The entheobotanical community has its own particular culture. Just like gardeners recognise each other because there’s always a bit of soil under our fingernails that we can’t scrub out, so too the entheobots know each other by sight. It might be a tilt of the head or a sparkle in the eye, but there is recognition at play.
There are the cactus and the fungi people and there are also the acacia people. They are risk-takers and plant-conservators at the same time, which makes a potentially volatile mix. This group of highly informed and experienced plant experts could be described as alternative, even marginalised.
By that, I mean they work just on the edges of mainstream plant science, just outside the established institutions of botanical gardens, outside various community gardens or scientific research. These are the psychoactive plant people. The most interesting debates around collecting and using native plants from the bush have been within this community.
There is something of a self-described stigma attached to this group, because their knowledge and activities shave close to the edges of prohibition, drug controls and illicit plant knowledge. I’m talking about people who are at risk of being implicated in illegal activities, despite what I now understand as the moral fortitude of the work they do. There is a spirited dedication to the important conservation of plants among this community and it is this that makes them one of the most interesting groups in the botanical scene.
Contrary to imagined suspicions that the entheogenic crowd (or the alternative therapies community) are a bunch of criminals… think drug cartels… this community is, instead, kind and caring. They partner with scientists at University of Melbourne for drug trials, they regularly consult with Indigenous Elders. In fact, as a group, they have the same characteristics as most people that work with plants. It sounds ridiculous to generalise in this way, and it is completely my individual perception, but plant people are different, earthy. They exist in a different time frame from corporate people or people who work in commercial enterprises or academics chasing promotion and grants.
Jonathan (Ronny) Carmichael is Co-founder and President of Entheogenesis Australia (EGA). EGA began in 2001 as a small ethnobotany network and grew exponentially over the last twenty years. They offer ‘opportunities for critical thinking and knowledge sharing,’ and have a sister organisation PRISM that involves psychedelic research in science and medicine and who have a joint trial of psilocybin efficacy with St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne. They host conferences and symposia with key figures in plant knowledge such as the revered Indigenous author, Bruce Pascoe. Art, music and wellbeing are intrinsic parts of the non-profit botanical charity.
I met Ronny from EGA in November 2021, during lockdown. We chatted over zoom, as you do in times of Covid, and talked about how to try and answer some of my burning botanical questions. He sets up the conferences and talks, the videos and links and connects the community. He is the mycelium of EGA.
He has a long wispy blond/grey beard that seems to fork apart towards the bottom; and kind eyes. He wears his hair tied back and he speaks gently and with patience. Under his email signature, Ronny explains that any typos or spelling mistakes in his correspondence are due to his dyslexia. I don’t find any errors.
Ronny explains that EGA is basically interested in plant sovereignty, so that can extend to politics of sharing and accessing. EGA’s position is that people should have access to plants, and that environmental specifications about that access is important to understand.
For instance, to grow hemp plants in NSW, you need a license which is about $200-300 annually and you must receive checks from specialist licensing rangers. Also, production and selling of hemp is not legal in NSW. These are the kinds of specifications Ronny is talking about. What about psychoactive plants, I ask Ronny?
“We have no problem with psychoactive plants being used to benefit people, but we certainly have a problem with it being done via a ‘for profit’ model because we really think that if production is going to happen, the job should be going to people who have a connection with the plant already. Instead of criminalizing people with prior plant knowledge, they should be encouraging this expertise.”
There are many people in the EGA community who grow their plants from seed or a seedling, who water and care for plants, who understand their favorite spot in the sun, and who understand by smell and colour when is the right time to harvest a plant. Ronny believes that
“If you can build a connection with a plant, then you’re in a much better head space to use that plant for research and as medicine. If that can be done, and if you don’t need huge amounts of it, if people can grow those plants in their garden, whether it be using it in a Wiccan [seasonal observation and ritual] context, a healing context or a food context, I don’t think you should need a license if it can be done safely.”
One of the best attributes of this community of EGA people is the clear respect for each other and for the plants. To mainstream people, the community may at first appear like a secret group of people who may or may not be shaving the edges of existing legislation. Are they conducting their work for the right reasons? What is clear is that they seem to be securing the future of certain psychoactive plants that are otherwise endangered if not extinct.
