Photo by: Chris Kilham


“Chris Kilham offers to jog the mind with good psychoactive plants – a sound prescription. A bit of coffee here, a bit of cannabis there… Agree or disagree with him, Psyche Delicacies will tickle your neurons. A good blend of humor and argonautic escapades.” – Ken Kesey, Author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

“In each case, these plants have been praised and excoriated, promoted and banned, embraced and spurned. Across history and time, pleasure seekers and pleasure haters have fought acrimonious battles over friendly, healthful plants that impart benefits to both body and mind, with little risk to health. These benefits explain why these five plants are among the most widely consumed and traded plants in the world. In every case, the plants featured once existed in relative obscurity. But as quickly as they were discovered, they spread like wildfire, from one nation to another, and leaping across oceans. Each plant has undergone a long and extraordinary journey on the backs of millions of human beings and continues to do so at this time. Each is the object of substantial trade, each is the subject of scientific and medical scrutiny, and each produces its own precious reverie.” – Chris Kilham, on the book, Psyche Delicacies

Coffee, Chocolate, Chiles, Kava and Cannabis, and Why They’re Good For You

The human fascination with, and craving for mind and mood-modifying plants goes far back in history. Early archaeological excavations show that our primitive forbearers were enamored of the opium poppy, cannabis, psychoactive seeds, barks and flowers. The history of virtually every culture save those living at the icy poles, gives testimony to the enduring human affinity for psychoactive plants.

Exploring the history, legends, lore and uses of coffee, chocolate, chiles, kava and cannabis, reveals each plant enjoys centuries of use imparting benefits to both body and mind, with little risk to health. These five plants are among the most widely consumed and traded plants in the world. They are attractive. They are clever. They have us under a spell. We have become their advocates, their porters, their protectors, their proclaimers.

Coffee, chocolate, chilies, kava and cannabis each once existed in relative obscurity. But as quickly as they were discovered, they spread like wildfire, from one nation to another, and leaping across oceans. Each plant has undergone a long and extraordinary journey on the backs of millions of human beings. Each is the object of substantial trade, each is the subject of scientific and medical scrutiny, and each produces its own precious reverie.

The Noble Bean

“Coffee, the sober drink, the mighty nourishment of the brain, which unlike other spirits, heightens purity and lucidity; coffee, which clears the clouds of the imagination and their gloomy weight; which illumines the reality of things suddenly with the flash of truth...” - 1600’s Description of Coffee

Coffee, the Plant

The marvellous plant from which coffee derives is the coffee tree (Coffea arabica, canephora, liberica), an exquisite beauty of nature. Coffee makes up the genus Coffea of the family Rubiaceae. Arabian coffee is classified as Coffea arabica, robusta coffee as Coffea canephora, and Liberian coffee as Coffea liberica. According to botanical evidence, Coffea arabica originated in central Ethiopia.

Varying from 2 to 4 metres in height, the coffee tree is an evergreen possessed of long, slender branches covered with bright, waxy, spear-shaped leaves. The tree bears its fragrant white flowers and coffee cherries at the same time. Coffee flourishes at higher altitudes, requires both sun and shade, needs plenty of water, and must be rooted in porous, well drained soil. When all the conditions in which it thrives are met, the coffee tree responds by producing a profusion of elliptic green berries, which grow and ripen into bright red cherries half an inch long. Inside the bright red skin of the coffee cherry rests the simple coffee bean which bears the bracing stimulant caffeine.

“The intelligent man who empties these cups of foaming coffee, he alone knows truth.” - 16th Century Arabic Quote

A rich aromatic cup of coffee, brewed lovingly and drunk thoughtfully, delights the mind and banishes fatigue. It flings the eyes open, like a window thrown up to the sensual delights of a spring day. If you don’t care for coffee, then by all means don’t touch it. But if you enjoy coffee, then sip and savor without guilt or concern. For coffee is good for you, a gift from the gods, to relieve the fatigue of weary humanity. Coffee inspires.

Mighty Caffeine

The agent in coffee which imbues the bean with the power to march armies and mount massive commerce is caffeine, a humble alkaloid also known as
1,3,7 -trimethylxanthine. In green beans, arabica coffee contains 1.1% caffeine by weight, burly robusta weighs in at a hefty 2.2%, and liberica tips the scales at 1.4%. These percentages will vary depending on growing conditions.

