Lichen & Psychoactives

Psychedelic compounds can be found throughout a range of different groups of flora. With this thought in mind it is surprising to think that so few of these plants are actually discussed or experienced amongst drug circles within the Western World. It doesn’t stop at plants either, what with certain fungi and animals also producing mind bending chemicals. For instance, one quick dabble with the process known as  ‘doing Kermit’ can convert huge chunks of one’s time & energy  into’ toadishness’. Having said this, plants and fungi are the foremost natural industries within this particular biochemical venture, and it is upon these types of organism that I will focus here.

It is generally considered that plants and fungi have two evolutionary strategies to choose from; either give a benefit to those that try to eat you, or instead, try to fend them off with spikes, stings or latent toxins within the cells that poison aggressors internally. The pleasant eating strategy allies itself most notably to the agricultural development of humans. ‘Taste nice and prosper’ is the maxim here, and certain species have conquered the world in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without humans facilitating the action. Zea mays (Maize), Solanum tubersum (Potato) and Malus domestica (Apple) being the most notable achievers here. The second evolutionary tragedy of ‘don’t touch me or I will defend myself and hurt you in the process’, is less agreeable than the previous one discussed, but still it is a very profitable. Just look at the way Pteridium aquilinum (Bracken) poisons the soil as it grows, dominating vast patches of Great British wood and scrubland as it endures. More pertinently just think of the way numerous plants in the UK try to fend you off with barbs and resistive incisions.

Now, it is my thought that the psychoactive plants and fungi fall into a third, undisclosed, category that borrows from both of the two groups previously mentioned. This thought can be mirrored in the polarisation of public opinions on the issue.  On the one hand there are opinions that state that psychoactives are inherently dangerous  and are to be controlled and avoided (don’t touch me or I will poison you), or conversely the increasingly more logical opinion that, if used in the correct manner, psychoactives can aid people in numerous ways. So, in short, substances, from chocolate to opium, contain compounds that may have started off, in evolutionary terms, as defensive in nature. It takes the evolution of a primate (in this case ourselves) capable of understanding & enjoying allegories to come along and shift the boundaries of what constitutes a poisoning and what constitutes a beneficial expedition.

The subject of psychoactive fungi is most commonly centred on Amanita and Psilocybin. Both utilise different biochemistry to produce their own particular psychoactive compounds, and have been analysed scientifically and socially in volumes of literature. Yet there are numerous other species of fungi that contain psychoactive compounds. One of the most intriguing of the ‘apocryphal’ species is  part of a symbiotic lichen called Parmoteema menyamyaense or ‘Rock Blooms’, as they as they found growing on rocks in the Arctic. Lichen are a symbiotic relationship between a fungi and another, autotrophic (‘self-feeder’), organism – usually a cyanobacetria or an algae.  A trip report from a difficult to obtain article ‘’Stoned on Stones’’ on the Vice blog makes for an interesting subjective report. It is, however, one of the only examples of journalism reflecting the existence of this new psychoactive :

“It was the most intense hallucinogenic experience that I’ve ever had, and I’ve done every trip there is,” says Icelandic writer Smari Einarsson. “DMT, peyote…you name it. We have these magic mushrooms here that grow wild. I’ve eaten those more times than I can count. They cannot even come close to the effect of these rocks.” Volcanic rocks, which cover the Icelandic landscape, have been getting local kids high for five years now, ever since a local artist did a performance piece called Rock Soup. Jon Sigmundson’s art piece was meant to make a commentary on Icelanders’ high standard of living, which he believes relies on taking for granted third-world suffering. He made rock soup, he said in a written statement, to “try and live on nothing.” The serendipitous discovery he made is that these rocks get you fuggin’ wasted. It is actually the lichen that lives on the rocks that gets you off. You take a few stones, boil them in a pot of water, strain it all through a colander, and drink it down like tea. Some people add ginger and honey, but it has a nice taste undiluted. It’s very earthy. People, who have “taken stones,” as it’s called, share strikingly similar stories. “Trolls,” says a young Icelandic girl who was interviewed at local Reykjavik bar Sirkus.She’ll only give her first name, which is Essa. “Every time we do stones, we see the same group of trolls. They are no unkind, but they aren’t overly friendly either,” she says. “Mostly what they do is advise you. You always come away from a stones trip with a question that you had on your mind answered. You also have the most vivid colours ever. It’s like living in Fantasia!”

