Plant Rites

We depend on plants for our survival. We need them for everything. They play a central role in possibly every formal and informal human ceremony ever invented – births, deaths, marriages –  and the very important business of our daily lives. Imagine the British without tea.

Tea drinking is part of being British. Bad day? Cup of tea. Friend round for a chat? Cup of tea. Wilting in the doldrums of the afternoon at work? Cup of tea. Whole life fallen down around your ears, wife left you and house burned down? Cup of tea. Most scenarios will usually involve some tea drinking, (unless it’s the evening, when we can be found indulging our other national drinking obsession).

Lovely tea (Camellia sinensis var.sinensis)

Lovely tea (Camellia sinensis var.sinensis)

Tea is made from the leaves of shrubs Camellia sinesis var. sinensis from the Yunnan province of China, or C. sinensis var. assamica, which is grown in the warmer climes of India and Southeast Asia. 

We use plants  not only for celebrations and rituals, but for enhancing our immediate environment, healing, medicine, food and spiritual sustenance. It would be a miserable, impossible life without them (especially in Medieval England).

Not many people  would have had a reliably clean source of drinking water, so beer made with oats,  (Avena sativa) wheat (Triticum aestivum) or barley (Hordeum vulgare) were often consumed as a substitute. Having been boiled during the brewing process, most of the harmful bacteria and micro-organisms would have been rendered benign. So it would actually have been safer to drink beer!

Medieval pissheads

Medieval pissheads

‘Some of the earliest chemical evidence for (barley) beer comes from residues – calcium oxalate, known as beerstone – inside a jar excavated at the Godin Tepe archaeological site in the Zagros Mountains of Iran that is dated to between 3400 and 3100 B.C.’

Undoubtedly-many festivals and rituals have evolved from beer drinking –  some relatively recent and others ancient. Oktoberfest in Munich is famous for its excess, but is relatively recent (1810.) The Peruvians also have some interesting  modern beer drinking rituals as well as a labyrinthine and vast pre-inca brewery, discovered in the Peruvian Andes in 2004.

Unfortunately ‘They destroyed the site in an elaborate closing rite, setting fire to the entire brewery and throwing their ceramic drinking vessels onto its burning embers.’

Maybe one of their master brewers got carried away, made a crazy percenter and everyone went a bit doo lally?

I’ll continue the Peruvian theme by looking at some of their ritual plants, so I can revel in my fantasy of living somewhere lush and exotic for a bit, where it’s not considered deviant to be completely out of your head.

Or you could just go to Hebden Bridge* for the latter experience. However, you may end up in a hippy’s** attic surrounded by pot plants and not a tropical rainforest, or a majestic Andean jungle. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Cannabis sativa fresh from a teenager's bedroom

Cannabis sativa fresh from a hippy’s attic

In the Peruvian Andes, the immeasurably more exotic ayahuasca is a potent brew made by indigenous Amazonian plant shamans who claim that they receive directions about the benefits of all the plants used in the preparation of ayahuasca directly from plants and plant spirits.

Ayahuasca is prepared with infusions from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, and has some colourful common names, including ‘Doctor’, ‘Vine of the Dead’, and ‘Vine of the Soul’. The plant itself is a beautiful large vine, which occasionally flowers, like this:

Banisteriopsis flower

Banisteriopsis flower

The leaves of  DMT-containing species of shrubs from the genus Psychotria (usually P. viridis) are used, along with Justicia pectoralisor ‘Tilo‘. The leaves develop a rich, sweet smell as they dry due to the formation of large quantities of coumarin – a fragrant crystalline compound which is often used in a Peruvian psychoactive ‘snuff’ and in a ridiculously high percentage of all perfumes.

Justicia is used as a traditional treatment for fever in some parts of the Carribean, and is widely used as an anticoagulant.

The brew is said to induce life epiphanies, cure depression and be spiritually cleansing. But you have to endure a living nightmare for a few hours to get to the good bit. An American egghead has even done a study on ayahuasca:

‘The unconscious mind holds many things you don’t want to look at. All those self-destructive beliefs, suppressed traumatic events, denied emotions. Little wonder that an ayahuasca vision can reveal itself as a kind of hell in which a person is forced—literally—to face his or her demons.

