Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Grand Canyon Part 3: High Times

IMG_7535As the canyon walls rose, the floor of Tuckup became more shaded, and greener, bigger plants began to appear. Oaks soon reappeared alongside the wash, but now they were Shrub Live Oak, Quercus turbinella, bearing tough, persistent, holly-like leaves, and growing into small trees. Soon another tree appeared, one that I didn’t recognize, with roundish leaves, but the pea-like seed pods (pic left) told me it was part of the Pea family, Fabaceae. It’s Western Redbud, Cercis occidentalis, which is widespread in California, but has only a IMG_7542limited and disjoint range in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona. Indians of California traditionally used the flexible twigs of this shree to weave baskets, and derived a red dye from its bark. Photos of the flowers look stunning; I’d like to see it in bloom sometime.

Side Note: It’s funny, when I posted about Pea family trees down in Mexico last Spring I mused about how relatively uncommon they seemed to be closer to home. Since then I’ve encountered 2 “new” trees, Western Redbud and New Mexican Locust, both in or by the Grand Canyon, both members of the Pea family.

IMG_7694 As the canyon grew deeper, the sandy, gravelly floor grew damper, and we kept an eye out for waterpockets. Leafier things began to appear, some- surprisingly- still blooming in October, such as Hooker’s Evening Primrose (pic right). Finally real water pockets and dripping springs started to pop up, the result of the recent rains, and not long after we came to a series of pockets that looked slightly more permanent, as evidenced by the Cattails growing out of them.

I’ve seen Common Cattail, Typha latifolia, thousands of times, all over North America, but don’t ever think I’d ever before chanced upon them releasing their seeds to the breeze, as these were Thursday afternoon.

Cattails have been around for a long time, and are obviously related to grasses, with which they parted ways over 100 million years ago. Unlike grasses, they never adapted to semi-arid conditions, and are always found in or by water. You might guess that they’re close cousins of Rushes or Sedges, but they’re actually more closely-related to Bromeliads, which we looked at last year down in Costa Rica.* Cattails are Wind-Wind, as in wind-pollinated with (obviously) wind-dispersed seeds and are monoecious (same plant bearing both male and female flowers) but also spread by rhizomes (root-cloning) with dense stands aggressively crowding other plants out of waterpockets and mudholes. Later in the trip we’d come across depressions in expanses of open slickrock in which enough soil and water had accumulated to support such stands.

*Man, it is like I have a post for everything.

But there was one recurring shrub- IMG_7531more of a ground-cover really (pic left)- growing in the sandy canyon bottom that I didn’t recognize. Its broad, pointed leaves were slightly asymmetrical, in that the base of one side was anchored to the stem slightly lower than the other. On many of the plants, spiky green racquetball-sized “fruit” appeared, in some cases dried, browned and split open, revealing a multitude of little seeds inside. Finally we stumbled across a blooming patch, and our mystery canyon ground-cover revealed herself in all her Georgia O’Keefe splendor as Sacred Datura, Datura wrightii.

IMG_7571 There are ~9 species of Datura across Eurasia and North America. The common species on the East Coast is Datura stramonium, commonly known as Jimsonweed. D. wrightii is restricted to the Western US and Mexico, though its range has been extended both as a weed and ornamental.

Datura belongs to Solanaceae, the Potato family, which includes, in addition to Potatoes (200+ wild species!), Belladonna, Chilis, Tomato, Eggplant and Tobacco. Solanaceae members typically share a diploid chromosome count of 24* (n=12) but the more relevant common characteristic is the presence of a series of alkaloids known as the tropane** alkaloids, a number of which have notable and powerful effects on the human body.

*The common Potato you buy at the supermarket, Solanum tuberosum, is tetraploid, with 48 chromosomes, but wild potatoes can be diploid, triploid, tetraploid, pentaploid or even hexaploid. Still others are diploid, but with a haploid number of 13 (n=13), so they have 26 chromosomes.

**Derived from Atropa, the genus of Belladonna.

Flower Fruit The classic example of a tropane alkaloid is of course nicotine. Another, more benign* example with which you’re certainly familiar is capsaicin, the “burning” ingredient in chili peppers.

