Berkeley Talks transcript: Take an intoxicating plants tour at the UC Botanical Garden

Sal Levinson: I’m Sal Levinson — I’m a propagator at the UC Botanical Garden. I work in native propagation, I grow plants that we sell here, and I also do the butterfly tours here. So I’m kind of an expert in butterflies. I studied entomology in grad school, and I’ve been rearing butterflies and doing butterfly talks for a long time. But the drug tour, not so much. I’m not an expert. This is just a few fun stories I’ve thrown together, so don’t expect any inside information or anything.

So it’s all just some fun stuff, and we’re doing it in conjunction with Hearst Museum and their Pleasure, Poison, Prescription, Prayer exhibit. And I kind of hope to hit all of these four points while we’re on our walk. I also want to say that most of this information is in my blog, the Berkeley Butterfly blog. So if you don’t catch something you can find it there, and if not there, you can find my email there and you can email me.

Okay, so this plant is a Cycad, and its ancestors go back a long, long, long way. Its relatives lived at the time of dinosaurs. It overlapped with the dinosaurs, and supposedly the dinosaurs ate it. And then there were also some butterflies overlapping at that time too, and in Florida there’s actually a butterfly that feeds on this planet.

So it’s totally poisonous. All parts of it are poisonous, but people who live in the areas where this plant grow have learned how to eat it. They have to to leech out all the poisons. You pour lots of water through it, and then eventually you can eat it. So in some cases it’s just when there’s nothing else to eat, and in some cases to actually a part of the normal diet.

Oliver Sacks wrote a story about this plant, and the people who ate it in Guam. And there’s this disease that people in Guam get, and it’s been documented since about the 1900s. The people in Guam get this weird disease, it’s sort of like ALS. And this kind of went on for a long time, and then in the 40s, all of a sudden lots of people were getting this disease, and Oliver Sacks traced it back to this plant. But it’s kind of a roundabout thing. Why all of a sudden did so many people get sick?

As it turns out, one of the traditions in Guam is for the men, during a celebration, to eat fruit bats. And they take these fruit bats, they throw them into boiling milk, they cook them, and they eat it all. The bones, the guts, the teeth, everything. They eat the whole thing, and they’d been doing this for hundreds or even thousands of years, and that worked out fine.

But then what happened was, is that these bats were eating the fruit off this plant. So they could handle it, but it got concentrated when the humans were eating it. And in the 40s there was a military installation on Guam, and they got ahold of guns, and they were able to kill a lot more bats than they had been previously. So they were eating a lot more bats, and a lot more people were getting sick from this problem. So once they figured that out, they cut back on the bats, and people are feeling a whole lot better.

Audience 1: But that didn’t bother the dinosaurs when they ate it?

Sal Levinson: That’s a good question, I don’t know. And there’s also, like I say, a butterfly that feeds on these. So some animals can handle it and some can’t. Okay, so onto the intoxicating part of his plant. Apparently the pollen of some of these cycads is intoxicating, and if you go to a bazaar in India, you can buy it.

I’m going to talk about this cactus behind me. It’s called Opuntia, or beavertail cactus. It’s pretty common in the Americas, and there’s a snail insect that likes to feed on this called Cochineal. So the Cochineal creates a red dye, and this also has been used for hundreds, or even thousands of years in the Americas for the purpose of dying. Both the Aztec and the Maya used it.

And then the Spanish arrived in the 1400s and they just love this dye, because it was such a brilliant red that they’d been unable to do in the past. And they started exporting this dye. So the red coats of the British army were often dyed with this Cochineal dye, and also the red stripes in the American flag were died with this Cochineal dye.

So does this have anything to do with getting intoxicated? Does anybody know Campari? What’s Campari?

Audience 2: A liqueur.

Sal Levinson: A liqueur, and what’s special about Campari?

Audience 3: It’s red.

