Learn why three ancient plants—hemp, eucalyptus and the opium poppy—are some of the most influential plants known to mankind.
Plants are so ubiquitous that we rarely stop to consider the profound impact they have on our everyday lives. We give flowers on special occasions, spend many dedicated hours nurturing herb gardens and turn these ingredients from nature into dyes, cosmetics and medicines. We are also entirely dependent on them for sustenance—even when we eat meat, the animals that provide it have been raised on plants. In the following excerpt from Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History (Quid Publishing, 2010), learn how three ancient plants—hemp, eucalyptus and the opium poppy—had a powerful impact on individuals, nations and the modern world.
If the world’s plants suddenly expired, we would have no tomorrow. Yet it is easy to dismiss plants as the silent witnesses to our progress on the planet. The world nurtures between 250,000 and 300,000 types of flowering plants and they can seem like a pretty backcloth to our remorseless activity: walking a dog through a forest of quiet oaks; driving a car past purple fields of lavender; riding the train across a prairie of wheat.
Native range: Central Asia
Type: Fast-growing annual
Height: 13 feet (4 m)
Uses: Medicinal, commercial, practical
Cannabis, hemp, or marijuana: call it what you will, this plant has a bad name. Variously condemned by sound-bite politicians, law enforcement officers, and the parents of college students in the West, it has been ranked as the world’s most widely consumed recreational drug. Yet this was among the earliest cultivated plants; it was an important crop to at least two American presidents, the American Declaration of Independence was printed on it, and it promises still to be a savior “green” crop. Just what went wrong with Cannabis sativa?
The Versatile Narcotic
The 1970s saw some strange scenes enacted in city gardens and vegetable plots: bemused cabbage and carrot growers looked on as uniformed police from the city drug squad seized sizable fern-like plants and marched the grizzled hippies who had grown them off to jail. It is relatively rare for the authorities to legislate against an individual cultivating an everyday plant in private, but C. sativa is no ordinary plant. Some 80 years or so after its prohibition, some wondered if, by banning C. sativa, the baby had been thrown out with the bath water. The petrochemical’s plastics industry is polluting and unsustainable: hemp is its natural substitute. It grows naturally, and fast, without fertilizers, herbicides, or pesticides. When the climate is warm it can reach full height in three months and produce a crop of fibers four times as strong as cotton. This sustainable, quick-turnaround crop can then be processed into just about anything from house insulation and car body panels to “breathable” clothing (thanks to the hollow core of the hemp fiber). The downside is that cannabis contains varying levels of the scarcely pronounceable delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. Shortened to THC, this is the active ingredient that persuaded the Scythians, a nomadic people who occupied the Black Sea region, to engage in some strange practices, according to the Greek author Herodotus. He reported in his Histories having seen “the Scyths” crouching in draft-proof booths made of sticks and woolen felt, over a dish of hemp seed placed on a bed of red-hot stones. “Immediately it smokes, and gives out such a vapor as no Grecian vapor-bath can exceed.” It was said the effects caused the Scyths to shout for joy.
History has a habit of repeating itself: “The smoke has to be deeply inhaled and held for a few seconds, which is unpleasant for non-smokers. Herbal or menthol cigarette tobacco is milder, but the easiest way on the throat is to add 6 ground cloves to the joint. In the small quantities normally taken, it produces a pleasant hazy relaxed feeling. The French Impressionists used to take large amounts when the effect was something like acid,” wrote Nicholas Saunders in Alternative England and Wales (1975).
It was THC that contributed to hemp’s medicinal properties. Cannabis has been used by physicians for thousands of years both as a pain reliever and to treat a range of ailments from cancer and depression to Alzheimer’s disease. Hemp’s importance as either a medicine or a narcotic, however, was outweighed by its usefulness as a fiber-plant.
