Leguminosae (Legume Family); Subfamily Lotoideae (Papilionoideae), Sophoreae Tribe
Forms and Subspecies
A form that occurs in Texas has exclusively yellow seeds; it has been described (Rudd 1968, 528) under the name Sophora secundiflora (Ort.) Lag. f. xanthosoma Render.
Agastianis secundiflora (Gómez-Ortega) Raf.
Broussonetia secundiflora Groussonetia
Calia erythrosperma Berlandier in Mier-Terán
Cladrastis secundiflora (Gómez-Ortega) Raf. ex Jacks.
Dermatophyllum speciosum Scheele
Sophora sempervirens Engelm. in A. Gray
Sophora speciosa (Scheele) Benth.
Virgilia secundiflora (Gómez-Ortega) Cav.
Big drunk bean, chilicote, colorín, colorines, coral bean tree, coral bean, frijolillo (Spanish, “little bean”), frijolillo of Texas, frijolito, frixolillo, k’awnk’odl (Comanche), mescal bean, meskalbohne, mountain laurel,296 patiol, patol, red bean, red medicine, schnurbaum, Texas mountain laurel
In Texas, mescal beans have been found together with Ungnadia speciosa in archaeological contexts (ritual caves) that extend into strata dating as far back as eight thousand years (Adovasio and Fry 1976*). Mescal beans appear together with Ungnadia and peyote (Lophophora williamsii) in more recent layers. In the American Southwest, the use of the beans for ornamental purposes has been documented for eight thousand years (Merrill 1977).
Some anthropologists have assumed that the mescal bean cult (mescalism) represents a precursor to the peyote cult (peyotism). The mescal bean cult disappeared because the effects of the peyote cactus are much more pleasant and visionary (Campbell 1958; Howard 1957, 1960; La Barre 1957).
The use of the name mescal for this plant and its seeds has resulted in considerable confusion in both the ethnographic and the ethnobotanical literature. The name mescal is used in Mexico for an alcoholic beverage made from Agave spp., while mescalito is used in northern Mexico to refer to peyote, peyote buttons, and the peyote spirit. There also is the Mescalero Apache tribe, who were responsible for carrying the peyote cult into North America. The confusion is increased by the fact that necklaces of mescal beans have been used as ritual objects in both the historical and the modern peyote cult (cf. Lophophora williamsii).
In northern Mexico, mescal beans are used interchangeably with the seeds of Erythrina flabelliformis (Merrill 1977).
The tree is found from Texas and New Mexico south into central Mexico (Rudd 1968, 528).
Propagation occurs from seeds, which should be pregerminated for best results. It also can be propagated from cuttings taken from the green wood (Grubber 1991, 49*). The bush requires a dry, warm climate.
The shrub or small tree can attain a height of up to 12 meters. It has evergreen pinnate leaves with seven to eleven leaflets. The scented violet flowers are some 3 cm in length and form pendulous clusters. The siliquose, constricted fruits contain the actual mescal beans (seeds). The beans are 0.8 to 2 cm long and 0.5 to 1.5 cm wide. Although they are usually red, seeds that are dark red, light red, orange, and yellow also occur.
Mescal beans are difficult to distinguish from the similarly red seeds of Erythrina flabelliformis (cf. Erythrina spp.) and are often confused with them.
The closely related and similar species Sophora conzatti Standl. and Sophora purpusii Brandeg. are found in Mexico, where they too are known as frijolillo (Rudd 1968, 525 ff.).
—Seeds (beans, mescal beans, meskal beans, colorines)
Preparation and Dosage
No more than a quarter of a bean is roasted on a fire until it turns yellow and then ground, chewed, and swallowed (Gottlieb 1973, 35*).
The Mescalero Apache add the seeds to the beer (tiswin, tulbai) they make from maize (Zea mays) in order to potentiate its effects (Bye 1979b, 38*).
Half of a bean is said to be sufficient to induce a state of delirium that can persist for two to three days (Havard 1896, 39*). In former times, up to 3 mg of cytisine (a component alkaloid) per day was used as a respiratory stimulant (Brown and Malone 1978, 9*).
It has been said that in the early twentieth century, Chinese immigrants in Oklahoma mixed mescal beans with sugar, vanilla, and musk to produce an aphrodisiac candy known as “red beans from China” (Reko 1938, 137*).297
During the colonial period, the Coahuilteco Indians of southern Texas and northern Mexico were known to alternate eating mescal beans (the source calls them frixolillo) and eating peyote in their communal rituals (Merrill 1977). The Indians of San Antonio (Texas) formerly used the beans as a ritual inebriant (Havard 1896, 39*). Several Plains tribes also consumed the seeds.
The seeds were a common component of amulets. The seeds were stored in small leather medicine bags or carried on a person’s body. Some of the Plains tribes had mescal bean secret societies, the members of which presumably used the beans in their vision quests. Unfortunately, we have few details about such use due to the secrecy that surrounded these groups (Merrill 1977).