Alex Shulgin also references psychoactive lichen, in PiKAL (1991), as a source of synthetic tetrahydrocannabinol. Shulgin, however, is talking about a different species of lichen to the one referenced in ‘Stoned on Stones’. Shulgin, In this case, is referring to lichen known as Evernia prunastri. The different psychoactive effects of Parmoteema menyamyaense and Evernia prunastri would be detectable upon reflection after reading both the quoted trip report above and Shulgin’s reference to THC within PiKAL. THC is not generally known for giving experiences deeper than DMT or peyote, so a misalignment must be present here between the biochemistry of the two species. There is also a reference to an ‘unidentified lichen’ located around the south-western US in a book ‘By the Prophet of the Earth: Ethanobotany of the Pima’’ by L.S.M Curtin (1984), however, that location is a sizable distance away from the Arctic Circle. This means that the lichen mentioned by Curtin is more likely to be the lichen Shulgin alludes to in PiHKAL, over the one referenced in the ‘Stoned on Stones’ article. It will be interesting to find out exactly how many psychoactive lichen species there are out there, clinging to desolate rocks in windswept territories. It does prove one point however; that the more you look at psychoactive compounds the more nature provides a new avenue for investigation. It is humbling to be taught more about the frontiers of one’s ignorance via symbiotic lichen.

The existence of a psychoactive compound within Parmoteema menyamyaense, and numerous other lichen species, is another example of how certain chemicals can have emergent or secondary effects if prepared correctly. Such levels of complexity only hint at the vastness of the threads with which nature weaves its tapestry. If the report is to be given some credit then there is a deeply profound psychedelic awaiting study, within the northern hemisphere, which can only provide us with more information on the subject of psychoactives as a whole.

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I would like to talk to you, if I may, about crytpozoology. The sharper eyed amongst you will have already realised that I have committed my first error. Cryptozoology is not a recognised discipline within science; subsequently this means that one cannot study to become an ‘ologist’ of this subject in any sense. But enough about the striated nature of science for now, just digest that thought as we proceed.

Cryptozoology can be defined as the study and search for ‘hidden animals’. This is the more measured approach to the word. If we try the more ‘wide-eyed’ interpretation, it is defined additionally as the study of hidden animals, especially legendary ones. Myths aside, cryptozoology is fascinating, dubious at times, but mostly fascinating.  To wade deeper into the subject uncovers the corollary to the words definition; we discover that the organisms at study (cryptids) can be broken down into two categories. The first group are related to the more apocryphal additional sentence, I mentioned earlier, pertaining to myths and legends. Here dwells, in shadowy menace, such local cryptids as The Beast of Bodmin, Morgawr the sea serpent, which has been seen numerous times along the southern Cornish coast, from Land’s End to Falmouth Bay and finally the Mawnan Owlman, which was last spotted in 1995.

The second category, more rationally, deals with unrecorded species of animal. For example, in the Mekong Delta of southern Vietnam, between 1997 and 2007, 1,068 new species of fauna was discovered by zoologists. All of them, to a frog, were cryptids until the second before they were captured by scientists. Such influx of zoological data can be used to offset the crushing blow of losing the Javan Rhino, now extinct except for a few specimens in zoos, due to the East’s obsession with traditional Chinese medicines.

However, the two categories of cryptids can be thought of as overlapping ‘magisteria’, but one must be tentative when putting forward examples of cryptids that are likely to exist in the real world. One sure footed and interesting example, from history, is the Mountain Gorilla. For centuries legends were abound with talk of populations of large hairy hominids inhabiting the mountains of Central Africa. Reality caught up with imagination, when in 1902, two large hairy hominids were shot by Captain Robert von Beringe.From here onwards we lost the ape-men of Central Africa and inherited the Mountain Gorilla. It’s down to you, reader, to decide whether that deal was a positive one for mankind in the long run.

