Uses and Abuses of Plant-Derived Smoke: Its Ethnobotany as Hallucinogen, Perfume, Incense, and Medicine by Pennachio, Jefferson and Havens

Uses and Abuses of Plant-Derived Smoke coverUses and Abuses of Plant-Derived Smoke is a book I stumbled upon while look­ing for some­thing else. It’s tempt­ing to say it’s a very niche sub­ject; the authors say this is the first book on the topic. After read­ing the intro­duc­tion I’ve no reason to doubt what the authors say is true, but they make such a strong case that plant smoke has been neg­lected that it is sur­pris­ing that more study hasn’t been done. One reason why plant smoke may prove a fer­tile ground for research in the future, the authors point out, is that many of the com­pounds in smoke are cre­ated by the act of burn­ing and so aren’t found in the plant itself. There are poten­tially a vast num­ber of com­pounds to ana­lyse and these may have valu­able prop­er­ties that have been overlooked.

This isn’t the first col­lab­or­a­tion between the authors. Previous has also looked at the uses of plant smoke, par­tic­u­larly as a trig­ger for ger­min­a­tion. Marcello Pennacchio has also researched plants used by Australian abori­gin­als. Lara V Jefferson is clearly botan­ic­ally informed. She has a web­log that talks about her envir­on­mental work with the min­ing industry. I’m not famil­iar with the intens­ity of min­ing in Western Australia. It’s not clear to what extent the authors are famil­iar with anthro­po­logy or his­tory. Additionally there’s a short fore­word by Peter Raven, which should be a sign that what fol­lows is going to be worth a lot of attention.

The intro­duc­tion gives examples of some the uses. The cur­rent bad repu­ta­tion of smoking is tackled with anthro­po­lo­gical examples of smoke being used for medi­cinal pur­poses. This seems par­tic­u­larly well attested among the abori­ginal people of Australia, but this is also where one of the authors did much of his field­work. Hallucinogens are also shown as is incense, which is gen­er­ally viewed as a more socially accept­able way of hav­ing a good time with smoke. Depending on where you draw the line this can segue in magical uses. There are other less obvi­ous uses, but the examples are well-known, like the use of smoke for pest con­trol and for com­mu­nic­a­tion via smoke sig­nals. There were one or two places where I thought a few more ref­er­ences would have been use­ful. For example, my first degree was in Ancient History and Archaeology so I feel a bit fool­ish for hav­ing no idea of when Mark Anthony’s sol­diers were driven mad — pos­sibly by jim­son­weed. The only ancient source I have found is Plutarch’s Life of Antony 45.5–6. Mark Antony isn’t a major interest for me so I hope there are bet­ter sources I’ve missed. Despite that, the intro­duc­tion is good as far as it goes. Unfortunately as far as dis­cus­sion mat­ters that’s more or less it for the book. The rest is an alpha­bet­ical list of spe­cies and the pos­sible uses they have been put to.

The descrip­tions vary, under­stand­ably due in part the how com­mon their use is around the world and the work that has been done. One the first page of the list “Abies lasiocarpa (Hook.) Nutt. (Pinaceae). Rocky Mountain fir” gets an entry that details its use as incense for the Crow, a head­ache cure, a treat­ment for tuber­cu­losis and a treat­ment for vener­eal dis­eases by the Blackfoot. A tran­quil­liser for those sac­red of thun­der by the Cheyenne and an incense for sweat­houses by the Nex Perce. The fol­low­ing entry, “Abies spect­ab­ilis Spach (Pinaceae). Himalayan fir”, could have fit­ted on one line if Manandahar, the author cited as the source, had had a shorter name. This isn’t bad, but it reflects the patchy nature of know­ledge at the cur­rent time, which means quite a few entries are extremely short.

In some cases the descrip­tions might be a bit too short. The entry for “Antennaria mar­gar­itacea (L) Sweet (Asteraceae)” reads; “Ross (2002) sug­gest that the dried leaves of this spe­cies can be smoked for pleas­ure. No other details about its use were given.” This is a bit of a prob­lem in that it doesn’t men­tion who smoked the leaves. You could flip to the back of the book, but the entry above “Antennaria aprica Greene (Asteraceae)” also refers to Ross (2002) and men­tions that the people in ques­tion are the Navajo. It’s not an insur­mount­able prob­lem, but it seemed as though the authors were expect­ing the book to be read alpha­bet­ic­ally. I could see anthro­po­lo­gists search for inform­a­tion by region, or pos­sibly to com­pare treat­ments for tuber­cu­losis or other dis­eases, but I wasn’t con­vinced that they’d look for spe­cies in alpha­bet­ical order as a first choice.