This was the greatest revelation for me, meeting Ronny, to understand that EGA’s broad network of plant lovers care for the health and longevity of plant species, in a very similar way to the plant conservation and restoration groups. In this sense, there is little difference between the EGA crowd and the silver-haired retirees who volunteer at the local botanic garden.
Some highly skilled members of the EGA network conduct genetic testing on plant material to ensure the safety of psychoactive recreational drug users. In this way, they work in the same way as public labs or state funded botanic gardens labs, but they do this work at their own expense. They are advancing research in an area that is prohibited by the TGA, although there may be some imminent changes for therapeutic use of psilocybin in the coming years. This set of paradoxical facts urged me on a path that informed later chapters in this book.
But before long, Ronny starts telling me about a plant close to his heart and his home…the Mount Buffalo wattle, one of the great acacias. Ronny explains, “If I was to illegally take acacia seed from the Buffalo Wattle and I just took 10 seeds, raised them and then propagated additional new seeds, then gave all that [second generation] seed away…. how or at what point do you judge this act as being good or bad?”
The reason Ronny asks this question is because it is an urgent one. The Buffalo Wattle is at-risk. It could be wiped out by over-harvesting, or by the wasp that has invaded most of the remnant Buffalo Wattle bush. Many people who have in the past been interested in the Buffalo Wattle for its DMT or drug- related qualities, have harvested seed very respectfully and have worked hard to continue to grow and care for a plant that isn’t available in the nurseries. Essentially, Ronny says, they have ensured the survival of the plant if it was to get wiped out from its original location.
There is another side to this argument. Growing plants in gardens or home labs or even across larger operations is not the same as protecting those trees or plants growing in their original habitats. There is a school of thought that, although people may be harvesting seeds and growing them at home and improving the numbers of populations, it is better conservation to leave the seeds where they are and let nature run its course.
Another point of view, again, is that those remnant bush areas or original scrubs no longer exist. There is soil erosion, infections, deforesting and invasive species that have changed those areas of land anyway. Re-wilding, then, is not a legitimate activity.
Ronny believes that, even though nothing is ideal any more in terms of long-term human damage done to natural environments, the idea of plant production, of growing plants and sharing them and getting them into other people’s gardens, has a much greater benefit for the plants. Ronny says,
“Like I said at the start, there’s many people who collected seeds twenty or thirty years ago, when it was definitely not a negative paradigm to do so. The ideas around biopiracy were not common knowledge back then. People simply collected seeds and they’d grow them and share them.”
I start to wonder about what Ronny said earlier, about EGA community members doing their own DNA testing. I need to know more. He explains that there are those in the Australian science world who want the psychoactive plant data to stay in Australia.
“They want the research to be done by Australians, but to date I believe a lot of this citizen science has been quite challenging, so people have been bagging things up and sending them overseas because they want the results.”
Ronny thinks that area of citizen science is now turning into large scale bio wellbeing projects. Regular Australians now want to go and collect mushrooms out at Oberon or some bushy location not too far from the main city centres. I, myself, know several suburban mums and dads who love this activity. They are looking for mushrooms to eat for food and mushrooms to have a psilocybin experience.
This is a very trendy thing to do, in Australia, but also globally. Of course, as Ronny says, if people go mushroom collecting, most don’t want to die from poisoning. So, they want to understand the mushrooms and be able to better identify them so that they can potentially grow and use them as medication, sometimes even for sale.
It’s not just food and an ego-spilling high that people want from the humble mushroom Ronny says,
“It’s certainly flipped from a personal drug interest or a citizen science situation to, now, a mass scale medical wellbeing deployment. Industry is wanting to know if they can use Australian grown, Australian native mushrooms. Essentially when psilocybin is legal for therapeutic application in Australia [as it is in many US states], then people would like to probably grow it from a local mushroom that is Australian and use that as the medication.