Sal Levinson: It’s red, yes, it’s red. So originally it was dyed with the Cochineal, now they probably use some tar dye on it. But the Cochineal has also been used in McDonald’s milkshakes, in yogurt, and so on and so forth. People like to use it because it’s natural. It is a natural dye, but people are also allergic to that, so they actually find that people are better able to handle the cold tar dyes than the Cochineal dye.

The other thing to mention is that now you can buy little pills of cactus, because it’s an anti-inflammatory. They’ve done some research and found that it really helps with a hangover. So if you have a hangover and you have dry mouth and nausea, a headache, so on, this is all an inflammatory reaction. But the cactus is an anti-inflammatory, so that can really help with your hangover.

So if you use this cactus to make a cactus margarita, to use to flavor cactus margaritas, it can help you get drunk, and then it can help you get better after you’ve been drunk. The other thing about this is it can also be used to reduce blood sugar. Apparently it’s very effective this cactus, the Opuntia, at reducing blood sugar.

So Rhododendrons, there’s one Rhododendron, there’s a white bloom way up there, and there’s an orange bloom down here. Earlier in the season there are just so many blooms. Maybe you think of this as an azalea, but it’s all in the Rhododendron genus so we can call them Rhododendron. So every part of this plant is toxic, including the nectar. And people usually don’t eat it or use it for anything, but the bees do use it. They can handle that toxin. Somehow the bees can handle the toxin, but the humans cannot.

There’s a long history in regards to this honey that they make. It’s toxic because the nectar is toxic. 401 B.C. … I have a hard time remembering my dates, but this is one … the Greek soldiers happened to find some of those honey, natural hives. They were on the march, they ate it, they all got sick, they all recovered and they were fine, but they learned about this toxic honey.

And then a while later in 67 B.C., the Persians actually used it on purpose, sort of like chemical warfare. They left honey out for Pompeii’s army, his Roman army, and everybody got really sick. They were laying around vomiting, and of course it was really easy to kill them. So it kind of worked really well in that particular instance of war.

But if you eat a little bit of this honey, you can get high instead of getting sick. So there were bee priestesses, and I didn’t write down the date on these people, but they actually would eat a little bit of this honey. They’d get a little bit intoxicated, they’d have visions, and they’d used that to predict the future. So we don’t actually know if they were drinking mead made out of this toxic honey, or there was a little bit of toxic honey put in the mead, or just exactly how they did it. But they were using this toxic honey to get high and predict the future.
Audience 4: Where do these grow naturally?

Sal Levinson: Oh, so the Rhododendrons grow naturally in Turkey, and that area around the Dead Sea. So that’s their natural area of growth, and the people around there were the ones who use that for in warfare and so on.

This is a kind of tobacco, or Nicotiana, and they grew all over the Americas and still do. And they were used as a sacred plant in most tribes, both in North and South America. So it was thought of as a sacred plant because it has very deep roots, so it’s connected to the earth. Then the green leaves around the surface of the earth, and then the smoke reaches up into the heavens. So it was used in rituals and ceremonies and social events, and now it’s just sort of some drug that we all hate.

So it’s also smoked during prayer to take messages to the creator or to the dead. And as a medicinal, it was used for stomachaches or fever. And then down at the Hearst museum there, they have an exhibit of pipes that were collected by a director of the UC Botanical Garden. So William Setchell was a director from 1902-1928, and he went into San Francisco and collected different pipes that he found there.

And then he was friends with a subsequent director who was Thomas Goodspeed. He was from 1928-1954, and he took field trips into South America to collect plants and seeds and so on to bring back to this country, to interbreed with the plants that we had here to try to make a stronger crop. So tobacco was a big thing, people made a lot of money off of it. And so improving the crop was an important thing at that time. But now we’re not so much into trying to improve a tobacco crop. So yeah, people get high on tobacco. I don’t know, some people feel more anxious, I guess. Some people feel more calm. But tobacco is one of those drugs that’s legal and people use.

These are grapes. And of course from grapes we get wine. Is wine a sacred plant? Is wine sacred? Yes, yes. Somebody tell me a story. Pardon?