As the next great extinction on Earth is on the horizon, it is now more than ever that we need cryptids. I have heard it said that there are no more monsters left to discover. This is a trifle brusque in my eyes, especially when you consider our watery brothers the Sperm Whale. This 60 foot creature is the largest known toothed organism on the planet .The Sperm Whales diet consists, mainly, of massive quantities of enormous squid. Deep sea squid size estimation is a tricky pursuit, as we find scant evidence of their existence, except from the stomachs of Sperm Whales, and the scars of the struggle upon their skin. Such scars are caused by the suckers on the squids tentacles, and can be used as a guide for squid size estimation. A four inch diameter sucker scar would indicate that the whale had tussled with a squid around 35 feet in length, well within the range for the known species of big squid – the Giant Squid and the Colossal Squid. Some Sperm Whales have been recorded sporting scars with a diameter of 18 inches. This would indicate that the whale had tackled a squid of around 500 foot in length!  This size of invertebrate, in my opinion, would definitely classify as a monster.

One is comfortable with the usefulness of cryptozoology as it has its basis in reality, which most other ‘paranormal’ pursuits cannot boast. The UFO culture is obsessed with paranoid conspiracies, where populations are being manipulated by unseen yet purposeful hands. This means UFO culture is awash with egotism and a rather bland form of rebellion. The egotism stems from the manifestation of paranoid revelations which insist that they have knowledge that no other primate could know. The bland rebellion forms in the back draft of emotions that tag along when you perceive that you are part of the counter-culture (an oxymoron in itself).

The next major form of paranormal investigation involves the idea of ghosts and spirits. This concept of visitations from beyond the grave raises far more questions than it solves, especially relating to physics, solipsism and anthropomorphism. If we are to believe in ghosts and UFO conspiracies, at the current level of understanding, we would be doing ourselves an injustice. The injustice is one of ignorance, as if these two fields of belief did turn out to be correct, then they would detract from the beauty of our current understanding of the natural order. Cryptozoology, on the other hand, can only add to this beauty of knowledge. If you don’t believe me just visit the Mekong Delta, pass a specimen net through a bush or thicket, and step into the future.

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BZ, Deliriants & Batman

‘……You know how it is: you’re out at night looking for kicks and somebody’s passing around a weaponized hallucinogen’. This line from the 2005 film Batman Begins, as with most Hollywood creations, manages to detach its words from its action by suspending the willingness to listen to the quiet voice of reason. As in the genesis of the character Dr Jonathon Crane, or his alter ego the ‘Scarecrow’, within Batman Begins, Dr Crane eventually becomes the employer of such a thing as a ‘weaponized hallucinogen’.  We are led to believe (by subtle cinematography) that such a potent psychoactive is derived from a ‘blue flowering plant’. Within Batman Begins this toxin can be administered in aerosol form and has a near instantaneous onset. A simple coincidence or a slip of the imagination perhaps, but a blue perennial flowering plant with powerful psychoactive properties hints strongly to the prime suspect in this case being Salvia divinorum. Yet what could be a less useful procedure for the procurement of the psychoactive effects of Salvia than a liquid based spray? Why not have the Scarecrow wave a picture of Salvia at his victims and be done with it? Salvia is a plant best taken chewed as a quid or brewed into a tea if fresh, or smoked at a high temperature if prepared dry. One thing in the Scarecrows favour, however, is that salvinorum A, the active ingredient within Salvia, is the most potent naturally occurring hallucinogen known to science, with an active dose being as low as 200 mcgs (micrograms).

So what chemical compound could be the guilty suspect for Scarecrow’s ‘fear gas’? I think any decent ethno-botanist would immediately look to that rather infamous family of plants known as Solanaceae. Within its ranks, amongst the potatoes, tomatoes, bell & chilli peppers, sits a selection of fauna straight of the witches herb rack; Datura, Belladonna, Mandragoria, Hyoscyamus (Henbane) and Brugmansia (Angel’s Trumpet). Deliriants, as in discussion here, could make a very promising weapons-grade hallucinogen, if the biochemical research is pushed in the appropriate direction. Looking back through military history it is possible t o find reference to Hannibal’s army using Belladonna as a weapon against their enemies in 184 BC (1) .Even more famously, in 1672, the Bishop of Munster used Belladonna  laced ‘explosive and incendiary devices’ in his attempt to take the city of Groningen.