This is the scary thing about harvesting versus poaching. Who gets to collect? Who gets to genetically test? Who gets to manufacture, to license, to patent, to make money? Should psychoactive plants and mushrooms be decriminalized, if it is used as therapy? Ronny says,
“We completely respect and acknowledge that underground therapy has its uses and is very valuable, and aboveground therapy has its uses and is very valuable too, but we are more interested in how to help people on a mass scale. That would mean reducing law restrictions and criminality. We [EGA] are more interested in a larger picture that actually reduces the pressure on people who are searching for ways to get well, we need a way for us to not be seen as criminals, when we’re just plant growers. We would like the law to respect and allow access and use of sacred and medicinal plants.”
Ronny finishes our chat by talking about the Salvia divinorum, a plant I am not familiar with. He says that the South American Salvia, for instance, has been now made illegal, but that it is one of EGA’s goals to be able to free that plant in Australia, not for drug use, necessarily, but that people can grow it in their gardens without feeling like they have committed a crime.
I ask about Salvia and Ronny says that it is a psychoactive plant that provides a much better experience for females than males, but that’s just anecdotal evidence from talking to people. He says that you can extract it quite easily and make it quite a strong psychedelic. It is banned in Australia by the TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration). “We haven’t been able to find any actual real data to do with the safeness of a drug. Whereas, with MDMA and psilocybin, the TGA are definitely researching it a lot more, to try to find scientific data around it.”
“Sadly most stakeholders in this field are not trying to decriminalize any of these substances or related plants. I strongly believe decriminalization would have the most positive collective outcome for our community and society as a whole. However industry and medical interest in this area seem more motivated around ‘wellness’ and safety and, I guess, profit. As they look to commodify the space, hoping to produce and sell medicine in the form of a pill, not as a plant extract. Medicine and psychedelic therapy are important to our area of study, however I feel there is much more to be gained by taking a more holistic approach to plants and medicines.”
Ronny ends by saying “seed collecting has a lot in common with the ancient tradition of oral storytelling”. Like passing on stories from generation to generation (or germination to germination), with the hope of carrying the past into the present day and beyond.
“Humankind and plants are intertwined in meaningful relationships across space and time. It is the communities that surround the stories and the acts of seed sharing that I hope will both have positive and meaning outcomes for the ecosystem at large, but this still needs to be approached with respect and care, now more than ever, I feel.”
I finish my zoom chat with Ronny and stand up from my desk. To be honest, I am completely dazed by all these stories…of mushroom psilocybin hunting, of citizen scientists doing their own DNA testing for psychoactive ingredients, of the debates around harvesting wild seeds, of threats to the Mount Buffalo Wattle. I stretch my arms up and stare out my window into the dark night and take a deep sigh. So much more to know. This is a complex field, that sits as part of botanical collecting and as part of the herbarium stories. Let’s just say I’m curious to find out more.
The Herbarium and acacia.
The Herbarium has shared the data on all their collection of Acacia phlebophylla plant specimens with me. The database information that Herbarium Director Hannah McPherson sent me included the Acacia longitude and latitude but I won’t share that information here, now that I better understand the security risks. The database collection dates give me goosebumps. Why? Because I realise that, in addition to some of the Mt Buffalo Acacia being collected in the 1950s and 1960s, I see one date ‘1 Oct 26’ and realise that is 1926! Then I see an even earlier one… ‘Sep 1900’ and ‘26 Aug 1880’ and 26 Feb 1853.’ 1853!
This was an exciting time of discovery in Australia. This was ten years before Georg Von Neumeyer and artist Eugene Von Guerard were travelling across bush from Melbourne to Mount Kosciusko to undertake a magnetic survey of the southwest of Australia. They took a wagon and old barometric, magnetic and weather instruments on a difficult journey with little more than salted meat to eat. Rats were plaguing across the area. The 1850s and 1860s was a cruel period of invasion and colonisation, adventure and discovery, of Western scientific research in extremely difficult and insufferable conditions and of critical indigenous knowledge systems ignored or undervalued.
