Plants Can't Run Away

(C)-Copyright,1996 F.W. Boyle, Jr., Ph.D.
Permission is granted to reprint this article for
educational purposes.
Dr. Boyle

While the title of this paper (a gift from a toxicologist friend) may seem obvious to most readers, the truth is plants cannot run away from predators. So what's a plant to do ?

Plants like animals have developed novel ways to defend themselves against attack and predation. An animal's first instinct is to get away from the danger as quickly as possible. When an animal can't get away, it takes a stand and fights with whatever weapons it has at its disposal. Plants can't run away and so they developed weapons to protect themselves. These weapons may be as simple as spines but are often complex chemical compounds, often members of the alkaloid family.

The attack of a bear protecting her cubs and the protective response of any mother for her children are akin to the production and concentration of these chemicals by plants. The plant protects the next generation by concentrating the toxin in the seeds and surrounding tissues. The toxin then serves to improve the chances of survival of the next generation of plant.

Just where does one find these toxins. Primarily they are found in wild plants. Part of the breeding programs for agricultural crops is to develop varieties with low or totally absent production of these naturally toxic chemical compounds. The elimination of a plant's ability to protect itself is one of the factors in the development and use of man-made pesticides. However, this opens up another area of chemistry to question, that of pesticides.

Tomatoes are a member of the nightshade family, a group of plants that produce belladonna and other protective compounds. Tomatoes were bred to minimize the production of toxins and as a result, farmers must apply external pesticide to protect the tomato. The wild species still produce belladonna and similar toxins to protect themselves from predation.

Alkaloid compounds run the gamut in toxicity. Another well known alkaloid is caffeine. Yes, this is a toxic chemical but taken in the small quantities the toxicity is expressed in a different way. As most people know, caffeine often has the effect of increasing heart rate and giving one a "peppy" feeling. Excess caffeine effects can include restlessness, sleeplessness, palpitations, irritability and other more sinister reactions.

Can caffeine be deadly? The answer is a definite yes, depending upon the quantity ingested and the method of ingestion. Caffeine is the toxin produced in the coffee bean to protect it during the life cycle from bean to new plant.

Humans have always experimented with these natural chemicals. Used properly, alkaloids can be therapeutic. Improper use often leads to death. Scopolamine can be extracted from datura (jimson weed). In proper doses, scopolamine in a patch similar to a band-aid placed on the skin is quite good in controlling seasickness and other motion sicknesses. In larger doses, especially when extracted in an alcohol-based "tea", scopolamine is deadly.

The list of plant-produced biological toxins is quite long and would take volumes to reproduce. Suffice it to say that many of the so-called "drugs" in use today are alkaloid toxins extracted from plants that produced the chemicals to protect themselves by poisoning the predators. Studies provide information on the quantity of each toxin which can be safely used and the side effects that can be expected. These same studies provide information on the lethal doses of the toxins. Under prescribed conditions, the results can be quantified. Under uncontrolled conditions, the results can be disasterous. Leave it to humans to consume poisons for recreational purposes.

One of more widely recognized chemicals in this biologically toxic group of compounds is strychnine. This is a compound so toxic even in small quantities that it can kill large animals. Strychnine is often used in baits to kill unwanted animals such as coyotes.

The advent of the drug culture introduced new methods of introducing into one's body "drugs" to society and more and more deadly alkaloid toxins including cocaine. Crack cocaine and cocaine powder are purified forms which are taken in large doses. The common methods of intake of these biocides are through snorting or smoking. These two methods of ingestion make these toxins readily available to the bloodstream by-passing the slower release mechanisms of the digestive tract. The Indians of South America didn't ingest the cocaine as it is used today. They chewed the leaves which released the chemicals in much smaller doses over a longer period of time.

Throughout history, the people of the world drank coffee, teas and smoked tobacco or other products, all of which contain weaker biologically toxic alkaloids. Even the ubiquitous cocoa powder used to produce chocolate is first a natural biocide. When Coca Cola was first introduced it contained cocaine. Addictive reactions by drinkers, and government intervention, forced the company to remove the chemical from the drink.

Tobacco plants produce nicotine as their natural biocide. Once again, however, science has found beneficial uses for nicotine. Oxidized nicotinic acid can be converted to niacin, a vitamin. Properly administered quantities are used to control heart arrhythmia or tachycardia. In larger doses, nicotine is used as a large animal tranquilizer to immobilize animals such as the African lion. Some scientific evidence suggests small quantities of nicotine may enhance brain function. We have seen many of the side-effects of heavy smoking, primarily the impairment of motor function and also in links to cancer development in animals and humans. The links to cancer are clouded by other chemicals added to tobacco to aid burning and enhance taste. Have the tobacco companies manipulated the nicotine content of tobacco? Yes, selective breeding programs have developed variations in tobacco plants which produce a wide range of their natural pesticides just as has been accomplished with many other agronomic crops. Once again it is up to the user to decide on the issue of whether or not to smoke. It is a personal choice and those that choose must also accept the responsibility for making the choice. No one held a gun to a someone's head and forced the person to begin smoking.

Our lovely, tasty, hard to give up chile contains capsaicin. When eaten with other foods and diluted, capsaicin gives the burning sensation that is associated with "good" Mexican food. I'm sure those of you who prepare chile recognize that the seeds and cuticle membranes can be crushed and added to increase the "hotness". Capsaicin can be extracted and concentrated. "Pepper" spray is the one of the products of extracting and concentrating capsaicin. Research into the use of capsaicin as a natural biocide and preservative of meats has been conducted. Capsaicin is known to inhibit microbial growth.

However, if capsicin was extracted, concentrated and introduced into the body like other "drugs", the results would be similar to those of the other toxins. Chile can kill if large enough doses are introduced into the body in an improper manner such as through the lungs or sinus membranes.

A major part of the issue is the manner in which the toxin is ingested. When one eats plant parts, the quantities ingested are usually small. The toxins are not concentrated and following ingestion are transferred to the stomach for digestion. These biological and chemical processes dilute and reduce the toxicity of the plant toxins.

The "War on Drugs" attempts to dissuade people by telling the what drugs can do to you primarily in economic terms. I focus on telling you the truth as to the purpose for existence of these chemical compounds. Think ! Why would a plant produce a chemical compound that is of no use to the plant? Due to the efforts required to make chemical substances, plants have developed efficient mechanisms. The production of any plant compound serves a purpose. The alkaloids are used for preservation of the next generation.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (marijuana) and hashish (an even more concentrated form of this toxin) are often viewed as harmless by users because they are natural. These chemicals are natural, natural poisons. And each use places more toxin in the body and cells. The filters of the body, the liver and kidneys, can detoxify and excrete limited amounts of these poisons. Even then, the body pays a price for as these toxins accumulate in the liver and other body tissue, they continue to cause damage.

Why do you get "high" when you take drugs? Because you are literally killing some part of yourself. Why don't all these alkaloid toxins kill as quickly as strychnine? Because predation on different plants is different, each species of plant produces chemicals with varying toxicity levels as needed to maintain that particular plant's existence.

Those of you who smoke a joint or snort a little coke, think. While I cannot make you quit introducing toxins into your body, I can give you the information that you need to make the decision for yourself. Next time you consider "doing drugs" remember this paper and the truth about the chemicals you are ready to put into you body. I believe that drugs should be legalized to eliminate the noxious elements, i.e. drug dealers, murders, and the like. But I also know that you don't need to poison yourself just to find out if life is worth living.

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