This turns out to be an unfair cri­ti­cism as after the plants come a couple of indices, includ­ing one that is use­ful for exactly the sort of ques­tions that anthro­po­lo­gists would ask. Given that and the range of ques­tions that could be asked, alpha­bet­ical order is emin­ently sens­ible. Indeed if I hadn’t star­ted read­ing in alpha­bet­ical order I may not have noticed that Antennaria mar­gar­itacea was an odd entry.

Looking at how the book will be used, I won­der if the authors are going to get all the credit they deserve for this work. They acknow­ledge that the value of the entries is only as good as the report they are based upon. This depends on many factors, includ­ing whether or not the field­worker has cor­rectly iden­ti­fied the plant. Therefore while this is a good first point of call, any research has to move into the ori­ginal reports and work around those. When it comes to cita­tion is there a need to cite this work? This book is adding noth­ing ori­ginal in the entry itself, it’s value lies in put­ting this inform­a­tion into an access­ible volume. There is also a mat­ter of whether hard-copy is the right format for this work. Here the search func­tion of a Kindle works for track­ing inform­a­tion through the work and per­haps an updat­able wiki could have been a bet­ter sys­tem. As long as an OUP volume has more aca­demic cachet than a wiki it would be a poor career move for any­one to take the wiki option. However it may work for future edi­tions if it sparks more work in this field.

If there’s any justice, this book should pro­voke more work into plant smoke. There is plenty of mater­ial for research in here. Some ques­tions may seem obvi­ous, like look­ing for chem­ical sim­il­ar­it­ies in medi­cinal smoke rem­ed­ies. The range of uses also allows for some odder ques­tions to be asked. A num­ber of plants are burned to ward off evil spir­its. Is there some­thing bio­lo­gical that smells like evil spirit? Another pos­sib­il­ity is that it’s not merely the smoke that makes a plant use­ful against evil but maybe also the loc­a­tion it grows. Are such plants found in lim­inal zones like the edge of set­tle­ments, or on the bor­ders of unused land? A few minutes thought could sug­gest a few pos­sible lines of research when I wasn’t even aware of the ques­tion till read­ing through the entries.

To large extent this is what mat­ters in an aca­demic book, does it fur­ther con­ver­sa­tion? Uses and Abuses of Plant-Derived Smoke def­in­itely does. There are the tools there with the ref­er­enced entries and indices to cre­ate ideas and provide dir­ec­tion to take enquir­ies fur­ther. It helps that the book is read­able too. It’s the way that this book opens new ques­tions that makes it aca­dem­ic­ally use­ful, but poten­tially dis­ap­point­ing to a gen­eral reader. There is still a good lengthy syn­thesis to be writ­ten on the use of plant smoke, and this isn’t it. The range of detailed research to write such a book prob­ably doesn’t exist yet. My hopes are that it will inspire the large amount of work that makes such a syn­thesis pos­sible in such volume that the book will rap­idly appear dated to the extent a new edi­tion is needed. I am a bit over­worked at the moment so I shouldn’t be look­ing at new pro­jects, but the next time I’m in a half-decent lib­rary I might have a few more art­icles on my to-photocopy list that I’ll want to follow-up.

Aside from the book, browsable on Google Books, Lara V Jefferson’s Environmental Applications in Mining web­log looks like it will be worth fol­low­ing if you have an interest in con­ser­va­tion and envir­on­mental impacts asso­ci­ated with mining.

Alun Salt. ORCID 0000-0002-1261-4283

When he's not the web developer for AoB Blog, Alun Salt researches something that could be mistaken for the archaeology of science. His current research is about whether there's such a thing as scientific heritage and if there is how would you recognise it?

4 Responses

  1. juniper says:

    that many of the com­pounds in smoke are cre­ated by the act of burn­ing and so aren’t found in the plant itself. ”

    Interesting– could explain why many med­ical marijuana patients insist on using tra­di­tional smoked deliv­ery of the drug?

  2. juniper says:

    Also, should add that non-medical users often have the same prejudice…