There’s something else interesting about grapes is that if you have grapes, that’s pretty much all you need to make alcohol. What do you need to make alcohol? You need yeast. Yeah. What else do you need? Sugar. Yeah, that’s pretty much it. You got yeast, and sugar, and some kind of liquid. Some water or something, some juice. That’s pretty much it, that’s all you need to make alcohol and there’s sugar in that grape. definitely. But also on the surface of that grape, if you notice that white bloom, you can rub off. That’s yeast.

So you take those grapes and you smash them up, and you let it sit for awhile and you’ve got alcohol, whether you’ve tried or you haven’t tried. And in fact, in Napa where they grow all these grapes, they pile them on the trucks and then sometimes they kind of fall off the trucks into the ditch and they start fermenting. And there are other species besides the humans who kind of enjoy that. Anybody, you know any other species that get drunk? Goats, birds get drunk. That’s right. Birds eat those berries and get drunk on those. That’s absolutely right. And elephants get drunk too.

Audience 5: I think dogs do as well.

Sal Levinson: Dogs get drunk as well. Okay. Well in Napa, friends of mine have actually seen the butterflies feeding at these smushed grapes and getting drunk, being unable to fly very well. So yeah, other species get drunk too.

This is cork and everyone have a feel of this. The bark is kind of soft, maybe you could hold it and everybody could just feel that as they walk by. So there are many crops that are used for alcohol and other things too. I could spend all day just in the crop garden here, but I just wanted to mention a couple. The Agave tequilana is here, and that’s used to make tequila. This one’s small, the core gets to be a hundred pounds before they harvest it. So that takes a while, like 10 years. And then this is tea, so Camellia sinensis, is that right? Yeah. So this is tea and I just wanted to mention that it’s tea, and it’s related to the Camellias that you grow in your garden.

And then I wanted to talk about the rice. So this is rice, and it’s growing in this bowl, which they flood occasionally. And rice is very commonly grown in flooded fields, and there’s a reason for that. You might think that they do that because the rice needs a lot of water, but it doesn’t really. It can grow in a normal field, like you would grow cotton, or alfalfa or anything else.But they grow it in a flooded field to keep away the insects that will eat it, or the animals that will eat it, and the weeds. So there are a lot fewer problems if they grow it in water, so that’s generally what they do. It’s just easier to grow that way.

Rice is used to make an alcohol. Everybody knows what that is. Sake, yeah. So it’s used to make Sake, and it’s been used to make Sake for a long, long time. But rice is missing something that you need to make alcohol. Right? What’s it missing? Sugar. You need that sugar. Yeast, you can actually get out of the air, it just falls every place. So the yeast is pretty easy, but the sugar is a little bit harder.

What they did a thousand years ago before they had easy access to enzymatic processes that they use now, is that they harvested the rice, they gathered the village around a wooden tub, and everybody chewed on the rice and spit it out. And then the enzymes in your saliva would change that starch to sugar, and then you could make Sake. So people were pretty desperate to get drunk a thousand years ago.

I wanted to talk about this plant, sweet wormwood or Artemesia annua, and it is actually an annual. We grow very few annuals in this garden because it has to be replanted every year, which is a lot of work. But it’s a very special plant. It’s part of the Chinese medicinal garden, and it’s been used in China for eons. And what for? For worms, it’s called wormwood and they’ve used it against worms.

And recent research has showed that it actually works, and that when it’s used against … now see, this is another tongue twister, Schistosomiasis, it actually works better than the prescription drug. Schistosomiasis, it’s a flatworm, and I believe it is intestinal. I’m not sure exactly where it ends up, but it’s Schistosomiasis. Yeah. So this one has also been effective against malaria. Anybody know anything about malaria?

Malaria is not fun. Well, it’s vectored by mosquitoes. So if you can get rid of the mosquitoes, you can get rid of the malaria. And we used to have malaria in this country, did people know that? You did know that. I only learned that very recently.

