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Addictive Drugs That Are Actually Pesticides

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From coca leaves to coffee beans, people use plants to produce many of the most popular drugs in the world. But whether it’s your $5 morning latté or a line of coke, you might be surprised to learn why plants bother to build the molecules behind that buzz in the first place. Strangely enough, many plant-based drugs—such as caffeine, cocaine, nicotine and morphine—are all made for the exact same reason: to fight off insects. Why exactly do humans love ingesting insect repellent so much?

Caffeine, Cocaine, Nicotine and Morphine: Pleasurable Pesticides

According to Dr. David Kennedy, who studies plants and the human brain at Northumbria University, to understand what it is about nature’s pesticides that gets us so enjoyably high, it first helps to look at the world from a plant’s perspective. “Unlike animals, plants are rooted in where they live, and can’t really get away from any threats they might need to avoid,” Kennedy says. So to keep hungry herbivores at bay, he explains, many plants can manufacture a slew of defensive chemicals.

Now some plants, like the itchy poison ivy or poison oak, use brute force chemical weapons. But others—such as opium poppies and tobacco plants—take a more delicate approach. These plants still require some animals to get close enough to help them pollinate and breed, so rather than launching a full-scale toxic offensive, they’ll merely mess with a munching bug’s mind.

To do so, these plants produce neurotoxic drugs called alkaloids, which change the balance of chemicals in a bug’s brain. At high enough levels, these drugs can kill insects (and overdose humans) but small amounts will only send them on a bad trip.

Human and Insect Brains

Oddly enough, although these alkaloids evolved to interact with insect brains, “their effects on humans are often strangely similar,” says Kennedy. “For instance, if you give cocaine to bees, it will make them dance more. If you give caffeine or other amphetamines to flies, it will wake them up and make them more aroused. And if you give morphine to insects, it’ll have the same analgesic sort of effect.”

But Kennedy explains this isn’t all that surprising. “Humans have essentially the same brain as an insect. Ours are a little more complicated, but functionally they’re both very similar,” he says. For example, in both brains many of the chemicals that the neurons use to communicate—called neurotransmitters—have the same jobs.

But the mental effect of these drugs does differ in one huge way. “Insects don’t find these drugs addictive or pleasurable, they just find them repulsive,” says Kennedy. This is because human brains have a pleasure-causing reward system which is unlike anything found in the head of a bug—and is based around a neurotransmitter called dopamine. “In humans, by total chance, these drugs just hijack that reward system,” and can flood our brains with dopamine, says Kennedy.

This dopamine rush is what causes the pleasurable effect of these drugs—which can range from a perky disposition (caffeine) to gripping euphoria (cocaine)—and is also what makes these drugs so addictive. But bugs just feel crazed or twitchy, without the pleasure.

Marijuana and Psychedelics

Not all alkaloids or insect repellents in the plant world elicit such a big wave of pleasure in humans. In fact, drugs like cocaine and caffeine are only a tiny subset, and there are plenty of similar drugs out there that will make you little more than sick.

And Kennedy says that when speaking about these addictive drugs, it’s also worth mentioning a few other chemicals that plants produce to interact with the wildlife around them: psychedelic drugs like psilocin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) and tetrahydrocannabinol (the active ingredient in marijuana).

Kennedy explains that these psychedelics are distinct from the addictive alkaloids—and this is because of both their chemical structure and the fact that they’re not used solely by plants as pesticides. Rather, these psychedelic drugs can have a large mix of jobs inside the plant, from fighting fungus and microbes to luring in pollinating insects. But just like the alkaloids, their insane effect on the human mind is entirely coincidental, says Kennedy.

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Live Smarter
5 Smart Gardening Devices to Turn Your Thumb Green
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Just because you are a little absentminded about your houseplants doesn’t mean you can’t be a gardener. In the 21st century, there are plenty of smart tech solutions to care for your plants. Here are five technological tools to keep your plants alive, no matter how terrible a plant parent you are:


A blue sensor is placed in a pot of purple flowers next to a phone with the HelloPlant app open.

Helloplant, a new Kickstarter project, is a sensor that you insert into the soil of your pot to keep tabs on your houseplant. The associated smartphone app will ping you if the Wi-Fi-connected sensor detects that your plant is drying out, and it can tell you where the plant is getting light. The recommendations are customized based on what kind of plant you label it as in the app. Best of all, it’s cheaper than other smart gardening solutions, coming in at just under $26 per sensor.

Find it: Kickstarter

2. PARROT POT; $90

Parrot’s smart pots use embedded sensors to monitor and tend to your plants whether you’re home or not. They are self-watering, preventing you from under-watering or over-watering your delicate houseplants. You can go on vacation for up to a month and the Parrot Pot will take care of your precious basil plant for you. The four sensors measure light, temperature, moisture, and fertilizer levels and send the information to your phone so that you can analyze how your plant is doing. It’s the perfect assistant for someone who wants to develop a green thumb but isn’t quite sure how to start.

Find it: Amazon


Three plants in white GROWTH planters are placed on the floor.
Studio Ayaskan

With GROWTH, you never have to worry about your plants outgrowing their pots. The origami-like containers can expand so your growing plant has more room as it gets bigger. Created by the London-based design shop Studio Ayaskan, the white pots will give your apartment a minimal, modern vibe. The pots are not widely available yet, sadly. The studio recommends you subscribe to its newsletter to get an alert when they go on sale.


A white sensor is hidden within the leaves of a potted plant.

PlantLink is another smart sensor that you can insert into your potting soil to detect the moisture level of your plant’s environment. Based on the type of plant, the device will text, email, or send a push alert to your smartphone to tell you when it needs to be watered. PlantLink also makes a smart valve that you hook up to your sprinklers to automatically water your plants. It has its own solar panel and can be programmed to water your plants based on changes in the weather.

Find it: Amazon


Three Nanofarm boxes filled with herbs sit next to each other on a wooden table.

If you’re serious about your indoor gardening operation, consider Replantable's Nanofarm, a Kickstarter-backed tabletop produce system that requires zero oversight. You set it up once and wait for your food to grow. It works using Replantable’s Plant Pads, all-in-one seed and nutrient sheets that come in a number of different herb and salad-green varieties. For the Nanofarm, you just fill the tray inside with water, put in a Plant Pad, and close the door until your basil or butter lettuce is ready to harvest.

Find it: Replantable

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This Artist Makes Portraits of Insects From the Plants They Eat
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The plant art of Montreal-based artist Raku Inoue goes way beyond flower arrangements. Inoue, who created the clothing brand Reikan Apparel, fashions intricate portraits of insects out of the plants that make up their habitats, as Laughing Squid spotted.

The series, "Natura Insects," includes butterflies made of flower petals, leaves intricately woven into moth wings, and black widows with rosemary legs. The results are delicate, innocent-looking bugs that no person could bear to squash. Inoue carefully arranges the pretty plant sculptures, then photographs them against a white background, resulting in an unexpected take on the traditional insect display cases seen in natural history museums.

If you like flower-based art, Inoue recently debuted a series in which his flower-petal figures blend into adorable illustrations of kids.

[h/t Laughing Squid]


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