The earliest Acacia phlebophylla was collected from Mount Buffalo National Park in Victoria and was noted as having buds. The specimen sheet shows a plain and brown-phyllode specimen. The phyllodes sit nice and flat on the white page. There are some seeds on the cutting and a phyllode (leaf) and some seeds collected in a sealed little plastic bag. This is often done for the specimens that moult or lose a leaf. There are some added pieces of slightly browned paper that note some corrections, hand-written. Ferdinand Mueller is the botanist attached to this specimen sheet, which probably means it was sent to Sydney from Melbourne Herbarium, where he was Director.
One of the subsequent Sydney botanists corrected Ferdinand Mueller’s original name of Acacia phlebophylla to Acacia dallachania but in 1981 the correction was de-corrected back to Acacia phlebophylla. Painfully, agonisingly, there is another hand-written note so say that ‘In Melbourne there is a specimen labelled ‘Ferd. Mueller 28/2/18…’? But the last half of the date is covered by another piece of stapled paper. Oh the intrigue! When was Ferdinand Mueller’s specimen collected?
I suppose it doesn’t really matter that Mueller’s specimen in Melbourne might have been collected first. It’s not a race, as foolish people say. Suffice to say, there is no mention of any psychoactive alkaloids in the database entry.
As I hear these psychedelic plant enthusiasts speak to me, I ask how long they have been working with plants. Darklight has been working with tissue culture and genetics since the late 1990s. She met Torsten Wiedemann from Shaman Australis Botanicals. Torsten had been doing clonal propagation (genetic copying) by cuttings of Acacia phlebophylla…. the Mt Buffalo tree again.
Darklight says that if someone asked her to briefly summarize a narrative of the psychoactive community group, it would be that they were educated in the Shaman Australis forums, found community in EGA and pushed research through PRISM, and that the flower of all those connections bloomed in their current psilocybin therapy trial at St Vincents Hospital whose lead investigator is EGA alumni Dr Margaret Ross.
In terms of the story of Acacia phlebophylla, it’s a dual narrative encompassing both psychoactive DMT and conservation in the face of climate change. The wasps and rot that are affecting the health of these acacia had started to happen over twenty years ago. Torsten Wiedemann supported some early research into the micro propagation in living acacias back in the 90s. Even then, he was making sure there was enough genetic diversity, so that if something happened, like a fire, up on the mountain, or they all got wiped out by the gall wasps, or an infection was walked in on someone’s shoes – and that was a real risk in the early days – then they would still survive. Darklight says
“Torsten financially and academically supported this research for three or four years at this facility. We went at it pretty hardcore, as did a couple of other tissue culture people, but we didn’t get it worked out. We got close, however a few Fabaceae are just plain recalcitrant- Acacia phlebophylla is one of that group. Fortunately other Australian researchers explored a range of conservation tactics, including improving conventional propagation survival rates, and focusing on other Acacia species more amenable to cultivation which also have a similar alkaloid profile. These are successful, and show a multidisciplinary strategy is critical for all conservation work.”
This is one of the things I appreciate amongst this group. They accept that failure and/ or equivocal results arise as a valid part of the scientific journey. Discussing these visibly is a key component to encouraging younger or citizen-science researchers to continue their own enquiries.
Darklight explains pure acquisition was a really common drive for a lot of them initially:
“We started out young and perhaps a little irresponsible, as we learn more, whether academically or not, experientially talking to people who practice things like hardcore conservation offers us a broader scope of enquiry that is, in its own way even more compelling. Either way, many of us began with an intensive interest in the pure compounds for recreational or medicinal reasons and progress through to wanting to better understand those species longer term engagement with their wider biological communities and their interactions with human and economic environments over time.”
As the field of entheobotany evolves, we need to evolve with it, and encourage people entering the field early to understand the impact of their actions both now and in the future.
The Secret Species
I am bloody good at keeping my mouth shut. Over the years family and friends have told me some unbelievable stories and I will never mention those tales to a soul. I suppose that must be the same amongst all families and all friendship groups. However, I do feel the burden of those secrets sometimes, because they impact others, or I think (for instance with a health secret) that they should be shared with their immediate families. But once you have been asked to keep a secret, that’s that.
Darklight and Caine join Ronny and Liam in telling me about a plant they can’t tell me about in detail or name. In fact, they do name the species – that shall not be named – but I won’t mention it here. It’s a question of trust and the EGA folk can trust me. Suffice to say there is another plant that is under threat and there is community and social pressure to harvest this plant.