You’ve had malaria? From, not in this country, you got it elsewhere though. Yeah, you got it elsewhere. Yeah, sorry. But yeah, we used to have malaria in this country, and they tried several different ways to get rid of them mosquitoes. There was one guy in Texas who built huge houses for bats, so that the bats would eat the mosquitoes, and then then we’d have less malaria. So that worked to a degree, but they also used insecticides, and the other thing is the drainage. They made sure that you didn’t have standing water, and then there’s no place for the mosquitoes to breed, and then less malaria. So we managed to get rid of it going at it from several different angles.

In regards to malaria and this plant, there was a researcher in China named Tu Youyou, and in the 70s she isolated an extract that’s been used against malaria. In 2015 she finally earned a Nobel prize for her work. But she was able to isolate this chemical called artemisinin, and that is very effective against malaria. And in fact, the previous thing that was used against malaria was quinine, which was found in a tree in South America, and it has been losing effectiveness because the bug gets resistant to it. So it’s nice to have something new to fight against the malaria.

And then there’s a researcher at Berkeley named Jay Keasling who was able to get the yeast. He used genetic modification to get the yeast to create this drug, the artemisinin. So then it’s a whole lot cheaper to create than actually trying to take it out of the plant.

So the other thing about wormwood or mugwort, these plants have been used for a long, long time in ritual for smudging. These plants and other species are also used for smudging ,and also for moxibustion I’ve never done that. Anybody know about moxibustion? Am I pronouncing this right? It’s also sort of a medicinal plant and it’s a ritual plant as well.

Okay, so there’s maybe hundreds of different species of Artemesia. This is one, we’re going to go down and have a look at another one. Yeah, I broke off a little piece of the Artemesia absinthium to pass around. It has a strong smell and usually plants have a strong smell, you know there’s something in there that’s doing something.

This kind of grayish green plant is the absinthe, or the Artemesia absinthium. People know about this plant? Yeah, you make absinthe from it. During the Battle of Pak, it was a very popular drink to have this absinthe, and they had a special glass for it, and a special ritual. So the glass was sort of like a Martini glass with a bubble in the bottom, and you put the green absinthe in the bottom of it, and then you put a slotted spoon over the top of it. And then you put a sugar cube on top of that, and then you pour the water in, and when the water went in there, it turned all gray and cloudy and lovely. And they say that the green fairy was released.

This whole ritual was a big deal. And the people who lived at that time there were some very famous people that were drinking a lot of absinthe and in the bars at night. Edgar Allen Poe was one of them, Vincent Van Gogh. And then there was this poet Paul Verlaine that I’d never heard of. So some people think that it was the absinthe that was causing hallucinations and delirium in these people, and that it was the thujone in this plant that did that.

Since that time, it seems like people have come to the conclusion there’s not enough thujone in that plant to cause that kind of problem, so they don’t know what was causing those problems. But they attribute the very sinister short stories that Edgar Allen Poe wrote to this absinthe. And also Van Gogh, this guy who did these bright paintings and cut off his ear? They think, oh, that’s absent. Or Paul Verlaine, who binged on absinthe and then went home and set his wife on fire. They think that’s the absinthe. And they don’t really know what it is, but there are several different theories.

One of which is that they were using copper to create that green color instead of the plant, because it was much cheaper. So that if you put copper in there instead of absinthe, you could get copper poisoning, and then that would make you crazy. And the thujone is a neurotoxin, it could do something to you if it were in high enough concentration, but apparently the concentrations in this plant are really not that high. So it was banned, but it’s legal again. So if you want absinthe, you can buy it.

This is Liriodendron tulipifera. It goes by several common names, you can call it tulip tree if you want. The leaves are shaped like tulips, and the flowers look a little bit like tulips too. Does this tree look familiar to anybody? It’s planted all over Berkeley. It’s a street tree, and sometimes if you park underneath that, your car gets all sticky. Has that happened to anybody?