Whatever contains caffeine will be consumed widely. This is a maxim upon which you can hang your hat, assured that no philosophical or pseudo-scientific wind will blow it off. Why do we consume caffeine? Because we love and crave it, of course. And why do we love and crave caffeine? Because it makes us feel good, by stimulating valuable physical and mental functions.

First and foremost, caffeine stimulates the central nervous system. It is a cortical stimulant, thus mobilizing brain function. It stimulates the flow of blood in the brain, and increases secretion of the important neurotransmitter serotonin in the cerebellum and the cerebral cortex. Caffeine invigorates the mind. It enhances alertness, facilitates thought formation, and decreases fatigue. Caffeine inspires the weary, elevates the moderately depressed, and quickens the step of the tired.

As with virtually every other substance known, dosage is important with caffeine. Dosage determines whether you will have a good experience or a bad one. For while caffeine promotes beneficial activity in the body, too much caffeine can produce nervousness, irritability and insomnia. A recent meta-analysis of caffeine studies performed at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research, concluded that at around 300 milligrams per day, caffeine improves mood, vigilance, alertness and an overall sense of well being. Caffeine appears to work on the dopaminergic pathway in the brain, thereby enhancing mood. For most caffeine tolerant adults, this dosage range produces positive effects. This translates into two or three average strength cups of coffee per day.

Food Of The Gods

“The beverage of the gods was Ambrosia; that of man is chocolate. Both increase the length of life in a prodigious manner.” - in Phantastica, Lewis Lewin

The rainforest tree from which chocolate originates is Theobroma cacao, which owes its name to the 18th century Swedish scientist Carl von Linne’. The Latin binomial Theobroma cacao means food of the gods, as apt a monnicker as could possibly be assigned. Cacao trees bear clusters of pale, button-sized, five-petaled flowers growing off the trunk and larger branches, which possess only a faint aroma. The large, distinctive fruit pods of the tree jut out directly from the trunk and the lower branches. Mature fruit pods average about nine inches in length, and typically contain 30 – 40 almond-sized seeds, or cocoa beans, nestled in a pale white flesh. These seeds are made into the heavenly electuary chocolate.

Chocolate Reverie

Chocolate, that mysterious and exotic rainforest food from the ancient Maya, provokes a luxurious, content mood, a serene sense of sumptuous delight. Chocolate is a Trojan horse, carrying into the body many hundreds of natural compounds, some ordinary and some exotic, which work busily to modify mood in subtle yet undeniable ways.

Of the multitudinous compounds in chocolate, one is PEA, or phenethylamine. This chemical, which occurs in chocolate in small quantities, stimulates the nervous system and triggers the release of pleasurable opium-like compounds known as endorphins. It also potentiates the activity of dopamine, a neurochemical directly associated with sexual arousal and pleasure. Phenethylamine increases in the brain when we fall in love, and during orgasm. The giddy, restless feelings that occur when we are in love are at least partly due to PEA. This adds a rather remarkable dimension to chocolate, and may account for why it is so highly prized. For while there are a great many agents in nature which boost libido and enhance sexual function, chocolate alone actually promotes the brain chemistry of being in love.

Chocolate is a sensuous delight whose rich flavor, silky mouth feel and earthy aroma have captured the palates and imaginations of people for over three thousand years. Throughout history lovers have turned to chocolate to heighten the experience of lovemaking. The Aztec king Montezuma reputedly drank a large goblet of the drink before retiring to his harem. The legendary Venetian lover and seducer Giovanni Giacomo Casanova also reputedly consumed chocolate before bedding women. From antiquity to the present, chocolate has been a gift of lovers, more often given from a man to a woman.

Chocolate additionally boosts a sense of well being by increasing brain levels of serotonin, the so-called feel-good brain chemical. For this reason chocolate provides a highly desirable mood boost to women during PMS and menstruation, when serotonin levels are often down. In fact, women are consistently more sensitive to chocolate than men. Women typically experience stronger chocolate cravings than men. And for many, chocolate is the perfect PMS Rx. A little chocolate can restore a feeling of well being.

“I think that you could call chocolate a soft drug. It definitely has an effect on your brain chemistry, on your physiology. I think that a lot of chocolate consumption is based on an individual’s need to self medicate. They feel a need to have a certain amount of chemicals in their brain soup, in their cranium, and chocolate does that.”Timothy Moley

Yet another constituent in chocolate alters mental state in pleasurable ways. Anandamide a cannabinoid, a member of the same psychoactive substances found in cannabis. Anandamide binds to the same receptor sites in the brain as THC. And its effect? Anandamide produces a global feeling of euphoria. This compound may account for why some people become euphoric when they eat chocolate. The brain is a deep and mysterious organ, whose dark folds and gray crenellations are barely understood. But tickle the right neurons, and all heaven breaks loose.

