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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.