What happens is there are aphids that love this tree, And what they do is they have a mouth part called male park called the stylet. And they stick that right into the vein of that leaf, and then the pressure of the plant, the plant actually pressurizes that fluid into that aphid, and the fluid goes right through the aphid and it flows in a lot faster than this aphid could take advantage of it. So it flows right out the back end, mostly undigested. So that honeydew that you get on your car is actually aphid poop.

It’s mostly pure sugar, and one of the reasons I’m talking about this is because down at the Hearst Museum ,one part of their exhibit is about sugar. Is sugar intoxicating? Have you ever been addicted to sugar? Yeah, addicted to sugar. In fact, there’s some thought that manna from heaven was in fact this liquid that fell from the trees, that it was aphid poop. That manna from heaven is aphid poop. There are other theories also, I like this one. And if you go to the Middle East, apparently you can buy these flakes from the aphid poop in the market.

Audience 6: To use as a sweetener?

Sal Levinson: Yeah, it uses a sweetener, yeah. Okay, so I want to talk about bananas for a minute. Bananas are sweet, so you’ve got your sugar, so you can make something out of them. You can make banana beer, but there’s another story I I want to talk about. But first let me tell you about this flower. They really do have this amazing flower. If you look at this, there’s a whole row actually, of flowers here. This is an inflorescence, and look, a bee is pollinating.

Bananas are actually one of the few fruits that don’t need a pollinator, that you can get a ripe fruit without it being pollinated. Most other plants you have has to be pollinated in order to get a right fruit. With this one no, but there’s a whole row of flowers here. And as these coverings will open up, row upon row of flowers will be revealed, so they get pollinated, or else they just grow, and bananas will form.

And then here are the bananas up here. So this is a whole long inflorescence, and the bananas, kind of form row by row up the plant. So the story I wanted to talk about, if I can find my banana story here, is about that song. Anybody remember that song?

Audience 7: Chiquita Banana?

Sal Levinson: There is that one, but one that sounds a little bit more like a narcotic. They call me mellow yellow, people remember that one? Yeah. Okay, so that was Donovan. That was his hit in 1966, but what’s interesting is just a couple of weeks before that song was released, Country Joe McDonald said to a crowd … he was a famous singer in Berkeley, Country Joe McDonald. If people don’t know who he was, I think he’s still around … but he had an audience, and he told his audience that he had gotten high on banana skins.

So you can imagine all the bananas were gone from the grocery store the next morning. And in addition to that, it really helped Donovan’s song, as everybody thought that this was some song about getting high or getting drunk or whatever. But it turns out Donovan’s song was actually about sex. He was talking about a vibrator, this mellow yellow was a vibrator. So anyway, that’s my story about bananas. You can’t get high from banana skins, but I think people are still trying.

Okay, so I wanted to talk about Sassafras. This is kind of an interesting tree. It has leaves in three different shapes. It’s got the football, which is just the plain leaf, and then the ghost, which kind of looks like it has two arms stuck up. And then there’s also the mitten. Let me see if I can find a mitten. I saw one here just a moment ago, but there’s a mitten with one arm on just one side as well. Here we go. Here’s the mitten.

The Sassafras has been used to make root beer and as you might imagine, it was made out of the roots. So I just passed around a leaf for everybody to smell, but it’s the roots that were used, and they actually have a little bit of a different smell, to make the root beer. There was a pharmacist in 1870 who was trying to make something that was supposed to be healthy, and he used a lot of different things in there. And one of them was this root, and I think that was the main flavor.

But they don’t use Sassafras anymore because it turns out it’s a carcinogen. So they used Sassafras to make root beer. Why is it called beer? Because we think of it as just a soft drink. When we buy it, root beer has no alcohol in it. Well the reason it’s called beer, is because when they first made it, it was indeed a beer. It was a small beer, it had a low percentage of alcohol. And they were making this at a time when people were gathering in cities, but before there was good sanitation, so the water could be contaminated. So in order to stay healthy, they drank these small beers instead of pure water. They always drank something with alcohol in it. And they were drinking this morning, noon and night, no matter what age you were.

