Before I met the cactus expert, I didn’t even know psychoactive gardens existed. Of course I wanted to see one.
So on a cool, rainy day in February 2022, I drove west to the foot of the Blue Mountains to visit Liam Engel. It took longer than I thought. There is something about Emu Plains at Penrith that is more relaxed than the inner city. Maybe it’s the bigger expanse of sky or the wider street verges. The earth smells good and you get the taste for a more rural life.
Liam works with Entheogenesis Australia an educational entheobotanical and psychedelic non-profit. He has spent time in Mexico and South America learning about cactus culture and has a large collection himself, with an even larger propagating garden.
Entheogenesis Australia is the heart of a community where like-minded, research oriented, plant people gather and contribute to education about, and communication of, plant information. The team are working on a book about common Australian psilocybin mushrooms. At the moment, Liam particularly wants to find Pelecyphora aselliformis seeds.
These seeds grow what some people might call a “false peyote” – a plant that looks similar to and grows in similar habitats to peyote and might be used as a peyote substitute due to its mescaline content.
Liam’s garden at Emu Plains is abundantly full of san pedros (large cacti, with thick stems), peyotes and false peyotes (but not Pelecyphora aselliformis). It teems with innumerable seed-grown, cloned and grafted plants. The back yard has a pool surrounded by more san pedros. Liam tells me the conditions are perfect for cactus in western Sydney as the temperature often gets up in the high 40s.
I love the native Callistemon brachyandrus in Liam’s front yard because he has trimmed back all the branches and on some he has nailed round wood pieces and placed cactus on these little stands. The result is a cactus candelabra.
As I follow Liam around his property, I begin to understand that while he presents as a laid-back person with street cred, he also has an extremely sharp eye, and a keen intelligence. He is one of those people whose expertise, experience and knowledge creeps up on you. Liam has committed a lot of time and passion to being a crusader for safe and informed cactus care and consumption.
He is also a gardener. “This is nothing,” Liam says, as I gaze at all his garden beds and propagation trays. “Wait until you see the psychoactive gardens I’m about to take you to.”
I have to admit I am extremely excited to see the next two gardens, but I know I can’t share their locations or the names of the owners. Soon enough, we drive for about 20 minutes to meet Liam’s first friend. Let’s call him Graham (not his real name).
An atmosphere of other-worldliness
Graham has a large backyard with a shed and a greenhouse. He has a forest of san pedros, including what he tells me is called a TBM (Trichocereus bridgesii monstrose), otherwise called the “penis plant” or frauenglück, meaning “woman’s luck” or “happy woman” in German. The origin of this clone is unknown but it has spread throughout the world and I am told it is known for being “good food” and having potent mescaline content.
Mescaline produces altered awareness, a different sense of time passing, and changes to visual experiences. Sometimes perceptual experiences become enhanced, even euphoric. Some people I’ve spoken to have had bad reactions such as headaches and dizziness.
Today is a meet-the-mescaline-plants day. Clouds start to cover the garden and a few spots of rain fall. I want to photograph all the cacti. I ask Graham why he started his garden. His answer: “To eat it all.”
He first ate a cactus back in 2014. He had a few dud experiences, both brewing and eating it, but learned to choose the right plants and has grown his own ever since.
This is an understatement. His garden has hundreds and hundreds of plants. All in neat rows, some raised up in garden beds. Some eight to nine years old. Many in neat pots that have been grafted or cloned.
I can tell Graham doesn’t trust me. I don’t really blame him. I don’t look like part of the trusted psychoactive community because I’m not. I look privileged, middle-aged, white, a woman. So it’s not surprising that he is a little wary, but he offers me a wine.
I decline the wine as I have to drive home for my daughter round 6pm. But I feel really grateful to be in Graham’s garden, even if he keeps casting me sidelong glances. On the one hand, it is like every suburban garden in Australia with mown open lawns (in between the cacti beds), a squeaking metal gate and a redbrick house. On the other hand, it also has a subtle energy. Whatever it is, there is an atmosphere of other-worldliness. It’s almost as if the culture of another country has been plonked into a suburban Sydney location. An odd schism of sorts.
While Liam and Graham disappear into a shed and speak in hushed tones as they inspect something within, I wander into the greenhouse on the other side of the garden, which is full to the brim with san pedro with peyotes grafted on top. Peyote are tiny little button cacti that look like pin cushions.
