are also reported to harvest the whole cactus without even leaving the root.

nubs Image of the pretty wee nubs; Peyote, Lophophora williamsii

In Real de Catorce, a small mining village in Mexico, once with a rich population of Lophophora williamsii, locals have now seen a massive decline in numbers due to drug tourism. The Huichol peoples in particular of this area have called on the mexican government to protect this area from such decimation. Protection is paramount, for this cactus is an important part of their culture, Shamans use this plant to communicate with the spirit world during sacred pilgrimages of this area. If the Peyote dies out so does their culture. This example further highlights to me the ‘take take take’ approach of Western culture, taking without thinking. The Huichol peoples are known as ‘animists’ (from Latin anima, “breath, spirit, life”) is the religious belief that objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence. They were the first to notice the decline of such species, for they see the cactus as they would a human being and administer the same respect as they would for a loved one. This really breaks down my sense of anthropocentrism, for we living in a Western society are all guilty of it. We are fed from birth through media, bill boards and school teachings that we humans are the center of the universe and plants, animals, weather systems and the elements are there to be classified, separated and put in boxes and disregarded as something seperate to ourselves, we then lose the respect, and without respect we do not protect.

Sorry to get all serious on y’all but it is important to question and challenge and to grow from it like a ferocious jungle vine, maybe don’t strangle your counterparts in the doing so however….and if you really do want to enter through those doors of perception, then please, fellow beings have respect and compassion for the souls around you….AND do your research, knowledge is your richest asset!!

When you wake up in the morning and realise you have become a plant stalker…

When you wake up in the morning and realise you have become a plant stalker…

Well it seems like it’s that time again so I would like to introduce you to the plant of my current time/week/month/life/is time not just a concept anyway/my new love interest….I say love but maybe it’s actually a slight obsession…You know when you see someone and they look a bit strange but in a really beautiful way and you just can’t stop staring at them and then it becomes a little bit addictive and you just want to follow them and know all about their life? Just me? okay…awkwarrd! WELL anywaysss….I totally have that right now but with a plant. The plant in question is the weird as fuck yet completely beautiful as fuck Dendroseris litoralis. I have a profound need to be around it and follow it as it moves throughout the glasshouses and watch it as I wait for it to to flower so thought I would do a little detective work of my own.

Dendroseris_litoralis_Cabbage_tree_7910

Boy was it worth it! In fact not only is this plant completely strange and beautiful but is also totally rare as fuck too and not in the Northern Irish sense of the word rare…..’you’re ma’s pure rare mate’…no more like in the ‘Your mother is a rare and beautiful flower’ way. This plant has literally been brought back from the brink of extinction, when in the 1980s there were expected to only be 3 plants left in the wild and is now critically endangered on the IUCN redlist. Hence our dear Dendroseris litoralis is more commonly residing in botanical gardens. Unfortunately as well as being totally beautiful this plant is also deemed to be extremely delicious, hence it’s common name the cabbage tree….don’t be fooled by the name though kids and get your guessing caps on (is that a saying?) put your minds to the test (AND DON’T CHEAT, NOBODY LIKES A CHEATER!) and guess the plant family….go on it’s fun I promise! Top tip….look at the flower 😉

dendroseris flower

so…..I BET you guessed Brassicaceae or cabbage family if you got side tracked by those delectable looking leaves? WRONGGGG….this wee fella is actually a proud member of the compositae family (that’s the daisy family my budding amatuear botanists) Just look at that THE BLOODY BIG DAISY WEIRDO! I just LOVE it SO much!!

However the story doesn’t stop there for this quirky little creation, oh no my friends! For this big daisy was also thought to have been what our dear Alexander selkirk sustained himself on when marooned on an uninhabited island in the Juan Fernández Islands off the Chilean coast, well that and goats, lots of goats. More interestingly these goats did not only sustain his body but also his mind as in his memoirs he apparently trained these goats for company and when the mood would take him, he would dance with his little companions to pass the time….I bet you he came back with some kick ass dance moves!

Unfortunately it is expected that the grazing of these goats is what has led to the vulnerability of this plant, due to it being native only to this Island. By the way guys if you haven’t guessed already this Island is now called Robinson Crusoe Island and it was Selkirks ‘ordeal’ that inspired this tale hailed as ‘one of the first tales of British colonisation’ but we’ll not get into that just yet……that is for another post in the pipeline. 