And that kept you alive, but you didn’t think that well when you were a little bit drunk all the time. So later on they started doing tea instead, and that worked out much better. They boiled the water so that killed some of the bugs in there, but then also the tea itself killed some of the pathogens in the water. So you could have water to drink without getting drunk, and then that was part of the industrial revolution is that people could think straight to actually get something done.

Okay, so I wanted to talk about the oak trees. These are coast live oaks that we have growing here, which are common in California in regards to wine stores. So part of your exhibit is amphora, right? Yeah. So, an amphora, correct me if I’m wrong, here is a big clay vessel used to store wine, or oil, or other liquids. And that’s something that the Romans used, right? And Greeks and Egyptians. So it was used widely, these clay vessels, to store their wine. But it was a little heavy, especially if you’re trying to move that wine. It’s really heavy.

And then when, I guess the Romans were invading other countries, they found from the Gauls that they could use a wooden barrel instead of these clay vessels, and that was much lighter. So they would make these wooden barrels out of white oaks. So we don’t have this particular species here in California, we have other kinds of oaks, but they used a white oak for these barrels, and then they were much easier to carry, or to store or whatever. They could handle them much more easily … they could take them on a ship or whatever … than they could the clay vessels. So in that country they used white oak, and then there’s a white oak in this country too that is used for these barrels, a different species of white oak.

And one thing about storing them in the oak barrels is a lot of the flavor. You think of of what kind of flavor that wine has, it comes actually from the oak, and sometimes they actually throw chips in. If they’re using steel barrels, they still throw some chips in there to give it a little bit of flavor.

Okay, I have one more story I’m going to tell and we’ll call it a day. I’m going to talk about body parts and sex toys. so if that offends you, feel free to peel off. And we’re going to go down here and talk about the rye.

So this grass is called rye. There are many different species of rye. Again, we’re in the California section, so this is a California native rye, and all the ryes get a fungus called ergot. So they derive ergotamine from ergot. It’s used to treat migraine headaches, and it is somewhat effective, although they have fancier drugs nowadays. Ergot has been around for centuries, and this is one of those plants if you take a little bit, maybe you’ll get high. And if you take a lot, maybe you’re going to die.

So there are a couple of different stories about it. One is the Salem witch trials, and they think part of what made these women were acting crazy who were on trial, and they were dancing and saying crazy things. And some people think that it was the wet winter that caused a lot of fungus to grow on the grasses, and they actually were sick from the ergot and the grasses. But also, the judges were eating these same things, and maybe they weren’t quite thinking straight either. So that whole Salem witch trial may have something to do with the grasses and the fungus that was growing on the grasses.

There’s another story about this ergot. It’s effective for stopping bleeding, so the wise women of ancient times would commonly use it after childbirth because sometimes women start bleeding out after childbirth, and if they use this drug, they could stop the bleeding and save the women.

So that worked pretty well, but they also used it to get high. But the thing about ergot is that if you eat too much of it, you get sick. So these women would put a little bit of Ergot on their magic wand and apply it to their mucus membranes, to their vaginal mucosa. And that way they could get high without getting sick. But the other thing is that the doctors didn’t like the idea that these women had this drug and they were able to use it so effectively, and they started thinking, oh, these women are terrible people. So they hid what they were doing. They tied a little bit of broom straw to one end of it, and pretended that it was just a broom. And so that doesn’t have anything to do with the ergot.

And then also a very common hallucination on ergot is flying, so that’s one of the reason we think of witches as flying. And of course they’re called witches, which is because all of these men hated these powerful women. So that’s much of the story about ergot. There’s much more to to tell about it. One thing is if you take too much of it … what it does is it constricts blood vessels. That’s how it keeps you from bleeding. But if you get too much of it, your hands and feet will simply fall off, because they don’t have the circulation. So you do have to be really careful about the dose. Okay, so that’s my last plant of my talk. I hope people enjoyed it.