When bees fly tipsy, drunken birds smash into windows, and monkeys walk in dizzy circles, where’s all that free alcohol coming from? From overripe fruits, fermenting berries, and more.
There are many plants capable of producing high ethanol content (alcohol). The most remarkable ones are:
- Brazilian peppertree
- Scarlet firethorn
- Many species of grass & algae
- Palm trees
- Fermented fruits and flowers
Although many know that humans have been making alcohol from fruits, grains, leaves, root crops, stems, and tree sap since the dawn of civilization, many don’t know that there are also plants that produce alcohol by themselves.
Here’s a summary of what few people know.
The drunken monkey hypothesis suggests that millions of years ago, humans first tasted alcohol from fermented honey or rotting fruits. In addition, flowers, seeds, and grass, also produce all-natural bio-alcohol.
Remember that not all alcohol is made equal.
There are 3 general types of alcohol: (1) ethanol in beer, wine, and spirits; (2) isopropyl alcohol (Isopropanol) in rubbing alcohol; and (3) methanol or methyl alcohol in gasoline, antifreeze, paint remover, and in windshield wiper fluid. Don’t even think of drinking the last two.
Here’s a shortlist of plants that produce ethanol or ethyl alcohol without any human intervention.
The Brazilian peppertree is known for its ability to produce a higly potent form of alcohol. The very mature berries contain a higher concentration of ethanol.
When food becomes scarce in winter, birds such as robins and cedar waxwings feed on over-ripe berries. As a result, many of them are intoxicated and even die when flying into fences, walls, windshields, or glass windows.
But only some plants and berries are alcoholic enough to intoxicate.
For instance, the red berries of the Brazilian peppertree, also known as rose pepper or Christmas berry (Schinus terebinthifolius), have high ethanol content. The sweet outer part of the fruit (there’s a bitter inner part) can be fermented into a drink called chicha, a common practice in the Andes for thousands of years.
Each ripe berry of the scarlet firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea) contains up to 800 ppm of ethanol.
That’s nothing to us, but birds have smaller livers. In fact, birds that crash into buildings and car windows were found to have more than scarlet firethorn 50 berries in their stomachs.
PRO TIP: If you find an intoxicated bird and you’re sure it’s neither sick nor injured, keep it safe from predators (like cats) and from drunk-flying. Leave it alone in a cage or in a box with ventilation, and place that in a quiet, semi-dark place. When the bird is sober enough, release it.
Some of the best alcohols for use as biofuel can be extracted from algae as well as from different types of grass.
Here are some examples.
Algae: Compared to soybeans, green algae in saltwater, canals, and in shallow pools contains cellulose and starch that can be converted into sugar. This sugar can be fermented into bioethanol, which is more environment-friendly and energy-efficient compared to gasoline.
Switchgrass: Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) requires no special soil, care, irrigation, or watering. The leaves are high in cellulose, yielding from 72% to 92% ethanol and produces 94% less greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline.
Napier grass: Napier or elephant grass (Pennisetum purpureum) produces bagasse and ethanol. Studies show that ethanol concentrations and bioethanol yields can be as high as 5.9 to 12.8 m3 per hectare, per annum.
Other grasses: High alcohol content has also been found in giant silvergrass (Miscanthus x giganteus), Bermuda grass (Cynodon sp.), giant reed (Arundo donax), Alamo switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.), and bubble bush (Jatropha curcas L.).
Palm trees in tropical beaches and plantations are not only for postcard-perfect photos but also for merrymaking. Here’s a shortlist of alcoholic drinks that are naturally manufactured by palm trees.
Awarra Palm Tree (Astrocaryum vulgare): In Panama, wild howler monkeys eat the fruits of the tucum or awarra palm tree. The ripe fruits contain 0.6% ethanol, but higher in ripe fallen fruits (0.9%) and over-ripe fallen fruits (4.5% ethanol by weight).
Coconut Palm Tree (Cocos nucifera): In the Philippines and in Mexico, coconut trees drip tuba (palm toddy) into bamboo containers that are gathered each morning for a sweet drink with up to 4% alcohol. The sap turns into vinegar after a few hours. After a few years of fermentation, it becomes bahalina, or coconut red wine.