*Well, usually benign. It’s also the active ingredient in pepper spray. BTW, here’s a fascinating little nugget I stumbled across in researching this post: birds are immune to capsaicin. So if you get attacked by a wild ostrich and all you have for defense is a can of pepper spray, man you are SOL.

Sacred Datura, like Jimsonweed, has long been IMG_7532known for its hallucinogenic effects, which are caused by- you guessed it- tropane alkaloids. Later in the trip, I’d learn a bit about the pharmacological effects of Datura from Guardian Angel Lou (whom we will meet in the final installment of this series) and- just in case- pocketed* one of the “thorn-apples” on the hike back out to facilitate any possible “experiments”. After returning home and researching the heck out of this plant, I will never, ever screw with it.

*Figuratively. I actually very carefully wrapped it in plastic and placed it in my pack. Handling these things is tricky.

Tangent: And yes, before I knew more about it, I did flirt with the idea of experimenting with it. Though I experimented with marijuana in college, I never tried any kind of hallucinogen, and although I have no desire to suddenly become a middle-aged druggie, it’s one of those Life Experiences I mildly regret having missed out on.

Nested Tangent: “Experiment”? Did I actually say “experiment”? Oh for crying out loud- I smoked it, OK? I smoked it and enjoyed it, like every college student alive in the 1980s who wasn’t ROTC or attended Oral Roberts University or BYU. And what’s more, I’d probably smoke it again today, if… I hung out with people who had any. Seriously, I almost never encounter it in my social circles, and though smoking dope was fun, it was never so fun that I’d actually go out of my way to seek it out. For me marijuana was kind of like the TV show Ugly Betty is for me today. When I come across it I watch it and generally enjoy it*, but not so much that I try to record it or figure out when it’s on next or anything. Anyway, that’s how I feel about pot. (Though if I lived in California, I’d vote for Prop 19.)

*Although this may be because I’ve always kind of had a thing for Vanessa Williams. OK so I guess I’d pick watching Ugly Betty over smoking reefer. Unfortunately I checked for this post and found out the series ended this Spring. Guess I should have tuned in more often.

But for a moment I succumbed to the politically-correct moniker of “experiment”. What’s up with that? We don’t say we “experimented” with skydiving or witchcraft*. But there’s like this limited range of human vices for which we somehow try to excuse ourselves for having partaken in by calling them “experiments.” It’s like we amble along, living our day-to-day, regular-joe lives, but when it comes to drugs or illicit sex, suddenly everyone’s like this Big-Time Scientist, you know, not actually enjoying it or anything, but “experimenting” for the sake of scientific enlightenment or whatever…

*We use “dabble” for that one…

Most of my college-era maryjane experimentation was conducted in the company of my college roommate- let’s call him “Dan”- who enjoyed the stuff just slightly more than I did, as evidenced by his actually getting a hold of some, which I could never be bothered to do.

All About Hallucinogenic Drugs

There are 3 main types of hallucinogens. Psychadelics, which include LSD mescaline, and peyote are what most people think of when they think “hallucinogenic drug.” These drugs alter the perception of received sensory inputs- visual, audio or otherwise. The second category are disassociatives, which include things like PCP and the plant Salvia dinorum. These drugs act to partially or fully block the input of one or more senses.

Datura belongs to the 3rd type, called deliriants, or anticholinergics, IMG_7575which act by blocking acetylcholine, one of a number of neurotransmitters* controlling many subconscious functions, and the primary (only?) neurotransmitter controlling voluntary muscle function outside of the brain and spinal chord. Deliriants are sometimes called “true hallucinogens” in that they can lead to complete, realistic full-on hallucinations (i.e. conversation with an imaginary person) as opposed to the “modified-reality” type hallucinations induced by psychedelics. Deliriants have generally been the least recreationally popular of the 3 types due to their many negative side effects.

*I talked about neurotransmitters in this post, though I didn’t cover acetylcholine.

The specific alkaloids at work in D. wrightii are atropine, scopolamine and hydrocyamine. Scopolamine you’re probably already familiar with; it’s the stuff the eye doctor drops in your eyes to dilate your pupils, and unsurprisingly, Datura has notable effects on vision.

