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Excerpts on Pituri

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Duboisia hopwoodii – Australian Medicinal Plants: A complete guide to identification and usage; E.V. Lassak & T. McCarthy (One book worth having on your shelf)

 

Among all narcotic substances used by the Australian Aboriginal people, none surpassed ‘Pituri’ in importance. Its fame led the north Queensland write J.R. Chisholm to remark: ‘what opium is to the Chinaman, what whisky is to the Scotchman, so is “pituri” to the western blackfellow. It is his very soul – without it he has no life almost

 

The drug has been prepared from certain species of the family Solanaceae, in particular Duboisia hopwoodii, and, in certain areas of Central Australia, Nicotiana excelsior and Nicotiana gossei. The name ‘pituri’ was given to the drug by a small tribe that inhabited the sandhills country of the upper Mulligan River in western Queensland, near the boundary with the Northern Territory. The common use of this name throughout Central Australia has been attributed by T.H. Johnston and J.B. Cleland to the influence of the white man. The spelling itself has been rendered in many different variations, for example, pedgery, bedgery, pitcher, probably because of the difficulty in reproducing exactly the sounds of various unfamiliar Aboriginal languages, as well as owing to the interchangeability of ‘p’ and ‘b’, and ‘d’ and ‘t’ observed by Roth in some of these languages in parts of western Queensland. Johnston and Cleland go on to suggest in their interesting articles on the history of this Aboriginal narcotic that ‘pituri’ should be reserved for the drug originally prepared in western Queensland from Duboisia hopwoodii and that the Aranda name ‘ingulba’ be used for the drug prepared from the species of Nicotiana. The Luritja tribe’s name for the drug, ‘mingulba’ is probably nothing more than a derivation of the latter. The preparation of ‘pituri’ has been described by J.H. Maiden as follows:

 

“The drug is in the form of leaves, more or less powdered, mixed with finely broken twigs, forming altogether a brown herb. So fine is the powder, and so irritating, that the most careful examination of a specimen is attended with sneezing… They gather the tops and leaves when the plant is in blossom, and hang them up to dry.”

 

A.W. Howitt, the leader of the rescue party that found King, the sole survivor of the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition, made the following entry in his diary for 10 September, 1861: ‘The native … gave me a small ball of what seemed to be chewed grass as a token of friendship’. Later on the same day a member of Howitt’s party was presented by the Aborigines ‘with a small quantity of some dried plant from a bundle which one of them carried; it had a strong pungent taste and smell, and I am at a loss to conjecture its use unless a kind of tobacco’. These two passages refer most certainly to ‘pituri’ in its prepared, chewed form, and to its condition prior to use, respectively. ‘Pituri’ was chewed by the Aborigines in much the same way, and probably for the same reasons, as tobacco by the Europeans. And just as in some societies a pipe is passed from one smoker to the next, so, according to an account left by Maiden, the chewing of ‘pituri’ took on at times the significance of a social event, ‘a quid being passed from one native to another, and when they have had sufficient, one politely plasters it behind his ear’. The latter custom is not nearly so strange if one remembers the chewing gum mania of the early post-Second World War years when many a youngster preserved his precious lump of gum in exactly the same place – behind the ear!

 

Sometimes the drug was prepared by moistening the roasted dried leaves and stalks of Duboisia hopwoodii and rolling them in the ash of the bark, leaves, or twigs of certain species of Acacia, Cassia, Eucalyptus, before working them up into quids or rolls about 6cm long and 1.5cm in diameter. The quids were sometimes mixed with threads of native flax (a species of Psoralea) to make them stick together. The chief narcotic constituent of Duboisia hopwoodii (as well as of the two species of Nicotiana, N. excelsior and N. gossei) is the alkaloid nicotine, identified in the plant by A. Petit as early as 1879. Some of the difficulties encountered by early researchers working on the chemical structure of ‘piturine’, the total alkaloidal extract of Duboisia hopwoodii, were due to ‘piturine’ being in a mixture of nicotine and a second alkaloid, nor-nicotine. These two compounds are chemically closely related and may be very difficult to separate from one another.

 

Nicotine is a powerful poison affecting the nervous system. Symptoms of poisoning include nausea, diarrhoea, vomiting, mental confusion, twitching and convulsions. Free nicotine is readily absorbed through the mucous membranes, but its salts (i.e. compounds resulting from its reactions with acids) are not. As with most alkaloids, nicotine usually occurs in plants bound to certain common organic acids, such as citric acid and malic acid. It may, therefore, be liberated from these salts by the action of alkalis such as are present in the ash of most plants, thus explaining the practice of mixing ‘pituri’ with ash prior to chewing. It is not quite clear whether the Aborigines discovered the enhancing effect of ash on the potency of the drugs by themselves, or whether it was an innovation introduced by some of the early European immigrants. The basification of plant tissue with ammonia, like, or magnesia, required for a complete and efficient recovery of alkaloids present, has been a standard procedure in the chemical industry for a very long time. For instance, the alkaloid caffeine may be solvent-extracted from ground tea leaves after mixing them with magnesia.