Most authorities agree that C. sativa has a long and confusing history. Herodotus reported that “Hemp grows in Scythia. The Thracians make garments of it which closely resemble linen; so much so indeed that if a person has never seen hemp he is sure to think they are linen.” But its use as a fabric predated the Scythians: it was probably being processed in China 4,500 years ago (it was mentioned 2,500 years ago). The Chinese continued to cultivate hemp until, by the new millennium, they were the world’s biggest producers. China was followed by the eastern European countries, Romania, Ukraine, and Hungary, and by Spain, Chile, and France. Hemp probably originated in southeast Russia, and in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when ships’ chandlers had grown to rely on hemp, Russia controlled the bulk of the hemp production used by shipping. A frigate such as the USS Constitution, fondly known as “Old Ironsides” after its successes against the British Navy during the War of 1812, required some 60 tons of hemp for its ropes and sails. (At the time, the British Navy was blockading American ports to prevent the import of goods such as Russian hemp.)
Two Americans, among many, profited hugely from hemp: Ben Franklin, the co-author of the American constitution, and a San Francisco shopkeeper called Löb Strauss. Franklin had many claims to fame: he imported the first tin bath from England, invented the lightning (or Franklin’s) rod, bifocal glasses, and an efficient household stove. The tenth son of a pious Boston couple, Josiah Franklin from Ecton, Northamptonshire, and his second wife, Abiah, Benjamin Franklin was apprenticed to his half-brother James, a printer who had started up one of America’s earliest newspapers, the New England Courant. Franklin became a regular contributor to the Courant, but when the relationship between James and himself soured, Franklin slipped away to Philadelphia, arriving there with a single Dutch dollar to his name. He was 17. By the age of 42, he would retire from the profitable printing business he had set up and devote himself to public office, diplomacy, science, and also vegetarianism.
During the 30 years before the American Revolution, unrest, triggered by Britain’s trade restrictions, was building between the two countries. Among other commodities, America was forced to rely on British pulp for its paper supplies. This dependency was irksome and Franklin found a way to feed his printing mill with hemp instead. (Both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson ran hemp plantations of their own.) When the Declaration of Independence was drafted it was almost certainly done so on hemp paper from Franklin’s mill.
Almost a century after the Declaration was approved, a Nevada tailor, Jacob Davis, and his business partner, Löb Strauss, patented their process for reinforcing twilled cloth, or jean (a corruption of Genoa) workmen’s pants with copper rivets. Löb, who changed his name to Levi, was a Bavarian migrant who had moved from New York to San Francisco to take advantage of the California Gold Rush in 1853. He switched from selling hemp cloth or “duck” for wagon roofs and tents and turned them into pants for the gold miners. (Although the first Levi jeans were made from hemp, Levi later used serge de Nîmes, a cloth imported from Nîmes, France, after workmen complained that the hemp chafed.)
Advocates of hemp have campaigned for it to be brought back into use, claiming that the material makes a more environmentally friendly paper—typical paper requires more chemicals to render it into wood pulp and causes more environmental disruption through logging. They also claim hemp is environmentally superior to cotton, which demands high concentrations of herbicides and pesticides.
In the West, however, hemp remains stubbornly equated in people’s minds with dangerous drugs, despite the fact that the hemp grown for cloth or paper has almost undetectable levels of the THC. The war on hemp was initially waged in America during the Prohibition debates of the 1920s and 1930s, which saw booze banned. The nineteenth-century followers of the Temperance Movement had campaigned for prohibition. Yet, despite raids, arrests, and convictions, the business of booze, brewed in bootlegging operations and sold in speakeasies, carried on much as it had before Prohibition, except that corruption among police and politicians rose to new heights. Hemp, or cannabis, was regarded as yet another pernicious intoxicant. That “the weed” was favored by low-lifers, Mexican migrants, and black musicians did not help. When men such as Harry J. Anslinger, commissioner in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and newspaper proprietor William Randolph Hearst, condemned it, the die was cast. Hearst’s critics pointed out that the newspaper magnate’s empire included timber forests for paper pulp and a changeover to hemp newsprint might have impacted on Hearst’s profits. But Hearst could have diversified into hemp production itself. A more likely explanation is that Hearst simply believed the rhetoric of Anslinger, a vociferous opponent of cannabis inclined to publish exaggerated or unsubstantiated reports on its negative effects.
The 1937 United States’ Marijuana Tax Act signaled the start of a cannabis ban across the Western world. Yet the consumption of cannabis is predicted to rise by around 10% in the next decade.