But really the main thing I would hope you take away from this post is that if you are lucky enough to see this beautiful specimen in the wild then don’t be a goat and eat it….just give it a wee kiss like me, unless maybe you’re starving to death and there’s no corpses of your fellow seafarers to sustain you in the near vicinity, but even then I think you should just give it a big kiss and die happily knowing you got to kiss the weirdest daisy in the world, I know I would! 

 

hummingbird pollination

Just like this little Firecrown hummingbird, also a native to the Island and an important pollinator for OUR favourite plant, and you know how that famous saying goes….if you’re not sure do it like the hummingbird does!

A walnut story – regia and beyond…

A walnut story – regia and beyond…

I like nuts, do you like nuts? well actually when I think about it i’m pretty nuts about nuts, love a good nut me…so why don’t we talk about nuts then?

Walnuts have an extremely rich history, both economically and medicinally. Walnuts are one of the oldest tree food known to man, trade of such dating back to 7000 BC. Excavations from the Neolithic period have unearthed petrified shells of nuts, as well as inscriptions left on clay tablets around 2000 BC by the Chaldeans (people of the Chaldea, which later assimilated into the Babylonians…don’t you know? no neither did I until I chose to write about this) revealing the existence of walnut groves within the hanging gardens of Babylon….anything to do with the hanging gardens of Babylon makes my tummy wobble. Early history indicates that English walnuts came from ancient Persia (again tummy wobble…my tummy wobbles when I can’t comprehend). Thus the Walnut is often known as the Persian Walnut, where it traveled thousands of miles via caravan along the Silk Road route between Asia and the Middle East, eventually finding its way to the great old isle of England. The name English Walnut is expected to be due to the supposed fact that English merchant mariners transported the humble nut to ports around the world…the English, the bearer of nuts…

silk road picture

The walnuts botanical family name originates from Roman mythology, according to ancient myth, Jupiter, who was also known as Jove, and lived on Walnuts when he lived here on earth…I mean why would you not want to live on a walnut? (I can possibly think of quite a number of reasons…but by Jove, Sundays aren’t the day for being negative)  Juglans regia  translating as ‘The Royal nut of Jupiter’ or also known as the glands of jupiter…hmmmm, I can think of one possible reason for that…however in some cultures walnuts were also seen as a sign of fertility, interestingly both men and women liken it to um…parts of themselves..

Medicinally Walnuts have also been used for centuries…in an alarming variety of ways, some slightly more questionably than others. I feel that this is the perfect time to introduce you all to the concept of the Doctrine of signatures, where it was believed that certain plants that represented parts of the body were a mark from god, who bestowed these human body resembling plants upon us to cure us of our ailments. Due to their uncanny resemblance to the brain (among other things) the nut resembling the brain was expected to treat head injuries, or even strangely bald babies…Dioscorides wrote in the materia medica that if walnut kernals were burned and ground, applied to the child’s head, the hair would then begin to grow abundantly…I think personally, I’d give it a few months before applying burning nuts to the scalp of a new born…Plutarch also reported that Walnut trees were soporific (NO, not like this post), “for they send forth a drowsy spirit which affects those heads who sleep beneath it” interestingly though Walnuts are very high in Melatonin which are known to help regulate the sleep/wake cycle, as well as being extremely rich in DHA an Omega 3 fatty acid which is known to greatly improve brain functioning and concentration…..cheers god!

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Walnut trees have also been associated with witchcraft and ancient medicine women, known as the Janara. These women were usually expert medicine women revered as witches due to their worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis (Goddess of womanhood and magic) as well as Diana (goddess of the moon and the forest), possibly where their name Janara is derived from and the pagan rituals which they performed, involving illegibly dancing around a walnut tree as roots were thought to connect to ‘the other side’ and bring up the other worldly energies which were used to heal and for insight. However these knowledge keepers were essentially ‘witch hunted’ due to their opposition of Christian beliefs. With the encroaching practice of Christianity these women were demonized and no longer accepted.  Saint Barbatus cut down the sacred tree and tore out its roots, and on that spot he had a church built, called Santa Maria in Voto.