 

‘Pituri’ has also occasionally been smoked by the Aborigines. It appears, however, that his practice has been copied from tobacco-smoking Europeans. The initial effect of ‘pituri’ is that of a stimulant. Later, the user starts to feel a bit ‘heavy’ and finally sleepy. Dr Joseph Bancroft also found that its use caused severe headaches in Europeans. Also, according to Dr Bancroft:

 

“The blacks about Eyre’s Creek appeared to use it preparatory to undertaking any serious business, i.e. as a stimulant generally. As an example, one old man Mr. Gilmour and party fell in with refused to have anything to say or do until he had chewed the pituri, after which he rose and harangued in grand style, ordering the explorers to leave the place. Mr. Wiltshire, however, states that it is not used for exciting their courage, or for bringing them up to fighting pitch, but to produce a ‘voluptuous dreamy sensation”

 

Maiden again reported that:

 

“In small quantities it has a powerful stimulating effect, assuaging hunger, and enabling long journeys to be made without fatigue, and with but little food. It is also used by the Aborigines to excite them before fighting”

 

The explorer King, mentioned above, who lived for several months under very difficult circumstances with a tribe of Aborigines on Cooper’s Creek near the present Queensland-South Australian border, occasionally ‘obtained a chew of pituri which soon caused him to forget his hunger and the miseries of his position’. As a matter of interest, the natives of eastern Africa, particularly in Ethiopia, chew the stimulant, alkaloid-rich leaves of Khata Edulis to lessen the pangs of hunger and to combat fatigue.

 

Peter Latz mentions that ‘pituri’ is still chewed in Central Australia even today, especially by the old people. Some fix or six plant species are being used, but the ones most sought after, the ones considered to be strong and ‘cheeky’ generally, are also those containing the highest amount of nicotine. Peter Latz also observes that chewing ‘pituri’ has little effect on him, presumably because he is a heavy smoker.

 

R. Helms, the naturalist of the Elder Expedition 1891-92 was surprised that, although Duboisia hopwoodii was found from the Everard Ranges to the Barrow Ranges and throughout the Great Victoria Desert, it was not used by the Aborigines living there. He assumed that its narcotic properties were unknown to them, that only the prepared drug was known outside the district where it was produced, and that those who obtained it by exchange were ignorant of its appearance in its natural state. These views appear to be inconsistent with the evidence available. The Australian Aboriginal people were very capable experimenters in the field of plant use. For instance, they were aware of the narcotic properties of the botanically very different Isotoma petraea, (family Lobeliaceae), which is also rich in nicotine, and used it for the same purposes as Duboisia hopwoodii; and in the Everard Ranges they utilized Nicotiana excelsior. It seems odd, therefore, that they should have failed to recognize the potential usefulness locally growing Duboisia hopwoodii, unless of course, it did not produce the desired effects. This latter possibility may be a more likely reason for the non-use of the plant. Could it be that the plants growing in the Everard Ranges contain altogether too small amounts of total alkaloid to have any real activity? Or do they contain predominantly the much less potent nor-nicotine? The related Duboisia myoporoides exhibits very large variations in its alkaloid content.

 

There are also reports that the Aborigines used the smoke of the burning leaves of Duboisia hopwoodii as an anaesthetic (probably owing to the drowsiness-inducing effect of nicotine) to lessen the pain during certain operations. An example of a frequently performed operation during which ‘pituri’ was used is the circumcision of boys during their initiation ceremonies.

 

Edited by Gimli
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Pituri - from "The Toxic Plants of Western Australia" - Gardner & Bennetts, 1956.

The plant is named after Charles Dubois (1656-1740), a London merchant and patron of botany, who collected a large herbarium now at Oxford. The specific epithet commemorates H. Hopwood of Echuca, a patron of Australian exploration.

 

 

Only a few of the drug-yielding plants found on their hunting grounds appear to have been known to the Australian aborigines. Among those used and valued was the plant called "Pituri" by the Central Australian tribes. The leaves of this plant, after drying and suitable preparation, were chewed as a narcotic.

 

 

Toxicity:

 

The toxicity of the plant appears to vary considerably with locality and stage of growth. It is known to be poisonous to horses, cattle, goats, sheep and camels, and has been responsible for a number of stock moralities in Western Australia. Carne, Gardner and Bennetts (1926) also record cases of poisoning in horses from the ingestion of chaff containing Pituri cut with the hay. Feeding tests were carried out by Bennetts (1935) with material collected from Carrabin.

 

 

Flowers were fed to sheep with negative results, but leaves were shown to be highly toxic. The leaves appeared to be unpalatable and were not eaten voluntarily. Experimental sheep, accordingly, were drenched with watery extracts of the leaves; a sheep (No. 1) receiving extract from 10 oz died within 10 minutes; a second (No. 2) receiving extract from 3 oz died within two hours later, while a third sheep (No. 3) receiving extract from 1 oz showed signs of poisoning followed by recovery. It was drenched the next day with a fresh exract from 4 oz of leaves and died five and a half hours later. the symptoms and post-mortem appearances described are based on observations made on these sheep.