Native range: Mostly Australia
Type: From a low shrub to a tall tree
Height: 30-180 feet (10-60 m)
Uses: Medicinal, commercial, practical
Nineteenth-century railroaders and ornamental gardeners loved Australia’s national tree, the eucalyptus; as the tree flourished in its trackside plantations, it yielded plentiful supplies of cheap fuel to power the steam trains. As an ornamental garden tree it was a great conversation piece, especially in California. The tree was even rumored to cure swamp fever. No wonder it became the world’s most widely planted hardwood. So why were protesters hacking down eucalyptus plantations in places as far apart as Thailand and Spain a century later?
Up a Gum Tree
More than 700 different species of native gums, or eucalypts, were growing around the maritime edges of the world’s smallest continent when Australia’s first settlers arrived. For a century or so, the new settlers struggled to fell and burn as many as they could in order to lay their hands on the valuable grazing ground beneath for their sheep and cattle. But for Joseph Banks, one of the plant collectors aboard Captain James Cook’s ship HM Bark Endeavour, the eucalypt was a delight. On May 1, 1770, while Cook was charting Australia’s east coast, Banks and the Swedish botanist Daniel Carlsson Solander (who had studied under Linnaeus at Uppsala University) landed in an area that Cook later called “Botany Bay.”
Banks went ashore and gazed up in admiration at the tall, graceful trees with their strange peeling silvered bark and lance-shaped leaves whispering in the breeze. But it was French plantsman Charles Louis L’Héritier de Brutelle (1746–1800), not Linnaeus, who named the species Eucalyptus oblique (dubbed “messmate” or “stringybark” by the locals). L’Héritier named the eucalyptus, meaning “well covered”—a reference to the way the tree protects its flowers.
Banks, Solander, and L’Héritier were equally excited about the tree. It was an exotic; it grew faster and taller than any tree they had ever encountered before, and the leaves, when rubbed, exuded a curiously medicinal smell. They would not have been surprised to discover that just over two centuries later those first few plants, collected from Australia, had so spread that they accounted for almost 40% of all the tropical forest plantations worldwide, covering just over 100 million acres (42 million ha). They could be forgiven for believing they had stumbled across the world’s most wonderful tree.
The eucalypts are among the tallest broadleaved trees in the world, and the mountain ash (E. regnans) of south Victoria and Tasmania is the tallest of all. There are few of these leviathans—some measure over 450 feet (140 m)—remaining, as many were logged out during the nineteenth century. “The cork-oak, fir, red cedar, and other trees are there being planted under Government direction, in room of the destroyed trees, many of which were useless in commerce, or for building purposes,” explained “The Gatherer” in Cassell’s Family Magazine of the 1890s. It was an ill-conceived idea that was swiftly discredited as the eucalyptus proved itself extraordinarily useful.
The resins in the bark produce kino-tannic acids used in mouthwashes and throat syrups, while the leaves produce oils employed in antiseptics, balms, diuretics, and disinfectants. The volatile or essential oils are put into vitamin supplements—they help the body absorb vitamin C—and into perfumes, providing a tangy lemon scent. The flowers provide scented pastures for bees (eucalyptus honey is world-renowned), and its oils have even been used to flavor menthol cigarettes. When it was discovered how to extract eucalyptus cellulose (by chopping the timber into chips, then emulsifying these into pulp by boiling them in chemicals to release the wood fibers), eucalyptus began to be used in everything from underpants to fire-resistant uniforms and from toilet paper to cardboard. It was even used for newsprint when the May 27, 1956 edition of the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de São Paulo was printed entirely on eucalyptus fiber.
The Prince of the Eucalypts
The most prized of the eucalyptus was, according to the botanist Baron Sir Ferdinand von Müller, the blue gum (E. globulus), the floral emblem of Tasmania. It was unrivaled in its usefulness and the quality of its oils, von Müller declared in the Descriptive Atlas of the Eucalypts of Australia – Eucalyptographia in 1884. Half a century after Australia’s first governor, Arthur Phillip, had dispatched a bottle of the essential oils to Joseph Banks, von Müller began actively promoting the potential benefits brought by the eucalyptus tree. Müller (he acquired the “von” after the King of Württemberg conferred upon him the title Baron for his studies of the eucalypts; the British gave him his knighthood) was, arguably, the trees’ greatest advocate. It was Müller who persuaded the Englishman Joseph Bosisto to patent his process for extracting oil of eucalyptus. Bosisto went on to market the oil throughout Europe and America, and Bosisto’s Eucalyptus Oil became a household name.
