The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Virola spp.


Epena, Parika Species




Myristicaceae (Nutmeg Family); there are six sections

Species Used Psychoactively (and Synonyms)


The genus Virola encompasses some forty species, all of which are native to tropical (South) America (Plotkin and Schultes 1990, 357). Others recognize forty-five to sixty species (Holmstedt et al. 1982, 217).

Virola species that are made into psychoactive snuffs (Schultes 1979):


Virola calophylla Warb. [syn. Myristica calophylla Spruce, Virola incolor Warb., Otoba incolor Karsten ex Warb.]

Virola calophylloidea Markgraf [syn. Virola lepidota A.C. Smith]

Virola cuspidata (Benth.) Warb.

Virola elongata (Spruce ex Benth.) Warb. [syn. Virola cuspidata (Spruce) Warb., Virola rufula Warb.]

Virola loretensis A.C. Smith

Virola pavonis (DC.) A.C. Smith

Virola rufula (Mart. ex A. DC.) Warb. (questionable)

Virola surinamensis (Rol.) Warb.

Virola theiodora (Spruce ex Benth.) Warb. (some authors regard V. calophylla and V. elongata as synonyms for V. theiodora [Brenneisen and Hasler 1994, 1157])

Virola venosa (Benth.) Warb.


Virola species that are taken orally as hallucinogens:


Virola duckei A.C. Smith (huapa blanca)

Virola elongata (Spruce ex Benth.) Warb.

Virola loretensis A.C. Smith

Virola pavonis (DC.) A.C. Smith

Virola peruviana (A. DC.) Warb.

Virola surinamensis (Rol.) Warb.

Folk Names


Are-de-yé, camaticaro, cedrillo, cozoiba, cuajo, cudo rebalsero, cumala,319 cumala caspi, ebene, epena, épena, huapa, isioma, jakuana, jeajeamadou, k-de’-ko, ko-gá, koó-na, krüdeeko, machfaraa, nyakwana, pa-ree-ká, paricá,320parika, parikabaum, parikana, parikaraná, rapá, ra-se-nêmee, rose-nameti, rose-nemee, sangerino, shomiá, talgmuskatnußbaum, tchkiana, trompillo, tsunem, ucuba, ucufe-ey, ucuúba preta, uucuba, vihó, yakee, yá-kee, yakoana, yakohana, yakohana-hi, yá-to, yeag aseiiñ


Virola bark contains N,N-DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, and other tryptamines.



A tree from the neotropical genus Virola.




The use of various Virola species as ritual snuffs was first discovered in the 1950s by the American ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes, who was astonished that this fact had not been noted before (Schultes 1954). The only previous information came from the Brazilian botanist Adolpho Ducke, who wrote that the Indians on the Rio Negro produced a snuff called paricá from the leaves of Virola theiodora and Virola cuspidata (Holmstedt et al. 1982, 216). Astonishingly, Richard Spruce had collected botanical material from a number of Virola species between 1851 and 1854 but did not notice the psychoactive use of the bark (Schultes 1983c*).



Members of the genus are found primarily in Amazonia and adjacent tropical areas (Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela). Some species also occur in the tropical zones of Central America (Brenneisen and Hasler 1994, 1154; Schultes 1955, 79f.*). One species (Virola guatemalensis [Hemsl.] Ward) is found in southern Mexico and Guatemala; in Chiapas, this plant is known as cacao volador, “cacao flying device”321 (Martínez 1987, 1238*).



Virola trees do not appear to be cultivated in Amazonia; no information about possible cultivated forms is available. To date, it does not appear that anyone has had success in cultivating the plants (Rob Montgomery, pers. comm.).


The seeds of Virola surinamensis, known as ucuba.



The seeds of Virola oleifera.



Virola Species of Ethnobotanical Significance


(from Duke and Vasquez 1994, 174 ff.*; Beloz 1992; Schultes et al. 1977; modified and supplemented)





Virola species are large trees that can grow as tall as 30 meters. The leaves are undivided and pinnate and have continuous margins; there are no stipules. The tiny dioecious flowers grow in fascicles. The fruits are ellipsoid. The leaves can attain a length of more than 30 cm.

The different species are difficult to distinguish from one another.

Psychoactive Material


—Resin (= latex, exudates) and the inner bark (cambium)

Preparation and Dosage


The resin or latex (usually called oom or yá-keeoom) of the Virola species can be obtained in a number of ways. An incision can be made in the bark, part of the bark can be removed, or the inner bark (cambium) can be warmed, which will cause the resin to exude. Because the pure resin is sticky, it usually is mixed with plant ashes, e.g., from the bark of a wild cacao tree (Theobroma subincanum Mart.; cf. Theobroma spp.), or with shell lime (from burned freshwater mussels) before being ground (Schultes 1954, 247 ff.). The snuff apparently will not have any effects unless the (alkaline) plant ashes are added.

The Indians say that the bark must be harvested in the early morning, before the sunlight has hit the trunk, lest the power of the powder dissipate. The rays of the sun are said to have a considerable impact upon the effects (Schultes 1954, 248).

