Saturday, August 1, 2009

Fairy Smoke: The Worlds of Monotropa uniflora

Photo by Darcey Blue French

Ghost Plant. Indian Pipe. Fairy Smoke.

The names suggest the strange, otherworldly nature of Monotropa uniflora, the white, non-chlorophyl producing parasitic plant that grows in the damp of the forest floor.

I began to know Monotropa this June on a walk down the River Road. Finding the ghostly plant by the side of the road, I got down on my knees to inspect it more closely. The flowers smelled of pickling vinegar. The stem seemed a tunnel to the world beneath the forest floor.

I felt my breath slow and deepen and a cool, mild euphoria come in through my chest and move up and down along my spine, radiating throughout my body. I smelled and felt rich, moist forest soils.

The plant told me to put one of his flowers in my mouth. I chewed on it for several minutes, and felt a tingling in my mouth. I spit it out and stood up slowly.

I was very clearly in another state of consciousness. I was acutely aware of the forest around me -- especially of the vast interwoven network of roots beneath the surface, and the communication across them.

I began walking down the road, deeply grateful for the worlds Monotropa was opening to me.

About fifteen minutes later I became very hot and began sweating profusely.

It occurred to me that I knew next to nothing about the flowers of this plant and that I might have poisioned myself.

And I began to imagine my death I knew that I had a four or five mile walk home down roads that don't see much traffic. I imagined collapsing and rolling down the bank and then rotting into the forest floor, becoming food for the life around me. And I felt completely at peace with that possibility.

And at the same time, I was acutely aware of work I wanted to do in the world, of experiences I wanted to have. So I began negotiating with Monotropa, saying that I wanted to go back into the world to be a voice for the forest. And Monotropa listened.

I rounded the final bend past the pond where Jonathan was tending a fire. I told him "I either just ate a potent psychoactive plant or a potent toxin." He knew me well enough to just nod.

Back up at the house, still feeling very much under the influence of the plant, I began a frantic google search for information about Monotropa toxicity.

Was I poisoned?

There is a warning of unknown origin repeated verbatim in many articles about Monotropa online -- "Safety undetermined; possibly toxic -- contains several glycosides."

However, I've been unable to come across any documented cases of human or animal poisonings from ingesting Monotropa -- except a bizzarre nineteenth century account of a woman getting sick from eating honey made by bees that pollenated Monotropa flowers.

As best I can tell the concerns come from the known toxicity of Azaleas and Rhodedendrons, Monotropa's closests relatives. And while this suggests a certain prudence is in order, it seems a bit much to extrapolate that Monotropa is cardiotoxic based on its taxonomy.

The one actual account of eating the flowers that I eventually came across was quite different from my own experience. Ryan Drum wrote simply "I ate an ounce or more of the young flowers and stalks and was slightly nauseous. I did not want to eat it again. "

Plants do not always work the same way for different people in different places in different times. I think that under certain circumstances, Monotropa can become potently psychotropic.

Within a few hours of being placed in 100 proof vodka, Monotropa turns the clear liquid a deep, almost black blue, strangely reminiscent of the color of a bruised Psyolcibe cubenis mushroom -- could this be a signature for entheogenic actions? Ryan Drum notes that "consumption of 15 ml or more of Monotropa tincture can bring deep sleep and ultra vivid dreams, often bizarre, frequently erotic."

My intuition is that Monotropa was moving me through a particular intitiation -- facing death and embracing its beauty. No healer can promote life without an intimate relationship with death.

I believe the plant has played this role for many in North America over the millennia. And the need for this role is one of the reasons Monotropa has become so abundant this summer.

There are other gifts Monotropa is here to bring us as well.

David Winston notes that Monotropa uniflora is a diaphoretic especially well suited to fevers with pain (and from my experience of sweating profusely shortly after eating the flowers it seems it is an especially powerful diaphoretic) -- this suggests its use in illnesses from malaria to West Nile virus to serious influenza infections. He also notes its antispasmodic and anticonvulsant properties.

But it is the anodyne and sedative properties Winston notes are among its most unique and amazing gifts.

The plant itself resembles a spinal cord and a brain stem, suggesting its affinify for the nervous system.

Tommy Priester describes Monotropa as a plant that takes your pain and puts it beside you. You remain aware of the pain but you no longer feel it. He speaks of a friend able to calmly watch surgery performed on his own foot after taking Monotropa tincture.

I speculate that Monotropa may act on the sensory gating channels, preventing the sensation of pain from reaching the neocortex while still allowing non-sensory pain signals to reach the brain.

Monotropa also shows great potential as a sedative for people having dissociative or psychotic episodes. Ryan Drum tells a story of using the plant for this purpose:

"A very agitated distraught large young man came by at dawn one day. He was gesticulating wildly, speaking very loudly, rapidly, angrily, rather disjointedly and a bit menacing. ALIENS WERE IMPLICATED, threats, large weapons, revenge, cleaning up the place (of undesirable neighbors) plus grossly inflated assumptions of personal grandeur. Charming.

"He claimed not to have slept for at least three days and nights and that his head was boiling with unsolicited thoughts and images. His history included perennial meanness and medicated behaviour. I diagnosed sleep deprivation, dehydration, too much recreational medication, and no real food for many days, extreme anger, social isolation, and a desperate attempt to stop his delirium. Finally, during the first break in his rapid rambling 3-hr monologue, I asked him what he wanted from me. Besides potential sanctuary, he wanted herbal help to sleep and start thinking clearly. At that time I did not know he had been menacing neighbors and family. I told him I would give him a potion to do both, the strongest medicine I had. If it did not work in 4 hours or less, it wouldn't work for him. I gave him 2 ounces of a mixed tincture of Monotropa and Sea Blush Roots (an abundant annual marine valerian, Plectritis congesta) which he drank at once. Shortly after he left me, he napped, made circumstantial peace with his family, and voluntarily boarded the law enforcement plane for his involuntary journey to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation"

This could conceivably be the result of action on the senory gating channels or the neocortex as well. People having psychotic episodes often project meaning onto everything around them, possibly indicating an overly stimulated neocortex. Reducing the sensory stimuli flowing to the neocortex may help to sedate someone in this kind of situation. Anemone pulsitilla and Anemone tuberosa seem to work in this way.


Over the past few months, a half dozen other herbalists have told me they have been discovering a new fascination with Monotropa. And this year this frequently rare plant seems more abundant than ever.

I don't believe that Gaia makes mistakes.

The rains this summer offer a partial explanation.

But I am also noticing that a lot of plants appear a short while before their medicine is greatly needed.

I don't know if there are energetic patterns that signal the coming of mass trauma -- but something tells me that the forest is bringing us this plant right now because we will need its medicine soon. We would do well to begin exploring the medicine of Monotropa more deeply.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How much can be injested to feel the effects? I would also love to know how to make the tincture. Great article by the way!