Unguent, unguent,
Carry me to the walnut tree of Benevento,
Above the water and above the wind,
And above all other bad weather – song of the Witches of Benevento

Noce_di_Benevento

 

Well I don’t know about you but whether it’s the glands of Jupiter i’m eating or a connection to the underworld  or a big edible yummy brain, i’m totally a fan….

Crataegus and the curse of the faeries…

Crataegus and the curse of the faeries…

 

Alas, this series is focusing on Irish tree traditions, and with being Irish a certain amount of literality and rationality must go out the window, because you’re a kill the craic if you don’t. Therefore we must take note of the faerie trees and the exceptionally important toothache tree, brace yourselves folks…..

 

Crateagus (Hawthorn) are still much revered in Ireland due to their conotations with faeries, lone trees and bushes are often found standing on their lonesome as if by magic in fields and on roadside verges and if damaged or removed bad luck would surely follow.

 

The generic name Crataegus stems from the Greek-Kratos meaning strength. The species name monogyna reveals that this species contains one (mono) seed (gyna), whereas C.leavigata typically has two seeds. Hawthorns belong to the ROSACEAE family (Rose family to you amateurs) and contrary to popular belief those red ‘berries’ you see are not actually berries at all but ‘Pomes’ a botanical term for the types of fruit hailing from this family. There you go, a fact you can use to impress your tinder date on those long walks through the countryside…Flowering in May they have extremely pretty and abundant blooms, followed by red POMES beginning from September to October, depending on location and elevation. These pomes are rich in Vitamin C, as well as containing flavonoid molecules which have vaso-dilation properties, Translation: ability to expand blood vessels and strengthen capillaries.  Thus, Hawthorn has been used in traditional medicine for increasing energy levels, shortness of breath and even to ‘mend a broken heart’. Be it metaphorically or physically…potato, potatoe?

 

hawthorn_tree_on_the_bank_of_the_river_severn_-_geograph-org-uk_-_686938

 

Also known as the ‘faerie thorn’, the Faerie Queen by her hawthorn can be seen as a representation of an earlier pre-Christian archetype, reminding us of a Goddess-centred worship. Traditions still stand strong today, in 1999 the Irish Times reported on how the preservation of a faerie thorn was deemed so important that the construction of a £100 million road was put on hold till members of the community and constructors could discuss what to do. The tree was never felled and the road was rerouted to avoid the removal of the faerie thorn…not much wonder really when you listen to the story of the Delorean car factory….

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John Delorean an American car dealer bought some land close to Belfast for the development of his car factory in Dunmurry, however didn’t there stand a faerie thorn slap bang in the centre of the field? Now, all the locals knew of the stories of the faerie thorns and how the foot prints of the ‘wee folk’ were said to be found surrounding the base of the trunk. Development started in 1976, however workmen refused a direct order cut down the tree. However one day the tree was gone, it is said the impetuous Delorean felled it himself and the wrath of the faeries was set upon him….many misdemeanours plagued the venture and Delorean is now known today as the man who was brought down by a thorn tree…..don’t mess with the little people dear John!

 

Another faerie thorn can be found at Beragh hill in county Tyrone, however this is not renowned for the thwarting of American car dealers but for the cure of a toothache. Where it was said driving a coin or nail into the trunk with a stone could bring relief from a toothache, chewing on the bark of the hawthorn was also said to bring some sweet relief from the pain of an unholy toothache. Elsewhere in Ireland there are also many more sites where nails and coins have been driven into trees to cure what ails ye! Such trees are seen to hold cultural links and beliefs which encourages preservation and conservation of such trees, as well as enabling future generations to learn and preserve their natural heritage, while carrying on sacred traditions through generations….as well as warding off suspicious American car dealers!

 

My thoughts on folklore

 

I am a woody perennial plant, typically having a single stem or trunk growing to a considerable height and bearing lateral branches at some distance from the ground, what may I be?

 

Folklore is an integral part of our development as a society and our cultural and religious beliefs, it defines who we are as a society and our identity within that. Folklore heritage and myth can create strong bonds between human and nature, thus creating a need to protect that bond. Fear or loss is found when such bonds are broken, such as the case with the faerie tree and the loss of king Williams tree.

 

Passing down tree traditions and the preservation of them can focus attention on relationships to certain species and specific sites, thus creating a need to protect them, as well as a need for localized conservation and environmental awareness.

 

ANSWER: Why, I am A TREE silly. 