IMG_7568 Many, many instances of Datura use have lead to hospitalization or even death. In one scenario, the delirium sets off a panic which is exacerbated by partial or complete vision loss*, leading to injury through the ensuing, very literal, blind panic. Other negative effects can include bizarre or violent behavior, prolonged aversion to bright light, hypertension, amnesia and fever of up to 110F.

*Even following a “positive” use experience, at least one user reported difficulty reading for nearly 2 weeks following.

One of the most dangerous aspects of Datura is the range of toxicity among individual plants, the concentrations of toxicity in various parts of the plant and even the range of toxicity in the same plant, in the same parts, at different times, resulting in toxicity typically ranging by a factor of five.

So why try it? When it does work, and doesn’t put you in the hospital or kill you, IMG_7572it supposedly produces some unique effects, particularly some visually. People, and other living things are reported to appear enhanced, or clearer visually, with almost a “glow” about them in some cases. The visual difference between living and non-living things is allegedly stronger than with “straight” vision. And conversely, manmade things- structures, power lines, etc.- are reported to seem much uglier than normally.

The “classic” mode of preparation is to brew a tea from the seeds. Unfortunately this seems to be the method likeliest to put you in the hospital (or the morgue.) The most common alternate method is to brew a tea from the roots, but supposedly this is so mild as to produce no effect at all. An alternative, (claimed) middle-of-the-road approach is to smoke the flowers, releasing the alkaloids from the pollen. Allegedly, the sweeter-smelling the flower (vaguely of jasmine) the readier it is to be smoked.

It’s unlikely at this stage of my life that I’ll ever getIMG_7569 around to trying an honest-to-goodness hallucinogen. Responsibilities, fatherhood and the general risk-aversion that comes with middle age conspire to discourage me from ingesting any new potent chemical agents. But I’ll always wonder about the experience of chemical hallucinogens/ deleriants. The brain is complex hodgepodge of chemical circuitry. If an agent somehow altered- temporarily, safely- some aspect of that circuitry, could we sense, see or know things we couldn’t know otherwise?

Tangent: Maybe, though I suspect not. When “Dan” and I smoked pot, we used to have all these Amazing Incredible Ideas, which we were sure would Fundamentally Change The World, if only… if only… if only we could remember them the next morning. So one time we got high with pen and paper in hand and wrote down several of our Amazing Incredible Ideas, which in the light of the following day turned out largely to be alternate ways to order pizza or prepare ramen noodles.

Nested Tangent: “Dan” also once surreptitiously tape-recorded us, in hopes of accomplishing the same. Of course no big ideas were captured, but the resulting tape was incredibly funny*, and we listened to it many, many times. “Dan” entitled the cassette case, “We’re Really High” and kept it on his shelf of cassettes alongside tapes of Pink Floyd, The Who, etc. Sadly, “Dan”- always braver in word than in deed- later destroyed the tape, afraid that his mother would come across it in the course of one of his dorm-related moves.

*After 30 minutes or so of free-ranging dialogue, the tape ran out to the sound of- I am not making this up- my snoring.

Arizona Steve and I continued down-canyon until we reached the IMG_7547 junction with Cottonwood Canyon, joining from the West. Shortly before the junction we passed the bottom of the Redwall Formation and entered the Muav Limestone, another sea-bottom-deposit layer, but further off-shore, laid down some ~515 million years ago. Muav tends toward a grayish color, whitened where its been smoothed over by water flows. The band of Muav is much thicker/deeper toward the Western end of the Grand Canyon (where we were) than in the Eastern reaches. At the junction were several pools full of crystal-clear water, one trickling into the next through smooth shallow grooves in the white stone. We pumped water, ate and rolled out our bags on narrow ledges above the pools, watching shooting stars until we were lulled to sleep by the soft trickle of the water.

Note About Sources: Western Redbud range info came from the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service site. Cattail info came from David Williams’ A Naturalist’s Guide to Canyon Country and Wikipedia. Much of the basic info around anticholinergics came from Wikipedia, but far and away the most informative and fascinating source for this post was this post/article on the absolutely fascinating and well-written (if somewhat unconventional) blog/webzine Luminous Numinous.