When they come back, I ask Liam and Graham about these double plants. They explain the peyotes are very slow growing and so being grafted onto cactus makes their growth rate increase. Plus they look very cool. Graham’s greenhouse is in excellent order. Everything is neat and tidy, like the lawn and beds outside.
But Graham is a curious individual who says he wants “to try loads of different cacti” and “to brew them all up and see what they are all like”.
Liam tells me that Graham is, “well known and respected for being the terscheckii connoisseur because only [Graham] and Peruvian Indigenous people can be bothered to eat that one.”Trichocereus terscheckii is known to have mescaline – the active hallucinogenic ingredient for psychoactive experience – but is a much bigger and more difficult cactus to eat or brew than san pedro.
Graham cuts out the dark layer of green under the skin, avoiding prickles, and makes a cacti soup.
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The greenhouse is full of variegated cactus and it is brimming with propagated plants in pots. There are bags of soil and stone and fertiliser and the air is cool and dry. There are plants from habitat (cuttings, not seed) and there is stuff from the Chacun Chacun tribe of Vilcabumba.
Vilcabumba is known as the lost city of the Incas in Peru, at the foot of the Andes Mountains. Even though we are in Sydney and even though Liam and Graham are not Indigenous people, there is still a strong sense, in this garden, of an older culture, an older place. Much of what makes up the garden has been brought from overseas and sent by express post.
“Don’t the drug dogs sniff it out at customs?” I ask.
“Border police are looking for drugs, not plants. You order ten and one might get through,” explains Graham. “But some of these are old and from Bendigo.”
Bendigo! I marvel that the Victorian city of Bendigo was a source of mother cacti, purebreeds.
The Bendigo garden is heritage now. Yeah, the owner was a cactus gardener, he got too old, he was a cactus import station back in the day, when it was legal. And they made it heritage, so it’s heritage now. In the 1930s, they sent a bunch of people down to South America to collect habitat pieces of cactus, but not long after that it became illegal and you couldn’t get anything imported into Australia by Australian law.
Liam explains that his favourite cactus, the san pedro, is considered to be a weed because it grows in great quantities, whereas peyote is more rare and very slow growing.
Graham breeds his plants, too:
Yeah, they’ve got stigma, male and female, you get the pollen and put it on the stigma and yeah, that’s hybridisation. And you bag the flowers so the other pollen doesn’t get into there. Yeah, you get babies in between two plants. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. But the grafted plants, they are not so good for consuming.
Liam and Graham discuss which plants are psycholeptic (having a calming effect) while I busy myself taking photos and absorbing all the different specimens and species, shapes and combinations. I feel like I need to give the young people space to catch up. But soon enough Liam is bustling both of us out of Graham’s backyard and through his side gate back to the cars. “Quick, we’re late to visit the next garden,” he says.
Before we leave, Graham pulls out some succulent cuttings from a pot near the gate and gives them to me. Maybe he is not so wary of me, after all.
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The oldest psychoactive garden
Graham and Liam and I drive for another half hour through the suburbs of western Sydney. This time, eastwards. I suppose it might be time to wonder why I’m doing this.
Why am I roaming around the suburbs of Sydney seeking out gardens of psychoactive plants?
My plant project so far has been to respond to the collection at the Sydney Herbarium. That involved our team commissioning poets, filmmakers and artists to respond to plant specimens and to test out the strengths and weaknesses of such collecting institutions. We partnered with the herbarium and also with Bundanon, the old homestead of artist Arthur Boyd, south of Sydney. Bundanon has an exciting remit of environmental art and care. My overall research questions, shared with Bundanon, are about why plants are so important, and why colonial knowledge has left out a chunk of First Nations cultures, and why plant people are so interesting.
It is this last point that is driving me right now. Plant people are special. I had mentioned this to the curator down at Bundanon on one of our zoom calls, and she cried, “Yes of course they are more interesting!”
So I am not alone in my thinking. Plant people are different from mainstream people. This may be because some microdose or imbibe plants for an hallucinogenic experience and know things that others may not. Or maybe it’s because they spend so much time caring for plants. Either way, this is the position I have put myself in. That’s that.
So it’s drizzling with rain as we travel to this final garden but the weather is lovely and cool. I wonder what the cacti make of all the recent wet heat. We can refer to the owner of the next garden as James (not his real name) to protect his identity and also his garden, which is hugely valuable in terms of variety, quantity and dollars.