 

 

 

Billy bashing and the Irish tree

Billy bashing and the Irish tree

A wee riddle for yis…I feed many mouths, have a bark but no bite, many rings that may tell you my age, what am I?

(You’ll only find the answer if you read the WHOLE article go’wan)

 

So….for a little change I’d thought we’d talk about trees baby, just you and me. Trees are ancient knowledge keepers that withstand the test of time, wise and all knowing. Trees see all and never tell, the kind of friend you’d like to tell your secrets to, humans can’t keep secrets, tell your secrets to trees not humans. For this reason, trees can be associated with historical events, as being part of that historical event itself. Trees have stood still in battle and listened to the secrets of Kings, queens and noblemen/women, which we can only begin to ponder upon, we can however trace these trees through history to begin to understand the events of these dark battles and how they panned out in space and time.

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 Roots set deep and standing proud in the grounds of Scarva house remains the sweet Chestnut tree (Castanea sativa) known for being part of the route taken by King William and his army from landing sites in Belfast. We can also follow a trail to Cranmore park where King William is said to have taken shelter under a tree there during a rainstorm…said tree however was felled by strong winds, also a second, the third remaining tree, an Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) still stands strong today…the Irish winds however clearly aren’t a fan of keeping the memory of the dear great King William sacred, wonder why…

 Similarly in the grounds of Bangor castle a stump remains called ‘the Schomberg tree’ named after the Duke of Schomberg who led a force under the order of King William, and who laid camp under that very tree. While at Legacorry a massive beech tree whose stump (STUMP!) remains which King William was said to have tied his horses to still remains to this day…seeing a pattern?

 This is just one example of how historical events and expeditions can be traced when using the language of the tree, they are landmarks and sacred knowledge keepers….imagine all the trees out there and the secrets they’ve kept from overhearing tales at a campfire, or screams in the heat of battle….Gosh the mind dos’t wonder!

 Trees may not tell secrets, but they sure do encourage ideas, they are said to have calming and inspirational energies…sure was it not Sir Isaac Newton who gained such inspiration under an apple tree? Imagine a world without understanding the laws of gravity…IMAGINE THE WORLD WITHOUT APPLES! Doesn’t even bare thinking about does it?

 However since we are on the subject of IRISH trees I thought I’d find an example closer to home, that of Professor Thomas Andrews, the first vice principal of Queens University Belfast. Now Thomas loved trees, so much so that he was known for writing up the majority of his seminal work on the liquefaction of gases, while under the shade of a Laburnum tree in the Quadrangle of the University.

However, in the 1950s the tree died but in May 1995 a further tree was planted in its place to celebrate the university’s 150th anniversary. So there you go if you’re having a mental block while coming up with a potentially world changing theory just go see a tree and it will for sure sort it out, trust me it works…..

 

ANSWER: I AM A TREE DUH

Sippin on gin and Quinine…

Sippin on gin and Quinine…

Okay well firstly let us not beat around the bush here and i’ll no longer introduce this as plant of the week, but plant of a week and it’s this week’s lucky week……HOORA…gooooooo WEEK! This one is going to give us a cheeky peek into the history of illegal plant collection (known as stealing in some circles) exportation, medical research and let’s face it an awful lot of shameful exploitation, but hey we wouldn’t have all our mocha choca loca latte frappechinos or rubber tyres (not quite sure how to jazz those up, apologies) without a bit of shameful exploitation here and there, now would we? This is going to be a bit of a history lesson so I apologise in advance to all those ‘here and nowers’ who only look forward, onward and upward and all that, but me I prefer to wallow in the past, so here goes…..another large amount of time passing…another plant to tingle your mind buds (sorry for the slightly disturbing mental image and length of my ramblings).