Some scientists question that there are sufficient quantities of PEA or anandamide in chocolate to produce euphoria or a pleasurable mental state. But others are not so quick to dismiss a highly complex and chemically-loaded food employed as a mood-enhancer for centuries. For how would chocolate develop a long-standing reputation for enhancing mood, if it had no effect? Individual chemistry appears to be key with chocolate, as with almost everything else. Chocolate may have little impact on some, but it does make others swoon. Chocolate is an agent of fine and lovely reverie, a gift which puts us in reflection of our highest selves.

Hell Fire in Your Mouth

If chiles had a song, it would be Heat Wave. If chiles had a movie, it would be Towering Inferno. If chiles performed a native ritual, they would firewalk. If chiles had a heroine, it would be Joan of Arc. Chiles are burning, blazing, sizzling, searing, on fire, hot, hot, hot.

“After the first mouthful the tears started to come. I could not say a word and believed that I had hell-fire in my mouth. However, one becomes accustomed to it after frequent bold victories.”Ignaz Pfefferkorn

Chile, the Plant

The chile plant is any of several members of the genus Capsicum, about which there has been much dispute and hot debate over the past 300 years. For our purposes, the chile plant is any of five domesticated species of Capsicum, including Capsicum annum, C. frutescens, C. pubescens, C. chinense, and C. baccatum. These species are descendant of over twenty wild species from tropical and subtropical America, originally found in Bolivia, Mesoamerica and Amazonia. All chiles may have originated from a single source, which some experts believe lies in central Bolivia.

The chile plant is a cultivated perennial shrub as short as 12 inches and rarely taller than 2 metres in height, with profuse, asymmetrical light to dark green leaves, small white or purple flowers, and bearing numerous fruits (chiles) of varying size, color and heat. Almost all chiles are green when immature, though some appear white or yellow or purplish. As a rule mature chiles are red, orange, or yellow. This coloration is due to the presence of a red carotenoid known as capsanthin. The shape of chiles varies greatly. The cayenne variety is long and slender and tapered. The cherry variety looks like a small tomato. The jalapeno variety is smooth and bulbous, while the penis pepper looks like a flaccid glans penis.

The heat of chili peppers is measured by the Scoville Heat Index in multiples of 100 units, from the bell pepper at zero Scoville units to the incendiary Habanero at 300,000 Scoville units. That’s hot! But even the hellish habanero has been surpassed by hotter peppers. The Mexican Red Savina variety of habanero has been tested at 575,000 Scoville units. You would expect this extreme heat to secure a position for the Red Savina as the world’s hottest pepper by a wide and uncomfortable margin. But specialists at Assam’s Defense Research Laboratory reported in August 2000 that India’s Naga Jolokia variety of Capsicum frutescens measures an astonishing 855,000 Scoville units. Will there ever be an end to the pain?

Chile Reverie

The Devil’s own vegetable woos the faithful with a seductive religious experience of chapped and burning lips, a spanked and swollen tongue, a mouth that aches with heat, a searing swallow, a boiling gastric churning, sweat drooling down a sizzling brow, the face and brain flush with hot pounding blood, and a wave of pain-quenching endorphins, which surge in the brain like firemen in a city aflame. In the grip of chili fever, the mind swoons in ecstatic pain, like an acolyte with stigmata.

Why do people subject themselves to this blazing ordeal? It’s the pleasure, brain cells swimming in endorphins, giddy and happy-faced on natural opiates. Herein lies the secret to chiles. People don’t eat super hot peppers because they like the sensation of mucous membranes being seared raw. Chile aficionados like the evil little vegetables because they cause the brain to produce profuse amounts of endorphins, morphine-like substances that can alter your mental state significantly, if you get enough going at once.

The Blazing Capsaicinoids

The substances that make chilis hot are a group of natural oleoresins called capsaicinoids. These substances account for between 0.1% - 1% of the total composition of a chile pepper. Of these compounds the hottest is capsaicin, which tips the scales at over 16,000,000 Scoville Heat Units. Capsaicin and di-hydrocapsaicin together make up 80-90% of the capsaicinoids found in peppers. The sensation of burning produced by the capsaicinoids is physiologically similar to the sensation of burning caused by heat or fire. The capsaicinoids open cell membranes in a way that allows calcium ions to flood into cells. This triggers a pain signal that is transmitted to the next cell. This same process occurs when cells are exposed to excessive heat.