In short, what all of these members of Solanaceae have in common is a natural disposition to produce an alkaloid know as atropine as a defensive biochemical compound. Atropine is known as a competitive antagonist of the acetylcholine receptors. This translates into meaning that the compound will compete with the neurotransmitter acetylcholine for receptor sites, and therefore block acethylcholine’s natural effects. These natural effects include (amongst a vast array) muscle excitation, learning, memory functions and secretion production (such as saliva and sweat). An interesting quirk of atropine biochemistry is that it is a known, natural antidote to the effects of muscarine, the psychoactive ingredient of Amanita muscaria. One could almost say that, if the Fly Agaric, or muscarine, is Jesus (2) then the Solanaceae, that produce atropine, are Lucifer.

It was in the late 1940s that the biochemistry of atropine was pushed towards the direction of laboratory based development, in the search for a weapon, by the company Hoffman-La Roche. Akin to a terrible phoenix, in 1951, BZ was born (3). BZ was odourless and could be readily deployed in an aqueous based spray. It had a half life of 3-4 weeks in humid air and could easily survive longer within soil. The dose required to incapacitate half of the subjects it was administered to was 6.2 micrograms per kilogram (mcg/kg). Atropine, to achieve the same 50% incapacitation result, needs a dose of 500 mcg/kilogram. If we reflect on this we become startlingly aware that the devil really does live within the technicalities. At the 6.2 mcg/kg dose the onset of BZ was 35 minutes and the effects lasted between 36 to 96 hours. It becomes clear from these figures that the Scarecrow’s ‘fear gas’ is based on BZ and not Salvia after all.

Subsequently BZ never reached the battlefield for the US army and all the US supplies were destroyed by the 1980s , although reports indicate (4) that Iraq had a large supply of something called ‘Agent 15’ which is a toxin very similar in biochemistry to BZ. Such a deployment, in battle, is the subject explored in the 1990 film Jacob’s ladder, wherein BZ is tested on US army soldiers during the Vietnam War. Why it isn’t tested on the captured Vietcong ‘enemy’ instead isn’t really discussed, however the film does quote the German theologian Eckhart von Hochheim ,of the 13th century, very effectively: ‘The only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won’t let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they’re not punishing you, they’re freeing your soul. So, if you are frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you have made your peace, then devils are really angels, freeing you from earth’. This, as a metaphor for a true, deep psychedelic experience is quite pertinent. It is of my opinion that such a quote doesn’t quite cover the effects of a deliriant, such as BZ, or its weaker cousin atropine, however. That charge must fall to that master of metaphor: the Bard. In the Tempest Act II scene ii, Shakespeare really manages to invoke the feeling of a natural compound induced delirium, where hallucinations and illusions become interwoven with the reality of nature and our subsequent archetypal reservations about the beasts of darkness. Such reservations are given rise by the cerebral manipulation of folk psychology, as it triggers our evolved animate agent detection system, which responds to fragmentary information about the perception of lurking agents within the shadows – hence the linkage between madness, darkness, deliriants and psychoactives.

All the infections that the sun sucks up

From bogs, fens, flats, on Prosper fall, and make him

By inch-meal a disease! His spirits hear me,

And yet I needs must curse. But they’ll nor pinch,

Fright me with urchin-shows, pitch me i’ th’ mire,

Nor lead me, like a firebrand, in the dark

Out of my way, unless he bid ’em; but

For every trifle are they set upon me;

Sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me,

And after bite me; then like hedgehogs which

Lie tumbling in my barefoot way, and mount

Their pricks at my footfall; sometime am I

All wound with adders, who with cloven tongues

Do hiss me into madness.



1)      A History of Chemical and Biological Weapons – Edward M.Spiers (Reaktion Books).

2)      The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross – John M. Allegro (Gnostic research & publishing).

3)      Paradise Lost: The Psycho Agents, CBW Conventions Bulletin. Issue 71. May 2006.

4)      Agent 15 Poisoning

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