El Gaucho said...

I've enjoyed your blog immensely for many months now and feel compelled to finally leave a comment. Every entry leaves me feeling more knowledgeable, (somehow) slightly cooler, and inspired to be inquisitive about the natural world around me. Thanks for the awesome posts and keep it up!

KanyonKris said...

Yeah, you're right, not smart to mess with that plant.

Around the campfire one of the hikers in the group told about his experience with LSD. He went out into the hills and took it. He said it was one of the most profound experiences of his life. The drug allowed him to see himself as someone else might see him. It revealed flaws and strengths he wasn't aware of and gave him a more objective view of himself. And it wasn't so much a hallucinogenic experience as an almost out of body one. I found his account fascinating.

KanyonKris said...

I came across this article today on a similar theme. The quoted research is interesting, too bad it's just used as a premise for a fiction novel. The comments give me hope that there are still plenty of people with critical thinking skills.

KanyonKris said...

Oh, yeah, the link:

Watcher said...

El Gaucho- Glad you enjoy it, and thanks for the kind words. I really appreciate it.

KKris- Yeah, stories like your friend's are the kind that make me wistful to have missed the experience. Ah well- I'll probably add it to my list of things to do in my next life. Also thanks for the link.

BTW- I have 2 more parts planned to this series, but probably won't be up till after the weekend. Getting squeezed on this work/travel week...

Enel said...

"I smoked it and enjoyed it, like every college student alive in the 1980s who wasn’t ROTC or attended Oral Roberts University or BYU."

Actually, Princeton review routinely rates my school Wheaton College just below BYU in the "Stone Cold Sober" section.

I haven't tried any mind altering chemicals besides caffeine, but if I ever did, it would be a hallucinogen for sure.

Acetylcholine is the only neurotransmitter for voluntary muscle. The cool thing is that it does not stimulate (but may regulate) contraction of smooth muscle or cardiac muscle. This is a good thing because using derivatives of some of these wonderful plants, anesthesia can paralyze a patient and make things easy on a surgeon without stopping their heart or causing their blood pressure to drop because the smooth muscle in the walls of the vessels is also paralyzed.

Pretty handy trick..look up curare for more background. It needs a post (if you haven't already).

I absolutely, positively would not mess with any cholinergic or alkaloid plants.

Watcher said...

Enel- In fact I'd seen a pic of you in your blog previously in a WC T-shirt, assumed you were an alum, and almost included Wheaton in the post for your benefit!

rabidrunner said...

A few things:

1) The largest pot plant I've seen (in person anyway) was at a BYU approved apartment, grown by none other than a student of The BYU. There was loads of dope at The BYU -- in the 80s anyway, can't say I have an understanding of The BYU's current pot situation.

2) This Datura plant reminds me of a spastic moon flower I have growing in one of my flower beds. It blooms only at night, has a very distinct smell, and cannot be killed. (Resilient little bugger.) Similar? (Not that I expect you to answer that -- I 'spose I can do my own research.)

3) Have you heard of Tori Amos? She writes some of the strangest songs. Her lyrics are way-LSD-out-there. Anyway, she has a tune called Datura. Until your post, I had no idea what that song was all about. Now I get it! A metaphor for things that could go really well or really, really bad. Thanks!

(Oh, and you can find the lyrics here if you're interested.

Sindy said...

A bit off topic Watcher but did you ever find the petroglyph's at Landhill in Santa Clara? I have hiked that area many times and if you start off the right way they are quite easy to find.

Let me know if you are still looking for the petroglyph's and I can give you full directions.


Watcher said...

Rabid- OK, well between you and Enel I have been thoroughly schooled. BYU is apparently not the bastion of cannabis-teetotalitarianism I assumed, but rather a veritable pot farm in academic clothing. Got it. I can't answer your mystery flower question, but advise against brewing a tea from the seeds as part of your research. Yes, I've heard of Tori Amos, but haven't followed her stuff. Thanks for the link to the (fascinating) lyrics, but more importantly, thanks for the link to the site! The whole meaning of song lyrics thing has been a embarrassing thorn in my side for many years.

Sindy- Thanks, I'll email you.