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3 Ancient Plants that Changed the Course of History

Learn why three ancient plants—hemp, eucalyptus and the opium poppy—are some of the most influential plants known to mankind.

| August 2012

  • Cannabis, hemp, or marijuana: call it what you will, this plant has a bad name. Today it is ranked one of the world's most widely consumed recreational drugs, but it was once an important crop.
    Photo courtesy Quid Publishing (c) 2010
  • The eucalypts are among the tallest broadleaved trees in the world, and the mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans) of south Victoria and Tasmania is the tallest of them all.
    Photo courtesy Quid Publishing (c) 2010
  • 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.
    Photo courtesy Quid Publishing (c) 2010
  • “Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History” is a guide to the plants that have had the greatest impact on human civilization.
    Photo courtesy Quid Publishing (c) 2010

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.

The History of Hemp (Cannabis sativa)

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.

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