Müller also sent eucalyptus seeds around the world, to France, India, South Africa, Latin America, and to the U.S. federal botanist William Saunders, but his gift of seeds to the Melbourne archbishop J. A. Gould in 1869 had phenomenal consequences—or so it seemed. You see, eucalyptus was thought to “cure” malaria. Gould had sent his seeds on to a group of French Trappist monks who had been battling with malaria—or “swamp fever”—at Tre Fontane in Rome. Again and again the monks had tried to establish the malaria-busting eucalyptus, clearing scrub and draining swamps to establish the seedlings. When at last they succeeded and the eucalyptus were firmly established, the foul fevers were finally banished. Only later did anyone conclude that it was the loss of the swamps and not the arrival of the eucalyptus trees that defeated the disease. (The Trappists turned the tree to their advantage by making and selling the eucalyptus-flavored liqueur Eucalittino.) Meanwhile, numerous claims regarding the benefits of the Australian gum tree were put forth. Eucalyptus timber could be made into houses, carts, and bridges. It was said to give temporary relief to the patient dying of gangrene or venereal disease. It could allegedly purify polluted air.
These claims, some more valid than others, led to the treescape in parts of America being transformed by the Australian gum, as investors, confident of quick profits, arranged the planting of thousands of eucalyptus from seed. In South America and particularly Brazil, the gum trees grew and grew. It was thanks to the efforts of agronomist Edmundo Navarro de Andrade, who died in 1941, that great forest farms of eucalyptus were planted alongside railroad tracks. Even in the mid-twentieth century, when more than 13 million acres (5.5 million ha) of the country was reforested, over half the trees planted were eucalypts. In India too, with much of the country on the same latitude as Brazil, eucalyptus plantations were spreading across the land to the detriment of the indigenous trees. It triggered increasing unease about the inexorable march of the eucalyptus. The sterile plantations, said its detractors, provided poor cover for wildlife compared to the native forests; eucalypts were blamed for causing dangerous soil erosion, and so prodigious was their arboreal thirst that they were accused of depleting local water supplies. The loss of biodiversity, and the encroaching cash economy of eucalyptus plantations, which undermined traditional bartering economies, turned discontent into direct action. By the 1990s, farmers as far afield as Bangkok, India, and Spain were ripping up gum-tree saplings in protest at this forest monoculture.
Having made as great an impact on the landscape as it had on the history of timber growing, it looked as though the eucalypts were reaching the end of the line, but the tree may yet have a contribution to make in the future. Haiti became one of the world’s poorest nations when its tree cover was removed; the Ethiopian economy has suffered since it lost over 95% of its original forests; and there are serious environmental concerns for Thailand, which has seen half its trees felled in the last 20 years. The eucalyptus may be used to aid rapid reforestation of countries such as these.
Native range: From Turkey across the East, especially Afghanistan, India, Myanmar, and Thailand
Type: Fast-growing, upright annual
Size: 3 feet (1 m)
Uses: Medicinal, commercial
The opium poppy has proved to be both a blessing and a curse on history. Its healing balm, morphine, has been recognized for its use in easing extreme pain since Neolithic times, while its derivative, heroin, has had nightmare consequences in the West. Arguably, it was opium, once administered to nursing mothers and babies alike, that changed the course of history for the world’s most populous nation, China.
The opium poppy is disarmingly pretty. A member of the same family as the field, scarlet, or corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas), the blowsy white, pink, red, or purple blooms of the opium poppy have decorated genteel garden borders, and the dried stems featured in flower arrangements in well-mannered drawing rooms for centuries. When the flower head dies back, it reveals a swollen seed head resembling an upturned pepperpot with a fringe on the top. This dispenses the mass of minute black seeds inside like salt from a cellar. During the final ripening stages, however, the seed head produces a milky-white narcotic sap, the source of opium, morphine, and heroin.
