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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 10th July 2011

When Peter Cook, in his ‘Pete’ character, complained to ‘Dud’ about a ‘tap, tap, tap on the bloody window’ it was, he claimed, because Sophia Loren was desperate to get into his bedroom. The tapping that disturbed me this morning was no fantasy.

I don’t know whether it woke me up or it was just that, having woken up, I heard it but my first thought, as it often is with the odd noises houses make, was ‘That’s odd, no worry’. I didn’t trouble to rush around the house trying to discover what was going on.

In fact, I read for a while before going downstairs and into the kitchen. As I was putting the kettle on, I heard it again; a quite gentle but persistent tapping. Looking into the sunroom, the culprit was immediately obvious; a large black crow apparently trying to reach the foliage of the Catha edulis trees growing in the corner.

Catha edulis, qhat, is the tree, grown throughout the Middle East and East Africa whose leaves are chewed for their stimulant effect. Two years ago, I bought three small plants from a very well-known supplier of ‘herbs’. It was the same year that I attended the Hampton Court Flower Show after supplying advice and, in one case, plants to two of the exhibitors who wanted to include a poisonous theme in their show garden.

Catha edulis, qhat

Catha edulis

While at the show, I went into the stand of the company, Jekka’s Herbs it was, and asked how come they offered Catha edulis for sale. I don’t know the status of the person I was talking to so I won’t say they gave me the official answer but, in their view, Catha edulis was a food crop.

I suppose that’s an indication of the level of ignorance about this plant and its effects. I’ve seen it reported that, in Somalia, tribesmen fighting for one or other of the warlords become crazed by chewing qhat leaves before going into battle.

The traditional way to use khat (Did you see what I did there? ‘qhat’, ‘qat’, ‘khat’ ‘kat’, ‘kaad’, ‘chat’, ‘cat’, ‘ciat’ and many more are all acceptable forms of its most common ‘common’ name and it also has many other names not derived from the pronunciation ‘cat’.) is for a group of men to gather indoors in the afternoon and sit talking and chewing.

Just how stimulating the leaves are is hard to say. There can be a lot of variation in the strength of the active ingredients from plant to plant and, because these chemicals degrade quickly with time, the length of time between picking and chewing can make a big difference to the effects. Softer leaves, often favoured by the wealthy because they are more comfortable to chew, have been found to have a lower concentration of the stimulants, cathinone and cathin. Then, there is the social pressure.

Often, a leading member of the community will host ‘qhatting’ sessions and will have a room in their house kept for this purpose. Traditionally, anyone is welcome but social status plays a role in who goes where to chew. Within the room, the chewers will sit around the walls and the position of each chewer is an indication of his position in society; nearest the host means high status, nearest the door are the lowliest men in the group.

In some cases, the host simply provides the room and people bring their own supplies but wealthier hosts will offer their own qhat around and, social etiquette demands, this is always the highest quality product in the room. It would give grave offence if a chewer of the host’s qhat did not show the signs of intoxication associated with the plant.

Those signs are generally said to include euphoria, increased alertness and excitement, ability to concentrate, confidence, friendliness, contentment and the flow of ideas. Sometimes, religious specialists will use a qhatting session as an opportunity to teach the Qur'an. However, when Charles Moser, the American consul in Aden reported on his 1917 experiment with chewing qhat he said he felt no effects at the time but found it impossible to sleep that night.

In more modern times, use of qhat has moved away from this traditional picture as women and young people have taken to using it outside of formal sessions. Some users experience thirst during chewing and, it is thought, young people are more likely to assuage that thirst with a high sugar fizzy drink rather than the traditional tea. Many users report a mildly depressive state after a session and use of alcohol or cannabis to alleviate this has been found.

Erythroxylum coca

Erythroxylum coca (spot the difference)

The other difference is the use of qhat by immigrants, from Somalia in particular, in Europe and the USA. Its use in the USA is illegal but, at present, it is not subject to the Misuse of Drugs Act in the UK. The UK government is having another enquiry into whether that should be changed. There are those who say that Somali men become lazy as a result of sitting around in cafés chewing qhat but the possibility is, that because of a lack of job opportunities, these men would be sitting around anyway.

It is another example of the illogicality of ‘drug’ policy that, with qhat, the USA is content with a situation where it makes it illegal in the USA but does not interfere in how other countries deal with it. But with the chewing of coca leaves from the Erythroxylum coca bush by peasant farmers in South America, the USA makes dire threats against anyone who suggests that this traditional practice, which has been found to cause no more harm that the traditional use of qhat, should be permitted.

In two years, my three small plants have grown into trees over 2m tall and with a good spread of foliage. I, probably, shouldn’t have planted all three in one tub because the roots must be very congested but I doubt if I can do anything about that. I’ve never been tempted to try chewing the leaves so they just sit in the corner providing a year round green backdrop. And, it appears, attracting the attention of an early morning crow.