The plant in question here which MAY be totally completely awesome as f@ck if you are suffering from convulsions, profuse sweating, diarrhea, vomiting,  high fever and the good old faithful….bloody stools, you may also be dying, just sayin……

May I introduce you to Cinchona? No, I do not mean the 4th countess of Cinchona who was married to the viceroy of Peru in the 1600’s, however this was how this plant got their name. Cinchona is a genus of 23 species, four of which are expected to be of medicinal value C. offianalis, C. ledgeriana C. succirubra and C. calisaya. However due to the readiness of hybridisation in upland areas of these plants, the exportation and medicinal uses of certain species is pretty damn difficult to track, leading to a much convoluted and interesting history. Belonging to the Rubiaceae family, yes for all you die hard caffeine addicts that is also the warm and welcoming but slightly dysfunctional family of Coffea arabica (coffee, dumbass.)  Such trees are native to the Eastern slopes of the Andes, mainly Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru and were found in abundance historically in these areas, that is however until the great species that is man came and messed it all up like only we know how. They are also now widely cultivated in many tropical countries for their commercial value, however not indigenous to these areas. Linnaeus (who by the way is a pretty big deal in the world of Botany and kind of came up with the framework for classifying and naming  plants, pretty cool guy if you’re curious and like order) decided to name this genus after the Countess of Cinchona, who was apparently cured of a fever after bathing in a pond beneath these trees, full to the brim of the broken down plant material, an alkaloid soup of *drum roll puleez* QUININE, leading to the tree also being known as the fever tree (more than likely the origins of the brand fever tree tonic…now there’s a story to tell at the bar). However, like many other things in history this event was disproved eventually because people like telling tales and proving others wrong, it’s in our nature.  So, BYE countess…see you NEVER you big Pinocchio you!

This however does not disprove the fact that during the 1600s and more than likely for many many years previous the Quechua peoples of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador were cultivating this tree to use the bark medicinally as a muscle relaxant to abate the shivering from temperature changes experienced in the grips of a Malaria fever. Which, when western culture caught whiff of this, the plant was then targeted as a cure for Malaria…and so it goes. The exploitation and exportation begins, leaving many dead in its wake, like so many similar discoveries of this kind. However it could be argued that the lives saved in proportion is much greater…always a silver lining eh?

The bark was very valuable to Europeans in expanding their access to and exploitation of resources in distant colonies, such as India for the exploitation of tea, where they were at increasing risk of malaria. So begins the raping of economically poor and biodiverse rich areas through the medium of plant collecting and exportation.

By the 1650s shipments of Cinchona bark were regularly reaching Spain and by the 1670s was a well established remedy in Britain and surround, being used by big celebrities such as King Charles II and King of France Louis XVI, which encouraged an even greater demand for this natural commodity to soar, kind of like coconut oil or ummm…the selfie stick, they grow on trees right? Unfortunately as we know, with such increasing demand comes corruption. Bark gathering was often destructive destroying huge expanses for their bark, soil degradation and loss of biodiversity due to monoculture cultivation. There was also contention over the bark received at ports over its quality and effectiveness, due to only several species being high in active compounds.  Not to mention low wages and poor conditions for workers involved in the cultivation who would only see a miniscule fraction of the profit compared with the large sums European traders would see.

Somewhere around the 1820s the first quinine alkaloids were extracted and described by Pierre Pelletier and Joseph Caventou. Within five years, the extracted alkaloids had become standard treatment for malaria. Quinine is now widely used medicinally and also contributes to that bitter taste attributed to the much known and loved Tonic water…I wouldn’t mind dying of malaria, but come on gin WTHOUT tonic water, that is a life I would not want to live.

The South American rainforests initially benefited from the income generated by harvesting cinchona bark for the extraction of this alkaloid from the bark for the manufacture of quinine drugs. Until those naughty botanists smuggled some seeds in 1865, notably that of the C. ledgeriana species which was known to be exceptionally rich in Quinine. After not much interest in Britain the seeds were then sold to the Dutch who successfully cultivated this species in Java. Extensive plantations established of quinine rich Chinchona trees, thus quickly dominating the worlds market of quinine by 1918. Huge profits were reaped by the dutch at this time – Bolivia and Peru seeing none of it. Shameful – eh?

This whole contentious historical debacle that formed one of the largest plant exchange and flow of germplasm at the time for profit in and out of the Americas, raised the alarm for equal benefit sharing from profitable plant material from parent countries, which has in effect led to the development of mutual benefit sharing agreements between countries and a crackdown on illegal plant trade. It’s just a shame such things have to happen before people begin to catch on….pillagers at heart ❤

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So next summer we can all sing along….

‘Well I know what i’ll be doing when i’m Laid back with my mind on my money and my money on my mind. I’ll be Rollin down the street, smokin indo, sippin on gin and QUININE….’

SORRY but it had to be done….