“Ayahuasca is not for everyone,” American egghead Dr Grob warns. “It’s probably not for most people in our world today. You have to be willing to have a very powerful, long, internal experience, which can get very scary. You have to be willing to withstand that.”

Unlike most common antidepressants, which . . .  can create such high levels of serotonin that cells may actually compensate by losing many of their serotonin receptors, the Hoasca Project showed that ayahuasca strongly enhances the body’s ability to absorb the serotonin that’s naturally there. . .

The main chemical in the brew, dimethyltryptamine (DMT) . . .  though chemically distant from LSD, (DMT) has hallucinogenic properties. But it is ayahuasca’s many plant ingredients cooperating ingeniously to allow DMT to circulate freely in the body that produce the unique ayahuasca experience.’  National Geographic Adventure, 2006

If you are particularly interested in ayahusca ceremonies, watch the legendary episode of ‘Amazon’ with Bruce Parry.

Justicia pectoralis

Justicia pectoralis

So while ayahuasca ceremonies seem to be about connecting with spirits, ancestors, spiritiual healing, exorcism and catharsis, the Mexican Day of the Dead is specifically about celebrating the idea of inviting the dead back in the world of the living, and the continuing roles that the dead have to play in the lives of their descendants.

Tagetes are the symbolic flower used in the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations – (not to be confused with Calendula officinalis.) The incredibly pungent smell of the flower when handled is said to be the reason that Tagetes are used to decorate gravesides – the idea being that the smell is strong enough to rouse the dead.

Roses are often used, as are Celosia cristata, Matthiola incana, Gladiolus, Gypsophila paniculata, and Chrysanthemum morifolium – all of which have symbolic significance in the festival.

cemetery entrance

A cemetery entrance decorated with Tagetes on the Day of the Dead in Mexico

Art Spot

Whoaaa! (Movement in Squares, 1961)

Whoaaa! (Bridget Riley, Movement in Squares, 1961)

Book of the Week

Two books this week. ‘The Doors of Perception/Heaven and Hell’, by Aldous Huxley and ‘Memory, Wisdom and Healing: The History of Domestic Plant Medicine’, by Gabrielle Hatfield.

medicinal plant book

Other Significant Plants in Ritual Use

Lophophora williamsii (Peyote cactus)
Coffea arabica (Coffee)
Theobroma cacao (Cocoa)
Calea Zacatechichi (Dream Herb)
Artemisia absinthium (Absinthe)
Agathosma betulina 
Salvia divinorum
Echinopsis lageniformis 
Bolivian Torch Cactus

Track of the Week

Josh Wink ‘Higher State of Consciousness’

Plant of the Week

Camellia sinensis

*This link will take you to a New Statesman  piece about Hebden Bridge – the most interesting thing about it is possibly the debate sparked by residents and anti-Hebdeners:


“Hebden Bridge is a dump and its citizens are segregated losers.

The closest the residents of that vile place get to ‘culture’ is when it appears on their discount supermarket bread which lies rotting in their dilapidated homes.”

What a guy.

** I was going to put a picture of a Hebden Bridge hippy in here. I could have raided my photo albums, but when I did a google search one of the first photos I found was of my stepdad, followed closely by several people I know. So I’m opting out. You’ll just have to use your imagination.


Subjects include links from the following:

Camellia sinensis:
Hebden Bridge: New Statesman, Independent
Ayahuasca: National Geographic Adventure, The Ayahuasca Project, ‘Amazon’, with Bruce Parry
Modern Peruvian drinking rituals: Footprint Guides
Images: Wikimedia Commons
General research: Wikipedia and associated sources



  1. Country Mouse

    A nice cup of tea, indeed! My mother took hers with two Aspro. I enjoyed your rambling through beverages and more. In California we can get (some) British tea in the supermarket now. A great radio show in the US – To The Best of our Knowledge – has an episode called Amazonia – featuring an interesting account of an ayahuasca experience – really gave me pause. Not sure if you can access it in the U.K. I listen to it as a podcast Anyway, it’s the second segment with Jeremy Narby: The first segment is good also.

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