Darklight and the others explain that if you go to someone’s house out in the middle of a forest and they have a table full of material that they are working on and you can see that it’s not the best stuff to be harvesting because that plant is at-risk or endangered then you have to call them out. But you can’t just abuse them because that won’t work and it’s better to suggest alternatives that aren’t threatened species.
Even though there are now lots of alternatives that are less environmentally impactful, this new plant – the secret one – is now under a lot of pressure. They don’t want to advertise the plant, even if it might mean raising positive awareness for its plight. That’s because advertising the name of the plant, as something to be protected, will alert poachers who don’t really care about conservation.
“We don’t know how many people are doing it, but people are going down and cutting down whole trees of this species. They only grow in a small environment and are under pressure because they have DMT, which is silly considering how many other alternatives there are. And additionally silly is, they’re cutting down whole trees, whereas with this variety you can actually just pick up the fallen flowers like the leaves from the ground. You don’t even need to kill the tree, so the whole thing is weird. I’ve heard of rumors of people who think they know who it is. I reckon it’s more than one person, perhaps it’s like there’s one or two main people that have showed someone else where it grows.”
‘However’, Ronny points out:
“It’s not all bad news, through the work of two dedicated tree lovers and EGA and SAB community members, this special tree’s future is looking up. Around 2014 ‘Sambo’ perfected a rooting technique from cuttings, that proved to be repeatable, consistent and very effective. Then around 2017, another member named ‘Communacacian’, was able to propagate seedlings at a mass scale and offering Acacia conservation workshops. These trees have now been widely dispersed around Australia to ethnobotanical collections and beyond. Collectively, the work of the community has gone a long way in preserving this special Acacia for future generations, and this work very well may not have happened without interest in DMT containing Acacia and their possible medical and spiritual potential.”
Apart from the thievery-to-conservationist tale of the EGA community, I’m also interested in a second strong narrative in their work…therapy. We have all heard of the Johns Hopkins trials in California to treat addiction, depression, anorexia and PTSD. But when are the regulations going to lighten up in Australia for therapeutic use? Caine advises me to wait and see what happens over the next year or so. He says,
“Certainly in the United States, there seems to be a lot of on-the-ground interest, and there seems to be the possibility that it could be more community orientated and also commercially orientated. I reckon we’ll see more and more psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy within the year. You can already do it, now.”
To be honest, I was unaware of these therapies being used in Australia already, but these guys think more phase three trials should be completed within the next couple of years, and that publicly accessible psychoactive therapies will not be far behind. This may not have repercussions for people who have been growing and providing psilocybin to people illegally, an outcome that likely depends on the choice of a medical, decriminalized or recreational model of drug policy reform. Caine says,
“There’s also therapy happening in places like Jamaica. So people with money are already doing it. They’re already going to places where it’s legal and they just, they’re doing it. But fortunately, the focus is purely on Psilocybe cubensis (the most common magic mushroom). So it means then there’s no interest in, or little interest in threatened species.”
The feeling of the group is that legislation will only change for the import of synthetic psilocybin due to the cost of production. They believe there will never be support for local production of naturally derived psychedelics.
I finish this conversation by just listening to the group talk amongst themselves. Ronny is saying that most people they know just want to grow these plants and sit with them. In addition, there are many other people who identify with these plants, and they just want to grow them for cultural and ritualistic intentions. The people doing illegal activity with them is a very tiny amount, compared to the amount of people sitting with them… it really is. The others are nodding.
I ask them what they hope for. They say it is the ability to gain access to these plants, to not be criminalized for their access to these plants, and that doesn’t even mean using them. They just want the ability to legally grow and carefully share. And that doesn’t move beyond the personal relationships with each other and the plants. This is not a drug thing for them, but they are just respecting that these plants have a relationship with humankind and many of them, and in fact most of them, are also associated with altered states or ritual. Yet they are not looking to alter their states other than the wellbeing benefits of tending and growing gardens and botanica spaces. They are looking to make a better garden, and a better environment that they can relax in, and sit in, and share with other people. It’s not just about the plants themselves or about the things themselves.