Opium is harvested by scoring the surface of the ripening poppy head in the evening and, in the morning, collecting the sap that has oozed from the scars overnight: raw opium. The sap is scraped from the plant, rolled into pellets, and dried in the sun. Raw opium contains morphine, from which heroin is made, together with codeine and thebaine—both are alkaloids that relieve pain and induce deep drowsiness. It has been exploited for at least 6,000 years, primarily by Neolithic tribes who ranged across eastern and southern Europe. The Greeks celebrated it for its calming, medicinal qualities, and the Romans were as familiar with it (Homer mentions it in the Odyssey) as were the literary lights of the nineteenth-century: Wilkie Collins, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Dickens, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Thomas De Quincey. But it was Arab merchants who first introduced opium to China in the East, and Europe in the West as they worked their land trade routes.
Heroin was first isolated in 1874 in Germany. During the early trials, some of those who tried it said it made them feel heroisch (heroic). Heroin was soon being marketed as a non-addictive substitute for morphine. When Americans, trying to clear a troublesome cough in the early 1900s, found their cough remedies curiously addictive, it was because heroin was an active ingredient in them. Some 50 years later, the number of troops addicted to both heroin and morphine was alarming U.S. authorities. A report to Congress in 1971 suggested that 15% of American servicemen involved in the Vietnam war had become heroin addicts. More recently, Russia became the largest per capita user of heroin after the return of heroin-addicted Soviet soldiers from their war in Afghanistan. By the end of the last century, an estimated eight million young people in the West suffered from heroin addiction.
This was nothing compared to the number of Chinese people who had fallen under the somnolent spell of the source of opiates such as heroin; in the early part of the twentieth century, over a quarter of all grown men in China were using narcotics derived from the opium poppy. The world has not seen such levels of mass addiction before or since, nor has a narcotic caused such damage as it did to China. As the effects of opium seeped into every level of Chinese society, the nation was left weakened and vulnerable to attack by aggressors such as the Japanese.
The source of China’s addiction lay not in its own native fields, but in India. The cartels that controlled the opiate supplies, and that spread misery among both the Indian growers and the Chinese consumers, were the clandestine representatives of Western nations including Britain, France, and America. A dogged historian could trace the problem back to the 1490s, when the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama sailed his ship around the Cape of Good Hope and into the rich mercantile soup that was the Indian Ocean. Da Gama had pioneered the new sea route between East and West at a time when Europeans entertained some strangely unimaginative ideas about the people in this part of the globe. The Eurocentric view (which did not change greatly over the course of the next 400 years) was that Africa, India, and the East were populated by foolish, uncivilized natives who could be persuaded to part with their valuable spices and precious metals in return for cheap jewelry and worthless knick-knacks. Europeans also assumed that “The East” would welcome cutting-edge Western technologies.
Da Gama sailed in on a productive trade between Africa, India, and China of salt, gold, ivory, ebony, slaves, ceramics, cowrie shells, beads, and silks. Portugal and its Iberian sister Spain were quick to monopolize the sea trade in these commodities between East and West. Eventually and inevitably, Dutch, French, and British traders began to muscle in on the action.
While African countries and India were willing to do business, China was proving to be a coy trading partner. The self-contained Chinese enjoyed their own silks, porcelains, and tea, and while they welcomed some solid silver bullion in exchange, they wanted virtually nothing else from the West. In 1793, the British ambassador, Lord Macartney, visited China in the hope of establishing some trading concessions. Macartney was an old-school European who perceived his negotiators as inscrutable, feudal Orientals. He convinced himself that they needed only a glimpse of what the West had to offer in order to be persuaded to throw open their doors to trade with the West.
China’s Manchu leaders were not so easily seduced. While they were amused by the mechanical clocks that Macartney presented to them, they still saw his lordship as little more than a provincial leader with a petty petition. They certainly did not see themselves as either Eastern or Orientals. Their dynasty was positioned at the center of the world, stable, safe, and self-sufficient. One Chinese delegate told Macartney with some sympathy that he was mindful of “the lonely remoteness of your island, cut off from the world by intervening wastes of sea.”
It was all the more remarkable, then, that within 50 years the social system that governed China, and had done so for more than a thousand years, was about to be brought to its metaphorical knees by a foreign field of poppies.