So we arrive at garden number three. Again, we have turned up at a lovely suburban house. The front gate has been left ajar, for us I guess, and halfway up the driveway an alarm goes off. I notice a sensor to the right and realise this is some serious security. With good reason, I soon find out. I hope there are no guard dogs and fall in behind Liam and Graham, just in case. If a chunk of flesh is going to be bitten, I’d rather it wasn’t mine. But there are no dogs.
A tall man wearing a baseball cap ambles towards us. He has a cactus shirt (so does Liam, by the way) and a gentle demeanour. This is James. First we move into the heart of the large garden, and pause, naturally gazing up towards a towering tree. Well, it’s not a tree. It’s a vine that has completely engulfed a tree. A tree and a vine as one!
It’s ayahuasca, a vine that is growing on a large pine. It’s enormous, two storeys high, and its healthy leaves are fluttering brightly in the rainy light of the late afternoon. It is beautiful as it rises up behind the house. This grand ayahuasca vine is probably near-strangling the pine. The four of us stare up at it in silence. I’m amazed at its excellent condition.
Read more: Ayahuasca: just how safe is this psychoactive brew?
I secretly brought a piece of the ayahuasca plant back in my suitcase back in 1993, after visiting Peru. I stayed with a shaman. We slept on dirt and there was no power except batteries for a few hours per day, no electricity. But that guy [he gestures to vine] came back with me in my bag. I was young and silly.
James lifts up the skirt of the vine to show me the tangle of roots beneath. “Ayahuasca means divine,” he says.
His shaman taught him that the best way to prepare ayahuasca was to cut a length of vine that was the same diameter as the recipient’s thumb and then same length as their height. Different tribes do it differently, but that’s how he was taught. And that vine was mixed with five to ten Psychotria viridis leaves, which have the DMT alkaloid and look a little bit like a marijuana plant.
James shows me a few pots of psychotria he has growing at the back of a small greenhouse. The plants are maybe 60 centimetres high. Apparently these are psychotria hybrids designed to cope with Australian conditions. James had brought leaves of these plants back from South America in his toothpaste container.
Liam, Graham and James start talking about the inbreeding and inappropriate naming of varieties of cactus in Australia. They seem particularly dissatisfied with a plant named “hope”.
I start to look at all James’ cacti. Huge old blue ones. Most of his collection is seed grown. He tells me that the v-marks on the cactus show their age. One “v” is one season of growth. Like the rings of a tree trunk. The gardeners start talking about a large cactus nursery called Hamilton’s and how they used to have the oldest and best cactus and peyote but someone tipped them off and plants were stolen.
We move to another part of the garden to see the large greenhouses and stop to talk to James’ mother. She is sitting in front of a round prickly cactus in a pot. The mound of cactus is three times the size of one I have at home. With gloves on, she is using huge tweezers to pull out weeds. James’ mother is 84 and has her hair pulled back in a complex bun.
She smiles and seems happy to meet her son’s friends. I wonder if she knows how immersed her son is in the psychoactive plant world. Does she approve, turn a blind eye, not really care?
This garden is intense and widespread and must be worth an absolute motza. But James starts to tell me a story that is incredibly important for people who use plant-based drugs.
A story that really makes you wonder about the human brain and how connected or disconnected or reconnected humans are, or could be, with plants. We are standing in his greenhouse, which has state of the art exhaust fans and temperature and humidity gauges and dehumidifiers. James explains that about three or four years ago,
I had an aneurism. One day I was at work and thought ‘Something is wrong here.’ And then my gums were so sore, I had tears coming out of my eyes. And everyone is telling me, ‘Man, you don’t look good. Like, something is wrong. You’re really white and you’ve lost a shit ton of weight’. Because I used to be 100 kilos.
Anyhow, I said, ‘Yeah, I’m not feeling well. I’ll go home.’ So before I went to go home, I fainted. So I wake up and they said, ‘Oh yeah man, go home’ … Mind you, before this, I knew something was wrong so I went to tell the doctors. And they gave me an MRI. But they didn’t see anything.
James went to three doctors. One said it was chickenpox. Another said it was measles. Basically he took himself to hospital twice, to no avail, and kept being sent home. Finally he went back to hospital and had a second MRI and at last the doctors could see the aneurism and operated, leaving him to recover for six months.