But you guys, I say… you are all at risk because of the psychoactive properties of these plants?
Yes, they say, everything about us is at risk.
There is an unspoken war between people who poach within the psychedelic space for personal gain, without care for impact, relationships or responsibility – the plant thieves – and those who are advocates for conservation and wellbeing – the plant keepers.
The psychedelic plant community includes Caine Barlow and Darklight (her pseudonym). Caine has a kindly and generous demeanour and runs a group called Guerilla Mycology. He gives talks at institutions such as University of Queensland and is active in the Entheogenesis Australia (EGA) network. Anything to do with mycelium and psilocybin, Caine knows. He is particularly interested in the growing potential of native psychedelic mushrooms for therapeutic use.
Darklight speaks to me, perched at her a kitchen table from an undisclosed rainforest location. It looks like laboratory equipment, stacked on shelves behind her. Darklight jokes that she has more vials for genetic plant testing in her fridge than food. To me, she appears like many intelligent and eccentric artists I have met in my travels: assured, knowledgeable, capable… and a little weary of the mainstream world.
When I meet Caine and Darklight, Ronny and Liam Engel are present and the group have a peaceable and collaborative dynamic. The group are all connected in different ways with EGA, PRISM (Psychedelic Research in Science and Medicine), APS (The Australian Psychedelic Society) and the legendary Shaman Australis ‘Corrobboree’ forum. They are all passionate about education and health care around ethnobotanical plants and psychedelic research and culture. They see themselves as very distinct from the drug baron characters in Australia who are harvesting and propagating for profit, big profit.
Caine has a strong message of warning to people out there interested in collecting mushrooms, as a hobby whether it be for food or for psychedelic experience. He says, ‘I’m just going to make a little point …You can go out, and you can collect an Acacia seed, and you can grow the plant, and you’re not going to get into trouble. But if you go off and you collect a rare or psychoactive mushroom and you grow the spores and the mycelium, then you’re more likely to get yourself in trouble if you get caught with it. And in that sense, there is another challenge, in terms of plant thief, plant keeper issues.’
Caine and Darklight are not only advocates for safe and responsible use of psychedelic plants but they are also avid conservators and understand the difference between people who have spent a lifetime around plants and those people who want to meet a plant, only to have a drug experience. Sometimes they’re the same people, but at different stages in their journey. I can already see the difference, myself. True plant lovers have a different way of communicating. It may sound crazy, but it’s as though they have learned how to behave themselves… from the plant.
“So if you obtain a plant, invariably by seed, and you start growing them, then you develop that relationship with them, and then you start to appreciate. It’s like, wow, I’ve been growing this plant for five years now and maybe I can harvest it, but then it’s just like, actually I don’t want to. It develops into this other relationship, this, I guess… this plant keeper. It’s just like, I want to see this grow. I want to see it mature and develop. And then, I guess, we collect its seeds and go from there.”
This is a popular refrain from the group, all of whom confess with hesitancy and disclaimers that they are reformed plant thieves. Many in this community began their relationship with plants in search of therapy or curiosity, spiritual or botanical interest. However, they have all seen the error in poaching from the wild, without care and all generally would shy away from such actions nowadays.
Ronny agrees and says,
“We can’t really influence people [plant thieves] other than try to steer them in a direction, because if we are too hard, they’ll push us away. We can’t call in the law enforcement. So I guess, we try subtle, more educational, ways to do this. But, I honestly think most people who work with these plants pick up energy from the plants and they grow in a better direction, and they naturally come around to this themselves I feel. But it may take someone just politely calling them out or recommending alternative sustainable plant sources for their ‘work’. With that in mind, for many of us, it was a journey we had to go through….. But it’s an experiment with a cost. We’ve all had friends go to jail for working with the plants we love, and we’ve all had friends die from working in and around this community we are actively all part of, its risky, and like the plants we, the collectors, can be at risk for working with them and possessing them.”
Except from, Prudence Gibson, The Plant Thieves: And Other Herbarium Stories, New South Publishing, Sydney. Forthcoming February 2023.