The Secret Life of Plants

Is tripping on a pot of sassafras tea the key to happiness? Maybe.

When she meets me at the restaurant, my old friend looks several years younger. Lighter is the word that comes to mind.

"Wow," I say. "You look amazing."

She smiles with a devilish twinkle. "Everyone keeps telling me that."

"You're in love."

"You're right," says Daphne (I've changed her name to protect her job). "I am in love." She giggles cryptically. " It has nothing to do with a man." I'm completely lost. "I'm taking journeys with plants," whispers Daphne.

A few months before, she'd been invited to a "vision quest" in a fabulous New York apartment with six other middle-aged urban professionals and a pot of sassafras tea. Sarsaparilla, the active ingredient in sassafras, is a mild hallucinogen known to cause trance-like experiences when taken in small amounts, apparently. (Do not try this at home, gentle reader.)

Supervised by a Jewish shaman (a medical doctor in real life), Daphne experienced what she calls a "life-changing initiation" in which her trampled heart bloomed into a giant rose in her chest, its thorns pricking Daphne's neuroses -- pop, pop -- like so many party balloons. When the experience was over, she felt like a darkness was gone in her. "Like I've been reborn," she says with a straight face.

I'm skeptical but the change in Daphne cannot be denied. She's laughing more, being friendly to our waiter (not her usual way), enjoying her meal with unusual gusto, no longer slump-shouldered or looking like her dog just died. Daphne explains the ritual. The medicine woman, whose real name is Esther, begins by chanting curandero songs and passing small mugs of sassafras tea around the circle of participants on the floor. As Esther soothes them with sacred music, the group members sip, gulp, and gag down their homebrew; only two of them leave the room to vomit.

Once the digestive challenge is over, the six of them settle into their "journeying" afternoon, each receiving the particular teaching that she or he needs for confronting their particular angels and demons. Some people bond in pairs, cuddling, and laughing, and crying and stretching. Others like Daphne find their own corner and took their herbal trip solo.

Swept up in her blooming-heart vision, Daphne had an epiphany. "I realized that I'd been carrying my mother around on my chest like a toxic papoose. Her message was always, 'Find a man or you'll end up all alone eating garbage out of a dumpster.'" Daphne says this with more compassion than bitterness toward her mother. "Her message gave birth to my worst demon. That nobody would ever love me. That I would die alone and poor. But now - when this happened to my heart" -- Daphne opens her fist to show a rose blooming - "I saw that this was completely insane. How could I ever not be loved? I am love! How could I ever be lonely and abandoned? I'm a child of God, we are interconnected. Suddenly, I felt free for the first time. I knew that I was OK."

She reaches across the table and takes my hand. "You're love, too. You know that, right?"

"Uh huh."

Since taking her first journey with Esther, Daphne has taken three other plant journeys with different "teachers." She soared like an eagle on Morning Glory, wept like a baby on wild lettuce, felt her "woman power" course through her veins after drinking a cup of mugwort tea. On each leg of her botanical pilgrimage, Daphne believes that she that she has made more psychological 's progress than in years of talk therapy.

"You have to try it," Daphne says. "We could do it together!"

"Maybe," I say, knowing this won't likely happen.

After dinner, I think about Daphne's rebirth with an I'll-have-what-she's-having, covetous envy. It's not that I have anything against getting high. I was a major stoner from fifteen to eighteen. I was dragged out of class in handcuffs in tenth grade for dealing pot on campus. I totaled cars while driving on Quaaludes, ate peyote buttons at Passover dinner, dropped liquid LSD into my eyeballs, and snorted Peruvian flake cocaine with my girlfriend the night of our disastrous prom.

Altered states were my preferred locations till adolescence nearly killed me. Since then, I'd steered clear of mind-bending substances (pot doesn't count) in favor of hard-won self-control. When seeker friends took ayahuasca in the 90s, I sat on the sidelines and just said no. When I wrote an article about ecstasy in 2000, and a researcher sent me two capsules of pure MDMA in the mail, I left them in the envelope.

Drugs were a thing of the past, I thought. But here was Daphne inviting me to her lotus-eating club for 50-somethings and the thought of a vision quest seemed appealing. I certainly have my own healing to do -- areas where my heart is closed -- vestigial fears that still haunt me. If a cup of herbal tea can help shift these demons, wouldn't that be a trip worth taking. Why would I not take a shot at more bliss.

In the produce section of the health food store, I study a compact bunch of mugwort stuck between the eggplant and chives. What could this plant have to teach me, I wonder? My therapist charges me $125 an hour for her healing wisdom. It might be time to start doing the math.