What is so interesting about this story is why James didn’t die. Few people survive a brain bleed, and James’s was six millimetres by nine millimetres and lasted three days. One doctor believes part of the reason is that James is ambidextrous. The second reason is that they discovered what James had been doing for the three days of brain bleeding, which was agonising and caused intense vomiting and sickness.
He had been consuming constant amounts of mushrooms and cactus and cannabis. Nonstop. He tells us that one of his doctors believed this slowed down the brain and probably slowed the bleed and probably delayed death until they worked out what was wrong. Of course, this makes me wonder if the magic mushroom, cannabis and cactus caused the bleed in the first place. There is a long history of medicine as cure/kill. Too little, and the medicine is not enough to cure. Too much, and the medicine acts as a poison.
Isn’t this the narrative that creates such fear? That we, as consumers, want solutions to our ailments but are wary of the side effects? These issues are true for both approved and unregulated medicines: the impact of certain drugs can’t be understood until a later stage.
Addictive drugs, such as the analgesic Bex, were not understood for years. Bex was a popular drug in the 1950s and 1960s and it wasn’t until 1975 that phenacetin was removed from Bex because it was deemed addictive and could cause kidney cancer. Do these stories strike a chord of terror among mums and dads?
Read more: Five Australian medical stories everyone should know
The cactus fail
The thing about taking psychoactive medicines is that there are all kinds of risks, including the risk of failure. What happens when nothing happens? Is this a reflection of the plant – that it deems the human subject unworthy of the experience they are looking for? Perhaps some people take these substances but it’s not meant to be, it’s not their time, the plant decides they are not ready. Or – maybe they dodged a bullet.
I had a friend and her husband over for dinner and was telling them about these amazing secret gardens I had visited and the generous people who owned and cared for them. My friend told me her eldest son had tried to eat a cactus once and had become very sick.
I immediately asked if I could talk to him. They agreed but requested that I use a pseudonym for him – so let’s call him Joe. I rang Joe the next day and asked him about his experience.
He explained that one of his close mates – let’s call him Jason – had been on holiday in South America and, in a Peruvian hostel, had taken san pedro cactus. Jason’s experience was euphoric and amazing. Jason had eaten a forearm’s length of cactus after taking off the skin and eating the green part above the white matter. This all sounded exactly like the process Liam and Graham had explained.
Jason had told Joe that while it was disgusting to eat, after a half hour the experience had kicked in and was completely joyful. So Joe decided to grow some cactus and thought about eating it. He bought one off eBay and grew it for many months. He had bought it as a san pedro and it seemed legitimate. Eventually there came the day that he wanted to take it.
So he de-spined the cactus, cut off a forearm’s length and planned to eat it on a weekend when he was not at work. However, on the Thursday night, he decided to eat a handful of it, just to test the waters. He went to bed and on Friday started to suffer agonising cramps. He had to work but was nauseated and cramped and the pain and exhaustion were insufferable.
By Friday night he called his mother for help and it eventually passed, after much vomiting and pain. I asked if he was disappointed. “Yes, because my friend had such a good experience so it was a bit of a bummer that I had no psychoactive experience.”
I just had one more question for Joe. Why did he want to take cactus in the first place? There are many other substances that are much less hard work. Joe explained that he was attracted to the idea of working straight with nature. He liked the idea of finding a plant and growing it himself, and then sourcing something directly from nature and preparing it himself. He felt an affinity with the idea of the ritual of preparation and cultural history and feeling connected to the thing that provides a different experience – the cactus.
Joe is not alone. There is a large and growing interest in psychedelics and the reasons are a drug high, medicine, ritual, curiosity, therapy and a natural experience. A combination of these reasons for taking psychoactive plants is often at play. I am grateful to all these people for sharing their experiences with me. There is a lot of stigma attached to these kinds of activities. Like all negative stereotypes, these attitudes do little more than attract shame and then shameful secrecy. These issues are loaded with politics and the ethics of care.
Ultimately, though, they take us back to the herbarium. Is this information about psychoactive plants included in its data? And if not, should it be? In a way, the herbarium dances around the stigma around psychoactive plants for recreational use. Is that wise?
The herbarium wants to reduce harm and avoid injury, of course, but is there a risk that more harm is caused by a lack of information? The herbarium also doesn’t want to be seen to advocate for these elements of plant–human sociality. Nor do I. But the activity is there. It’s not entirely helpful to pretend it’s not.
This is an edited extract from The Plant Thieves: Secrets of Herbarium, published by New South Books.