 

 

Symptoms:

 

Sheep poisoned with Pituri showed dullness, trembling and muscular weakness particularly of the forelegs and neck. The head was carried low and ears dropped. When driven, sheep showed an inco-ordinated gait and were only able to travel for a short distance. One sheep showed marked weakness in the forelegs and would fall down head first when moved, another would fall over on its side. If undisturbed the sheep generally remained quietly lying down. Sheep No. 3 showed evidence of abdominal pain such as groaning and turning the head to the flank. Death may occur quietly or be preceded by struggling. Ruminal contents were regurgitated shortly before death

 

 

Post-mortem appearances:

 

No characteristic changes were observed. The kidneys were congested and there was a variable degree of enteritis. The small intestines were injected and showed patchy haemorrhagic areas. In sheep No. 3, which was drenched with extracts on two successive days, there was evidence of severe irritation of the small bowel which was evidently accounted for the signs of abdominal pain. The lining of the small bowel was covered with a lacework of creamy dead tissue and much of it has been shed into the contents of the bowel (m.m petechiated, necrotic and desquamated)

 

 

General references:

 

Pituri first came to the notice of the white man through the observations of Burke and Wills at Cooper's Creek in 1861, who received it from the natives there, and it is on record that the gift caused a severe headache to the recipients.

 

 

The aborigines of Central Australia also chewed the leaves of the indigenous species of tobacco, principally Nicotiana excelsior, and the fact that the two species were often employed as a mixture led to some confusion in determining the chemical properties of the so-called Pituri, which was perhaps such a mixture in the first samples examined.

 

 

In certain areas, such as the vicinity of the Blythe and Everard Ranges, although Pituri occurs abundantly, the natives (according to Helms, who was botanist with the Elder exploring expedition) chewed the leaves of native tobacco and were apparently unaware of the narcotic properties of Pituri. On the other hand, certain tribes used Pituri, by itself.

 

 

In the preparation of Pituri as a chewing narcotic it appears that the leaves were dried, or first "sweated" under a layer of course sand and then dried. This material was mixed with gum and the ashes of some other plant or plants, especially Acacia ligulata, and made into lumps, usually cigar-shape, forming "quids". These were chewed. Quids of Pituri, or of the Pituri-tobacco mixture, were a valuable article of barter and the chewing habit was adopted by tribes far removed from the sources of supply as well as by those tribes in whos territory the plant or plants occurred.

 

 

There are various accounts of the action of Pituri; some writers assert that chewing promoted excitement, and the substance was chewed before fighting, or before any important event; it was also claimed to allay fatigue, and was said to be used on long and arduous journeys in the manner that the Peruvians used coca.

 

 

In addition, Pituri was also used as a game poison, the leafy branches being placed in pools of water for the purpose of poisoning emus and kangaroos. Animals and birds drinking the water became so stupefied that they could be readily killed by natives lying in wait for the purpose.

 

 

In 1872 Joseph Bancroft examined Pituri, which he found to contain an alkaloid different from that obtained from the related species Duboisia myoporoides. Ferdinand Mueller concluded that the Pituri alkaloid was similar to, but no identical with, nicotine, and in 1880 Liversidge of Sydney isolated a "brown liquid, acrid alkaloid distinct from nicotine," which he called piturine. It should be remembered, however, that - in some cases at least - the material examined seems to have been the prepared material and was probably a mixture of Duboisia and Nicotiana. Subsequent work added to this confusion and it was not until Hicks and Le Mesurier (1935) isolated a new alkaloid, d-nor-nicotine, that the matter was clarified.

 

 

Subsequent work carried out by Bottomly and White (1951a), under the auspices of the Drug Panel of Western Australia on 70 samples from various localities between Mullewa and Bencubbin, showed (on dried material) a considerable variation in the nicotine and nor-nicotine content of Pituri.

 

 

Such dried material varied in nicotine from nil to 5.3 percent and in nor-nicotine from 0.1 to 4.1 percent. The total alkaloids varied from 0.4 to 5.7 percent, the average nicotine content being 1.3 percent and nor-nicotine content being 1.1 percent, with an average total alkaloid content of 2.4 percent. From the total of 70 samples, five showed no trace of nicotine. A few samples tested in the field indicated a much higher alkaloid content, the loss upon drying being calculated as from 1.0 to 4.8 percent for nicotine and 0.3 to 0.9 for nor-nicotine. Thus the amounts of nicotine and nor-nicotine determined may be as much as five and three times, respectively, those found in the dried material. A plant with a nicotine content in excess of 25% is indeed a highly toxic species.

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Sweet habitat photos in that paper Lok

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I find this plant extremely interesting! Any idea if I could obtain seeds? I would like to grow it and make a snuff out of it. 

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Always been interested in Pituri. Has anyone here actually tried it using the traditional method?

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3 hours ago, squidgygoanna said:

Always been interested in Pituri. Has anyone here actually tried it using the traditional method?

yes, a few of us.

a lot of info, regarding this on this site!

sab's emblem is/was a

pituri flower.

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