Mangrove Palm Tree (Nypa fruticans): The nipa palm grows in mangroves. It produces lambanog, a native drink with 80 to 166 proof alcohol. Lambanog is clear as water and tastes smoother than sake or schnapps when fresh. The “kick” is so strong it’s called a “real man’s drink”.
Other palm trees that produce 4% alcoholic drinks when fresh include the palmyra palm, fishtail palm, kaong palm, and date palm trees. Their fresh wines can be distilled to increase the alcohol content to up to 60% or even more.
FACTOID: The pen-tailed tree-shrew of Southeast Asia regularly drinks large amounts of fermented nectar from palm tree flowers. The nectar contains up to 3.8% alcohol. The tree shrews do not get drunk (they’re used to it).
In colder climates, fermentation toxicity is quite common during early spring and late winter. These are the times when yeast ferments the sugars in overripe fruits and berries.
However, in warmer climates, animals still get drunk on natural alcohol that plants provide all year round. Proof of this natural (and often funny) phenomena is provided by amateur videos more than by expert research.
Here is a shortlist of some fruits that produce alcohol without human intervention.
Marula: Animals in Africa have been recorded drunk after eating too many overripe marula fruits. When the fruits begin to ferment in their stomachs, the animals show uncontrollable behavior: tipsiness, sound sleep, and hangovers the next morning.
Pear: A video of a squirrel getting drunk after eating old pears in Minnesota has been viewed more than 700,000 times. The pears were supposed to be for Hamlet, the family’s pet pig.
Apple: Squirrels and even pigeons can get drunk from feeding off rotting apples. A pigeon unable to fly with Richard Harding’s hilarious commentary has garnered over 95,000 views.
Pumpkin: A 2-minute video shows an apparently drunk squirrel who feasted on pumpkins that were fermenting. The squirrel could hardly make it up a tree and went around in circles. Yes, on the ground.
FACTOID: According to a report from the Audubon Society, springtime can be intoxicating to birds and other wildlife, particularly those that overfeed on fermented fruits, berries, or the petals of flowers such as magnolia, hibiscus, petunia, chamomile, mahua, arabidopsis, and so on.
PRO TIP: The two simplest ways of making alcohol from plants are (1) fermentation, such as letting fruit juice turn into vinegar and (2) distillation such as removing water by heat to increase alcohol content. If you’re into DIY wine or spirits, check out a food fermentation kit like this one on Amazon.
During the early Neolithic Age (about 7,000 years ago), people in northern China were producing alcoholic drinks by fermenting moldy grains of rice and millet (C. lacryma-jobi) in clay pots, along with mixtures of grass, ginger, yam, lily, beans, or even snake gourd root.
And that’s not all.
Today, researchers seem to be discovering more plants that produce alcohol naturally. Methanol or ethanol has been found in herbs such as the thyme-leaved savory (Satureja thymbra L.) and the Mediterranean thyme (Thymbra spicata L.).
There’s natural alcohol even in freshwater algae in Antarctica (the Chloromonas sp.) and in the bark of the tamarind tree (Tamarindus indica).
But wait, there’s more.
Other researchers also found alcohol in the following plants:
- Chinese trumpet creeper (Campsis grandiflora)
- Gurjo, heart-leaved moonseed, or giloy (Tinospora cordifolia)
- Ku shen (Sophora flavescens)
- Mallow (Sida cordifolia L.)
- Mullein (Verbascum fruticulosum)
- Platycodon flower (Iris nertschinskia L.)
- Wild Senna (Cassia tora L.)
Many plants produce alcohol on their own without human interventions like fermentation, distillation, blending, or ageing.
Aside from the Brazilian peppertree and the scarlet firethorn, other plants that also produce alcohol naturally include grass, algae, palm trees, as well fermenting fruits and flower petals.
There are also herbs that produce alcohol, such as thyme-leaved savory, Mediterranean thyme, and mullein.
Now you know what only few people know. Congratulations!
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