Numerous necklaces of mescal beans are known and have been ethnographically described for North America. Ethnographic objects made with mescal beans have been documented for the following tribes: Apache, Arapaho, Arikara, Blackfoot, Caddo, Cheyenne, Coahuilteco, Comanche, Crow, Delaware, Hidatsa, Iowa, Kansa, Kickapoo, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, Mandan, Missouri, Ojibwa, Omaha, Osage, Oto, Pawnee, Ponca, Prairie Potawatomi, Pueblos, Sauk and Fox, Shawnee, Shoshone, northern Ute, Sioux, Tonkawa, Wichita, and Winnebago (Merrill 1977). Necklaces of mescal beans are still worn at peyote ceremonies today.
The red-black seeds of Abrus precatorius L. have also been found among the paraphernalia of the mescal bean secret societies and in several medicine bundles of the Iowa and Omaha (cf. Rhynchosia pyramidalis).
A prehistoric medicine bundle containing seven mescal beans and the herbage of an Ephedra species (Ephedra spp.) was discovered in southwestern Texas (Merrill 1977, 68). In general, the prehistoric art style (Pecos River style) of this region has been associated with the mescal cult (Wellmann 1981, 94*).
The mescal bean tree (Sophora secundiflora) is indigenous to Texas.
The seedpods and seeds of the mescal bean (Sophora secundiflora).
The northern Mexican Kickapoo Indians use the seeds to treat ear ailments. They prepare a decoction from one ground seed and some tobacco (Nicotiana spp.), which is then dripped into the ear canal. A cold-water extract of crushed seeds is used as an ear wash. Ear drops also are produced by boiling a bean with a branch of juniper (Juniperus sp.) (Latorre and Latorre 1977, 352*).
Mescal beans contain the alkaloids cytisine (= baptitoxine, sophorine, ulexine, laburnine, cyti-tone), N-methylcytisine, and sparteine (Keller 1975; Merrill 1977). Quinolizidine alkaloids have also been identified: epi-lupinine, Δ5-dihydrolupanine, anagyrine, and thermopsine (Hatfield et al. 1977). At 0.25%, cytisine is the primary active constituent.
Depending upon the dosage, the seeds exhibit first psychoactive and then powerful toxic effects. The sequence of effects begins with a reddening of the face and inebriation and includes spasms, muscular rigidity, headache, nausea, vomiting, defecation, fainting, delirium, and, at the end, death. The reddening of the face is an effect that has been reported often (Howard 1957, 76).
Whether mescal beans are hallucinogenic remains an open question (Schultes and Hofmann 1992, 57*). To date, only a single case of poisoning has been reported in the toxicological literature (Hatfield et al. 1977, 374).
Commercial Forms and Regulations
Mescal beans are occasionally available on the international seed market.
See also the entries for Lophophora williamsii and cytisine.
Campbell, T. N. 1958. Origin of the mescal bean cult. American Anthropologist 60:156–60.
Hatfield, G. M., L. J. J. Valdes, W. J. Keller, W. L. Merrill, and V. H. Jones. 1977. An investigation of Sophora secundiflora seeds (mescalbeans). Lloydia 40 (4): 374–83. (Contains an extensive phytochemical bibliography.)
Howard, James H. 1957. The mescal bean cult of the central and southern Plains: An ancestor of the peyote cult? American Anthropologist 59:75–87.
———. 1960. Mescalism and peyotism once again. Plains Anthropologist 5:84–85.
———. 1962. Potawatomi mescalism and its relationship to the diffusion of the peyote cult. Plains Anthropologist 7:125–35.
Izaddoost, Mohamed. 1975. Alkaloid chemotaxonomy of the genus Sophora. Phytochemistry 14:203–4.
Keller, William J. 1975. Alkaloids from Sophora secundiflora. Phytochemistry 14:2305–6.
La Barre, Weston. 1957. Mescalism and peyotism. American Anthropologist 59:708–11.
Merrill, William L. 1977. An investigation of ethnographic specimens of mescalbeans (Sophora secundiflora) in American museums. Technical Reports 6, Research Reports in Ethnobotany 1. Ann Arbor: Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan.
Rudd, Velva E. 1968. Leguminosae of Mexico—Faboideae. I: Sophoreae and Podalyrieae. Rhodora 70:492–532.
Troike, Rudolf C. 1962. The origin of Plains mescalism. American Anthropologist 64:946–63.
Sophora tomentosa, which is related to the mescal bean, also contains efficacious alkaloids. The seeds of the plant were once used as an inebriating beer additive.
“Those who have been poisoned or intoxicated with Sophora powder find themselves in a mildly sedated state (as if ‘cheered up’) without, however, exhibiting any disturbances in their intelligence. About one-half hour after ingesting the (raw, typically powdered) beans, they manifest a striking hypersensitivity of the skin. Every touch is perceived as a ‘tickling’ (hence the name ‘laughing intoxication’), a gentle caress of the mouth provokes a flow of saliva, touching the umbilical region produces involuntary urination or wet dreams.”
VICTOR A. REKO MAGISCHE GIFTE [MAGICAL POISONS]