Nature is out to get us
Hawaiian Baby Woodrose: Ergine, the Not Quite LSD
Hawaiian Baby Woodrose by Dinesh valke (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Of all of Nature’s Poisons, I find natural hallucinogens the most intriguing. Not because I dabble in these sorts of things, I never have nor will, but because I wonder why they are even there in the first place. Plant based poisons are secondary metabolites, meaning that they are not necessary for the basic biological functions of growth and reproduction. These poisons are a defense mechanism, and used as a deterrent to keep herbivores, insects, and other predators away. It’s natures way of saying “I’m not a salad bar.” So I can understand why Coffea plants contain caffeine , as grazing animals or insects could become jittery and ill. But why make hallucinogenics? A defense mechanism as well? I think it’s just Mother Nature’s weird sense of humor and desire to see bunny rabbits trip balls.
So I’ll start with Hawaiian Baby Woodrose, Argyreia nervosa, a perennial climbing vine that belongs to the same family, Convolvulaceae, as Morning Glory. Hawaiian Baby Woodrose, also called Elephant Creeper or Wooly Morning Glory, is native to southern India, but now found worldwide, and in particular Hawaii (duh), Africa, and the Caribbeans – tropical locales. By just about any definition, it’s a pretty plant that is often prized for its beauty, but like Morning Glory, can be invasive. But this isn’t what makes Hawaiian Baby Woodrose interesting.
Ergine/LSA (left) and LSD (right)
The alkaloid ergine, also known as d-lysergic acid amide (LSA), is present in Hawaiian Baby Woodrose seeds, along with many other alkaloids. Total alkaloid content in the seeds is about 1%, with ergine and its isomer constituting about 50% of that (1). It is similar in structure to the non-natural, synthetic d-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) that most of us are familiar with. Just by looking at the structures you could make the reasonable guess that they would have similar hallucinogenic effects, and you’d be right. Not exactly the same – there’s a reason why people make LSD – but close. Ergine (LSA) is illegal in the United States, and is a schedule-III drug, meaning that it has a low potential for abuse and addiction but has no accepted medical value. So while it is illegal to extract LSA from Hawaiian Baby Woodrose seeds, possession of the plant or seeds is legal, which is why the seeds are often called a “legal high.” And in case you are wondering, no, you can’t make LSD from Hawaiian Baby Woodrose seeds in your kitchen, no matter that the internet tells you.
The most common way of taking Hawaiian Baby Woodrose seeds for hallucinogenic effects is by either chewing the seeds or grinding them and steeping with hot water. User experiences vary from life altering mystical journeys to a slow motion train wreck. A positive user experience, from Erowid (2),
“I was laying in front of a sliding glass door watching the rain fall. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I could feel love, I loved the Earth and the Earth loved me back. I loved my family and friends. I loved everything. I could feel it. It hurt so good.”
is tempered by a not-so positive one (3),
Gradual escalation of intensity for physical buzzing sensations, piercing headache, body tremors, rapid heart rate, streaming thoughts of darkness and negativity…Other than feeling like I was going into shock, due to the sweats and hot-cold flashes, words like ‘trippy,’ ‘sublime,’ or ‘spiritual’ are the last words I would use to describe my experience. Words like ‘poisoned,’ ‘nightmarish,’ and ‘psychotic’ would be more appropriate.”
Like LSD, ergine exerts its effects by activating the serotonin receptors, and specifically, the 5-HT2A receptor (4). The serotonin receptors modulate both excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmissions, and the release of neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine, and the hormones oxytocin, vasopressin and substance P. If all this doesn’t mean much to you, that’s OK, just know that antidepressants (like Paxil and Zoloft) and drugs for migraine headaches (like sumatriptan) work via the serotonin receptors. Other well known psychedelics, such as psilocybin (“magic” mushrooms) and mescaline (peyote) also activate the 5-HT2A receptor, which is typical of the “classical” hallucinogens.
Another intriguing aspect of ergine, and LSD, is that it is also dopaminergic, meaning that it activates the dopamine receptors and increases dopamine-related activities. Most of these activities are centered around the so-called “reward-motivated behavior.” In addition to rewards, though, dopamine is also thought to be involved in several neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and schizophrenia. In both, a dysfunction in the dopamine system is thought to be involved. Interestingly, a drug named Pergolide is used in many countries, but not the U.S., for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Look familiar?
Ergine has perception altering effects, and changes the way the user “sees” colors and “hears” sounds, and generally intensifies ones perceptions. Ergine also has sedative-like effects, which most likely helps attenuate the psychedelic experience. Of importance though, maybe more than the drug itself, is the set and setting – what the user’s mind frame is going into the experience and what their environment is like.
It has been postulated that ergine is not responsible for the psychedelic effects of Hawaiian Baby Woodrose, as pure preparations may not produce the same “trippy” experience (4). But you have to remember that there are many different ergine-like alkaloids in Hawaiian Baby Woodrose seeds, all of which have small, discrete, and different effects on the serotonin, and other, receptors. It’s probably the net effect of the alkaloids, not just one, that produces the desired hallucinogenic effects. Which leads to another point. Because Hawaiian Baby Woodrose is a natural product, alkaloid content can vary by the region in which it is grown, the climate, time of year – any number of variables. So one “trip” may not be the same as the next if from a different source.
Hawaiian Baby Woodrose by Naveen Roy (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Along the same lines, there is variability in people and their own natural serotonin and neurotransmitter levels, as well as how they perceive and visualize things. An example is a driving study in which four laboratory individuals consumed ergine-containing Hawaiian Baby Woodrose seeds in a controlled environment (5). All four had completely different experiences, and were severe enough that the driving study couldn’t be completed, much less started. Subject A felt nothing at all, Subject B experienced nausea and tremors, Subject C had extreme nausea and vomiting coupled with general weakness, and Subject D felt some sort of psychological effect that included fits of laughter, mild psychedelic-like effects, and paranoia that lasted 9 hours.
All of the natural variables, including “set and setting”, could account for the drastically different experiences reported in the two Erowid cases earlier (2, 3). Personally, I don’t recommend that anyone experiment with Hawaiian Baby Woodrose – that’s just me, I’ll stick with the “legal high” caffeine – but if you do, be safe and do your homework. Erowid , a non-profit drug education organization, is a great resource and should be your first source of information, not some dude that likes watching bunnies trip.
1. Chao, Jew-Ming, and Ara H. Der Marderosian. “Ergoline Alkaloidal Constituents of Hawaiian Baby Wood Rose,(Burm. F.) Bojer.” Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences 62.4 (1973): 588-91.
2. “Erowid Experience Vaults: H.B. Woodrose – Re-Experiencing My Life – 78092 .
3. “Erowid Experience Vaults: H.B. Woodrose – 16 Hour Trip Through Heart Pounding Hell. – 35656.” .
4. Paulke, Alexander, Christian Kremer, Cora Wunder, Janosch Achenbach, Bardya Djahanschiri, Anderson Elias, J. Stefan Schwed, Harald Hübner, Peter Gmeiner, Ewgenij Proschak, Stefan W. Toennes, and Holger Stark. “Argyreia Nervosa (Burm. F.): Receptor Profiling of Lysergic Acid Amide and Other Potential Psychedelic LSD-like Compounds by Computational and Binding Assay Approaches.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 148.2 (2013): 492-97.
Of all of Nature's Poisons, I find natural hallucinogens the most intriguing. Not because I dabble in these sorts of things, I never have nor will, but because I wonder why they are even there in the first place. Plant based poisons are secondary metabolites, meaning that they are not necessary for the basic biological…