Stephen J. Haggarty

Commentary on Microcosms: A Homage to Sacred Plants of the Americas

Toward a Digital Ethnobotany & Advancing the ‘Archaic Revival’

One rarely comes across a project of great merit, both scientifically and artistically, that makes original and significant contributions to both domains of creative pursuits. Yet this is the case with the fascinating project called ‘Microcosms’ led by Jill Pflugheber and Steven F. White that seeks to pay tribute to the sacred and medicinal plants of the Indigenous Peoples of America. 

While the field of ethnobotany has important foundations in the efforts of traditional knowledge keepers and has sought to systematically study the relationship of humans to plants since the beginning of the early 20th century, it may seem unfathomable to many interested in the varied members of the Kingdom Plantae and Kingdom Fungi that at one point, hand drawings, dried herbarium specimens, and copious field notes were the only way to preserve and document the wonders of the natural world. Here, in Microcosms, by leveraging advances in digital photography and state-of-the-art, laser-scanning confocal microscopy that has expertly been performed on thinly sliced specimens by the St. Lawrence University Microscopy & Imagery Center, the unique, 3-dimensional morphological patterns, and cellular features of a fascinating set of plants and fungi with known sacred and often psychoactive properties are revealed in an unprecedented manner. Many of the images within are stunning and reveal the complex cellular architecture and scaffolding that underlies the structure and function of the plant world at a level of detail that has hitherto not been captured for many of the plants studied. Certain ineffable aspects regarding the color spectrum and geometric features simultaneously look familiar and foreign when considering the micron-level scale being depicted and the complex, evolutionarily sculpted biological processes involved in generating such patterns. 

A fascinating aspect of how the fluorescence images were collected was the sample preparation. This was not through using exogenously added chemical stains or antibodies to detect specific macromolecules but rather by leveraging the unique, intrinsic fluorescent properties inherent to the tissue being analyzed. While many macromolecules may contribute to the spectrum of visible colors, almost certainly, some fluorophores are provided by the constellation of endogenously biosynthesized small molecules, many of which are responsible for the unique medicinal and psychoactive properties of the plants. Considering that in a genetically-encoded and light-powered manner, these plants possess within their cell walls the ability to biosynthesize and store a diverse collection of structurally complex molecules that, in many cases, even the most talented of today’s synthetic organic chemists are often hard-pressed to replicate in the chemistry laboratory, reminds oneself of the true wonders of nature and how much more we have to learn about the chemistry and biology of life.

Importantly, accompanying each plant image is a thoughtful commentary that expertly weaves together knowledge that originated with the Indigenous Peoples of America that first worked with these plants and is summarized in the foundational contributions to the field that includes Plants of the Gods (Richard Evans Schultes and Albert Hofmann), the Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications (Christian Rätsch), Pharmacotheon (Jonathan Ott), and many other historical documents including the Florentine Codex and descriptions from the pre-Columbian era. These explanations begin to provide the reader with a sense of the cultural significance of these sacred plants and point to directions for future research.

Excitingly, the collection of plants imaged includes several specimens with their Latin binomial names along with their complete set of traditional names (e.g., Psilocybe cubensis (Di-shi-tjo-le-rra-ja, Hongo de San Isidro, Magic Mushroom, Tamu, Teonanácatl), the characterization of which have led to an expanded understanding of human history and have revealed phytochemicals biosynthesized within that have provided profound insights into the mechanisms controlling normal and altered states of consciousness, with several such natural products and their derivatives poised to catalyze a revolution in mental health treatment (e.g., psilocybin in treatment-resistant depression).   

Overall, the fruitfulness of the transdisciplinary collaboration between scientists and artists that underlies the Microcosms project is made evident by the captivating nature of each image and the implications of the knowledge and discoveries yet to be made from the study of these plants. By purposely blurring the traditional boundaries between art and science, a diverse audience is skillfully made to contemplate critical issues of our time concerning the pressing need to prevent biodiversity loss in all its forms and ensure the preservation of Indigenous knowledge. In this context, while the zeitgeist, or spirit of a given epoch of human history, is most evident in hindsight, it often ripples simultaneously through both the world of science and art. Here, the themes that Microcosms highlights feature prominently in the continued “archaic revival” that seeks to embody the wisdom of nature and remember the interconnectedness of the world and our past. With this spirit in mind, Microcosms inspires a sense of awe and profoundly connects us with our past, thus likely catalyzing important discoveries in the future. 

Stephen J. Haggarty, PhD

Associate Professor, Harvard Medical School

Scientific Director of Neurobiology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Center for Neuroscience of Psychedelics

Director, Chemical Neurobiology Laboratory, Mass General Center for Genomic Medicine

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