The blazing capsaicinoids are wonders of nature. Only a tiny amount produces an extraordinary sensation of heat. Imagine the surprise of the very first person who ever bit into a chile!

The Pacific Elixir

From the Pacific isles comes kava, the peace plant. Kava is the name of both the plant Piper methysticum, and a beverage made from its pounded roots. Kava soothes. Kava rubs the sore and weary shoulders of humanity. Kava eases the mind of its burdens and delivers the drinker to pleasant peace. In this regard kava is the perfect representative of the Pacific islands, for it imparts to body and mind what the imagination conjures about those places. Kava is an agent of equal opportunity reverie, soothing and easing natives and non-natives alike.

For 3,000 years the indigenous native people of the South Pacific have quaffed kava because it produces a highly pleasurable feeling of tranquility in body and mind. Kava is nature’s most perfect soothing plant. Consumed in moderation, kava is a fundamentally friendly elixir of peace, promoting a state of stress-free happiness and contentment.

Kava relaxes and refreshes at the same time. It promotes a good night’s sleep, and enhances vigor upon awakening. Furthermore kava is a social, not solitary, agent of reverie. Kava drinking reinforces social bonds, enhances sense of community, and encourages a spirit of conviviality among drinkers. In every respect, kava is an antidote to stress. It washes away nervous tension and relieves the mind. Kava is an agent of peace, second to no plant in this world. The kava drinker becomes reflective and calm. The static and chatter of the mind simmer down to the gentlest fluctuations, and the drinker is unburdened of the cares of the day. By this means, the troubled heart finds rest. For a world that is cranked to the eyeballs with stress and tension, kava offers blessed relief.

“The head is affected pleasantly; you feel friendly, not beer sentimental; you cannot hate with kava in you. Kava quiets the mind; the world gains no new color or rose tint; it fits in its place and in one easily understandable whole.” - E.M. Lemert

Kava, The Peace Plant

The name Piper methysticum, which means intoxicating pepper, was given to kava by Johann Georg Forster, a botanist who sailed with Captain Cook. A robust and attractive perrenial shrub with smooth, heart-shaped green leaves, kava is a member of the Piperaceae, or pepper family, whose 2000 or more diverse species have been widely distributed throughout Africa, India, Southeast Asia and Indonesia since antiquity.

Kava plants typically have numerous stalks, each of which arises from the root mass. The root structure of the kava plant consists of a large mass or rootstock, and a number of slender lateral roots. When kava is prepared for drinking, the lateral roots and the rootstock are both used. Of the two, the lateral roots are more potent, containing a greater concentration of kavalactones, the relaxing agents in the plant. Kava plants typically are densely foliated with smooth, green heart-shaped leaves. The stalks have nodes, bulging joints between stalk sections. The flowers of the kava plant are slender and green. Kava plants are typically beautiful to behold, with variations in leaf color, from yellowish-green to dark green.

While the exact origin of kava remains undetermined, researchers believe that kava was native either to New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, or Northern Vanuatu, and that after its mind and mood-altering effects became known to natives there, it was widely dispersed throughout the pacific islands by seafaring islanders. By virtue of its delightful tranquilizing effects, kava was embraced by island culture, and was carried by natives from one island to the next.

Kava’s Tranquil Agents

The active tranquility-promoting constituents of kava are a group of resinous compounds known as kavalactones, or kavapyrones. The kavalactones have been the objects of chemical research since the mid 1800's, and much is known about their mode of activity. While as many as fifteen kavalactones are known, only six appear appear in kava to any significant extent. These six kavalactones are demethoxy-yangonin, dihydrokavain, yangonin, kavain, dihydromethysticin and methysticin.

The kavalactones together produce local anaesthetic activity, with potency similar to that of cocaine and procaine. The kavalactones numb the tongue and throat when kava is drunk in its traditional form or when taken orally as a liquid extract. The kavalactones are first-rate sedatives, producing a state of calm, and promoting sleep if taken in sufficient quantity. The kavalactones possess excellent analgesic activity, superior to aspirin, and less potent than morphine. The kavalactones are excellent muscle relaxants and can make the pain of an aching back, a sore neck or any other cramped, sore or injured muscle disappear.

Ganja Road

Pot, bhang, ganja, weed, marijuana and grass are just a few of the myriad names by which cannabis is known. By any name, cannabis is one of the most widely employed mind and mood-altering substances on earth. In the United States alone, an estimated 70 million Americans have smoked marijuana. All of them, with the improbable exception of former President Bill Clinton, have inhaled.

“Penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself." - President Jimmy Carter

Cannabis delivers an expansive, spacious high. For many users, cannabis heightens sensory experience. It makes music more rich, food more tasty, colors more vivid, touch more sensual, sex more erotic. In some people, cannabis stimulates creativity. In many, it provokes laughter. The 1894 Indian Hemp Drugs Commission Report described the effects of cannabis this way: “Bhang… makes the tongue of the lisper plain, freshens the intellect, and gives alertness to the body and gaiety to the mind … Bhang quickens fancy, deepens thought and braces judgement….. Bhang is the Joy-giver, the Sky-flier, the Heavenly guide, the poor man’s Heaven, the soother of grief.”

Opinions of cannabis and its effects are highly polarized. Some people regard cannabis use as a menace, an evil which destroys the mind and corrupts the very fabric of society. Others regard cannabis use as a fairly innocuous and pleasant pastime which should be legalized without further ado. Despite this apparent gulf, one thing is certain. Cannabis plays an important role in the ongoing human inclination to modify mind and mood, and it will not go away.

“The actual experience of the smoked herb has been clouded by a fog of dirty language perpetrated by a crowd of fakers who have not had the experience and yet insist on downgrading it.” - Allen Ginsburg

Just Say Know

In 1997, The World Health Organization reported on a study comparing cannabis with alcohol and tobacco. Using high quality scientific methods and data analysis, the WHO researchers who produced the report found that cannabis compared more favorably than either alcohol or tobacco with regard to long term health effects. In five out of seven areas of comparison, cannabis was deemed safer. The report did say though that heavy cannabis use could promote psychosis in some susceptible people, and that cannabis smoking “may be a contributory cause of cancers of the aerodigestive tract.” The authors of the report stated that the comparison between cannabis, alcohol and tobacco “was not to promote one drug over another, but rather to minimize the double standards that have operated in appraising the health effects of cannabis.”

Cannabis, The Plant

There is general agreement that Cannabis sativa is native to central Asia, north of the Himalayan range. The name Cannabis sativa means cannabis – “cane-like” and sativa - sown or planted. Throughout time many botanists have maintained that all cannabis plants are Cannabis sativa or sativa sub-species. But Russian botanists as well as Drs Richard Evans Schultes and LSD discoverer Albert Hoffman assert that there are two other distinct species, Cannabis indica, or so-called “Indian hemp,” and Cannabis ruderalis. Of these, Cannabis indica is most consistently of high potency as far as psychoactivity is concerned.

Virtually all parts of the cannabis plant above ground are covered with trichomes, fine hairs. Among the various types of trichomes, those known as capitate glandular trichomes contain a resin rich in cannabinoids, the phytochemicals which produce the distinctive psychoactive effects of this plant. Flowers have a greater number of resin glands, and are thus the most prized parts of the plant. In high quality cannabis, male flowers can produce a high. But in lower grades, they may not do so at all. Female flowers, however, will be resinous and will produce a high. For this reason growers apply their best agronomic efforts to increasing female bud size and yield, as well as potency.

THC, the Big Kahuna

Cannabis produces its expansive and euphoric effects due to THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, which is found in the resin which accumulates in cannabis leaves and flowers. This compound is a member of a group of 70 compounds known as the cannabinoids. Of these, the THC content of cannabis alone determines the potency of the material, producing euphoria and relaxation. The acute toxicity of THC is extremely low, and there has never been a single reported case of a death due to THC or cannabis consumption in any form.

In August 1990, researchers reported in the journal Nature the discovery of receptors in the brain which specifically accommodate the cannabinoids in pot. Cannabinoids bind to particular neurological sites in the brain, as though the brain was specifically designed to utilize this plant. Did nature toss cannabinoid receptors into the brain by random chance? Or are cannabinoid receptors part of an intelligent design for deriving maximum benefit from cannabis? Is cannabis a elixir of reverie for which we are ideally suited?

Gifts From The Gods

The five psyche delicacies described here are exquisite works of nature, arising from the murky, protoplasmic swamp of biological history. We may never know the full story of how these plants first came into being. But we do know with certainty that the psyche delicacies have swept human culture like a great tidal surge. And just as we have carried these plants far and wide, so too they have borne the human mind on clouds of wonder. Thus they are to us as gifts from the gods.

From Psyche Delicacies, By Chris Kilham