Frustrated by China’s resistance to the profitable possibilities of trade, the Western nations cynically created their own trade routes. They introduced tobacco from Portugal’s Brazilian fields and Indian opium from British-owned Bengal. It was a powerful combination. Britain had taken control of Bengal’s opium fields after Robert Clive defeated the Indian Mogul armies at Plassey in 1757. Clive would later become an opium addict himself. Meanwhile the British East India Company, under the protection of the British government, organized the business of buying and processing the drug in India, enslaving the opium growers to the Company. Taking care not to carry the opium themselves, they ran opium into China through the sea ports, using freelance agents equipped with fast boats. The Company was as guilty of drug trafficking as any cartel boss, but the setup allowed them to refute any accusation of drug smuggling. As the ships slipped in and out of the Chinese ports, and as more and more Chinese officials had to be bribed into denying the opium trade to their seniors, the East India Company controlled the supply of opium, and, more importantly, the price.
The opium of the eighteenth century was as lucrative as the crack cocaine of the twenty-first century, and its glutinous profits soon attracted dealers from other parts of the world. Rival supplies of Malwa opium began seeping in from western India, while Turkish opium started arriving on board the ships of American profiteers. As more of the yellow stuff flooded in, the price fell and the addiction rate rose.
The China authorities resisted. Imperial orders banning opium smoking had been issued as far back as 1729, but the people’s exposure to opium was beginning to penetrate, and destabilize, every aspect of life in China. Eventually efforts to resist the drug runners were met with gunboat diplomacy: in the early 1840s and 1856, the British, with much “gung-ho” support from back home, sent war ships in to assert the “right to trade.” The Chinese were ill equipped and no match for the British soldiers. They lost both of the Opium Wars and, in the aftermath of each defeat, the amount of opium flowing into China promptly increased.
By now, China’s population had risen to 430 million. The hitherto stable rule of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and their Manchurian leaders had helped the nation to prosper, and the country experienced a sharp increase in population. The peasant farmers, however, were struggling to feed so many people in a country that was increasingly debilitated by the effects of opium addiction. It was no surprise when, between 1850 and 1864, insurrectionists started a revolt, known as the Taiping Revolution. They seized land, expelled private landowners, graded the fields according to soil quality and potential yields, and handed over management of the land to the community.
The weakened Manchu government was compelled to turn to the foreign powers they had so despised for help in defeating the revolutionaries. They enlisted the assistance of France, the United Sates, and Britain to provide logistical and technological aid. Their new allies were more than happy to cooperate, but at a price. They insisted that China introduce a crippling concession: the legalization of opium. Reluctantly, China agreed.
Opium addiction eventually permeated every level of Chinese society and cost the country its sovereignty. By the end of the nineteenth century, China was a nation in decline. The last emperor, the child Puyi, abdicated in 1912. He would die in 1967 working as a humble archivist during yet another peasant movement, the Cultural Revolution, which hauled this nation into the twenty-first century. Not until World War II would opium addiction in China finally be brought under control.
Now it was the Western world’s turn to deal with the drug that was potentially even more destructive than opium: heroin. Heroin was becoming an increasingly popular recreational drug in America and Western Europe by the early 1900s. Initially, the trade came directly from the country that had been duped into opium addiction: China. While heroin laboratories were set up to process the drug, organized crime, in this case, triad gangs, stepped in to shift the drug and launder the profits. The outbreak of World War II saw these heroin supplies cut, both because of the battle lines drawn up between Japan and America, and because China’s communists were assiduously clearing out the heroin racket.
After World War II, the heroin trade was controlled by the Mafia in Italy and by drug cartels in Latin America, the Far East, and, by the end of the twentieth century, Afghanistan.
The Flower of Remembrance
There is a postscript to the story of the poppy, however, involving the species known as the corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas). In 1920, it was adopted as the symbol of remembrance after an American teacher, Moina Belle Michael, sold silk poppies to friends to raise money for injured servicemen. She had been inspired by a poem by John McCrae, a doctor with the Canadian Forces during World War I, in which he writes, “If ye break faith with us who die, We shall not sleep, though poppies grow, In Flanders Fields.”
Used with permission from Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History by Bill Laws, Firefly Books, 2010, $29.95 hardcover; text copyright © Quid Publishing.
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