Recently I had the pleasure of visiting the Chelsea Physic Garden. It’s a historic garden with a focus on plants with medicinal purposes. I visited it with the Protégé group, myself and the group discussed the garden for a while over coffee and then Sabita asked me to wander around it with the aim of finding a plant with an effect I thought was useful and related to Protege’s recent Kew Gardens project.
I ended up in a chunk of the garden that had various plants from around the world set up in different sections opposite them. The one that stood out to me was the North American display. Plants from Mexico, Canada and the United States. A lot of the plants had signs talking about each plants history and purposes, in the North American section one thing kept coming up that I noticed.
A lot of the plants were used by the indigenous peoples of the areas they were from, and the phrase “used for physical or spiritual healing” came up a lot. I found myself asking what “spiritual healing” meant, when it’s meaning occurred to me.
The Native Americans, Aztecs etc didn’t know about mental health, it was a concept not understood anywhere at the time, so from their perspective when someone was dealing with depression, anxiety or a disorder like bipolar. It was a spiritual problem.
So what kind of plants did the ancient North Americans use to treat these misunderstood mental disorders? Psychoactive ones. The most common was Cannabis. Despite being one of the weakest psychoactive plants, cannabis has been known throughout time for it’s anxiety relieving effects and has a history of being used to induce spiritual trances.
For more extreme “spiritual problems” though, methods such as ceremonies, dances and prayer were used. On top of that more extreme psychoactive substances. Shaman lead psychedelic experiences were widely used for a variety of problems all over North and South America and were even often seen as a rite of passage for young tribe members into adulthood. In some places today this is still common, as in Mexico it is still common for young men in rural areas to take Peyote as a rite of passage.
Interestingly salvia divinorum (a powerful and abundant psychoactive plant in Mexico) was somehow made consumable by ancient Mexicans, when today any attempt to consume the plant usually leads to illness and fever like symptoms. It is said though the trances it induced were extremely intense and revealing. The Native Mexicans also used Psilocybin mushrooms to induce less intense and intimidating trances.
All of this got me thinking “why would these ancient tribes used these plants to treat mental disorders, and continue to do so?” when I realised, because it worked. They saw and felt the results of this substances on mental health and drew the right conclusion of it being an effective treatment in a scientific manner.
So in a day and age where mental health issues seem to be rapidly increasing everywhere, why are we today as a modern society not using these treatments? Truth be told I’m not entirely sure myself. The creator of the twelve step program specifically mentioned that he envisioned his program with LSD involved. To me this is fascinating as I’ve personally seen this program fail, the thought that it fails due to one missing crucial element is both infuriating and exciting to me.
In the future I plan to explore this topic vastly more and to do a lot more historical research on it. The idea that the key to a modern epidemic lays in our past is mysterious and also extremely fascinating to me.
More photos from our visit below.