Monday, July 21, 2008

Culture Bound Psychiatry: Plant Talks Back?

It is important to understand that certain behaviour can be acceptable to certain culture. In Indonesia during their Temple Festival many strong young men could get into a trance state as part of their annual ritual. They would even stab themselves with a short dagger but nobody should get too worried as there would be no bleeding.

When I first arrived in England, my first guru warned me not to take any notice of patients talking to plants. The British are fond of gardening and one of the reasons their plants do well is that they are talked to.

Now years later, I became a Consultant, for Child Psychiatry. That did not stop anyone consulting me about adults, especially not my secretary. She has always been sensible and down to earth and years of typing my letters has meant that her thinking is close to mine.

She has a neighbour who is a keen gardener and is in her early sixties. This lady has been in and out of mental hospital and has had a number of ECTs for whatever diagnosis she had. She has one of the best gardens and conservatories in the neighbourhood. Her daughter lives nearby and keeps a close eye on her. My secretary invariably keeps an eye on Mum when her daughter goes on holiday.

Mum talks to her plants all the time.

Then one day when the daughter was away on holiday, Mum came over to my secretary to say that one of her new plants talked back to her. My secretary was not one to jump to conclusions and yet this might well be a relapse, she thought, brought about by life stress factor like daughter being away and so on and so forth.

My secretary did not really want to disturb her friend on holiday.

“I know it was probably the wrong thing to do, but I decided to go and listen.” She knows I always advise that if a child says he sees a ghost, the mother should not go and look for it.

So she went.

The plant talked to her.

Am I losing my secretary too?

She has a friend who works at Wakehurst Place, the Royal Botanical Gardens in West Sussex. If anyone is to know about a plant that talks to you, it would be them. She called her.

I have always maintained that one should have a good grounding in subjects way beyond one’s specialist field.

"Perhaps she knows about plants and mental illness!"

She assured her that she would be sending a team as soon as possible. In the meantime the lady should keep the plant in the conservatory.

Soon a white van turned up at the lady’s front door. The botanist and two others, all kitted out like they were going to the moon, got off the van.

They were not coming after the gardener. They came for the plant. It was secured in some black nylon case and properly taped up and loaded into the van. The team left.

None of the other plants talked.

A call came later. The plant was a Yucca, and Yucca does not normally talk. However, this particular Yucca was imported in a pot, together with a family of Goliath Tarantula. This specimen is bird eating and one special characteristic being:

Goliath Tarantula

Theraphosa blondi (SmithsonianZoo)

“It makes noise—not with vocal cords like dogs, cats, birds, or humans—but by rubbing together the bristles on its legs! This hissing noise called stridulation is loud enough to be heard up to 15 feet away.”

The old lady was not suffering from a relapse of her illness after all – no re-admission to hospital then.

My secretary’s botanist friend happens to have spent a year in Central and South America, and so she is knowledgeable about tarantulas. Although some tarantulas are kept as pets, this particular species can hurt by shooting hairs (actually hairlike setae) from its body at any creature—including a human—it perceives as a threat. The tiny, almost invisible hairs can be extremely irritating to skin, and can cause real problems if they get into delicate mucous membranes around the eyes or mouth.

Wakehurst sent the neighbour a new Yucca plant, straight from Kew’s own stock. Nice touch.

Sometimes it pays to listen!

We do what we do because of our interest and sometimes we are glad we do not even have to do anything.


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