For shamanic purposes, the dosage is given as a slightly heaping teaspoon of the powdered resin mixed with the plant ashes. This amount is usually snuffed three times in a row in short intervals (fifteen to twenty minutes) (Schultes 1954, 250).

Some Amazonian tribes make their snuff powder from the dried juice of the bark of different Virola species and the ashes of Theobroma subincanum Martius or dried leaves of Justicia pectoralis Jacquin (Schultes and Holmstedt 1968).

The Desana of the Colombian Vaupés use the inner bark of the species Virola calophyllaV. calophylloidea, and V. theiodora for their snuffs. Depending on the ritual occasion and the desired effects, powdered tobacco leaves (Nicotiana tabacum), powdered coca leaves (Erythroxylum coca var. ipadu), the ashes of Cecropia leaves, powdered pieces of bark from Banisteriopsis spp., or the lime scratched off stalactites may be added to the finely powdered bark (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1979, 32 f.).

Other recipes are used for oral ingestion. The Colombian Huitoto boil the juice until it has thickened into a syrup. The thickened juice is then rolled into bean-size balls and coated with the ashes of Gustavia poeppigiana Berg ex Martius. Three to six of these little balls are swallowed or dissolved in water and drunk (Schultes 1969). Because of the increasing pressures of acculturation, such oral use appears to be disappearing (Schultes et al. 1977, 259).

The Peruvian Bora and Huitoto also knew of oral use. They repeatedly boiled the inner bark (cambium) of a variety of species (especially Virola elongata) to yield a paste called ko’do that was then swallowed without any further preparation. In other areas, the paste was mixed with the ashes of a species from the genus Carludovica (Cyclanthaceae; cf. Bristol 1961) and the leaves of a palm of the genus Scheelea (Schultes et al. 1977, 262 f.). The ashes (called “salt”) from the bark of the large tree Eschweilera itayensis Kunth (Lecythidiaceae) as well as the ashes from the buds and leaves of Spathiphyllum cannaefolium (Dryand.) Schott (Araceae) were added for the same purpose (Schultes 1979, 228).

Some species of Virola are used as ayahuasca additives. Some shamans in Iquitos add Virola surinamensis to the ayahuasca drink so that the ayahuasca will “teach medicine.”

Ritual Use


The Bora and Huitoto of the Orinoco region use Virola calophylla as a snuff and also orally as a hallucinogen. They also make snuff from the cambium of Virola elongata and Virola surinamensis and use the species Virola pavonis as a hallucinogen. Usually only shamans use this snuff (which appears to have quite potent effects); they use it to diagnose illnesses.

The use of Virola snuffs (vihó) is very common among the Desana. Here again, it is normally used only by shamans when they wish to diagnose illnesses. However, all boys who are being initiated into manhood must learn how to prepare the powder during the initiation celebrations, during which they must also use it for the first time (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1979). Many men take it along with ayahuasca.

The Quechua of Ecuador use the dried bark secretion of Virola duckei A.C. Smith as an oral hallucinogen (Bennett and Alarcón 1994). Unfortunately, no details about the precise nature of their ritual uses have become known.

The Yanomomö (= Waika) use Virola theiodora not only as a shamanic hallucinogen but also as an arrow poison (Soares Maia and Rodrigues 1974). They also use Virola elongata to manufacture arrow poisons (Macrae and Towers 1984).

The tribes that use Virola species to produce psychoactive compounds include the Puinave from the Río Inírida, Kuripako from Río Guainía, Kubeo, Tukano, Desana, Papurí, Barasana, Makuna from Río Piraparaná, Taiwano from Río Kananarí, Brazilian and Venezuelan Yanomamö/Waika, Mundurukú,322 Huitoto (= Witoto), Bora, and various small tribes of the Rio Issana (Içana), and presumably other tribes or ethnic groups.



Apart from certain snuff tubes and other paraphernalia, to date no artifacts are known (cf. snuffs).

Medicinal Use


Venezuelan shamans smoke the dried inner bark of Virola sebifera at dances to treat fever diseases (Altschul 1973, 76*; Plotkin and Schultes 1990, 357). The bark, which is known by the names wircawei-yekand erika-bai-yek, is boiled to dispel evil spirits (Altschul 1973, 76*). One as yet unidentified Virola species is said to be used as a contraceptive (Plotkin and Schultes 1990, 357).

A number of Virola species are regarded as brain stimulants and are said to improve both memory and intelligence (Plotkin and Schultes 1990, 357).

Many Virola species (e.g., V. elongataV. melinonii [Benoist] A.C. Smith, V. sebiferaV. surinamensis) are used in folk medicine to treat skin diseases (Brenneisen and Hasler 1994, 1158; Plotkin and Schultes 1990, 358 ff.).

The mother tincture of Virola sebifera (medicinal content 1/10) is known in homeopathy as Myristica sebifera hom. HAB34 (also HPUS88) and is used for such conditions as suppuration (Brenneisen and Hasler 1994, 1157). The agent is regarded as a “medicine with great antiseptic power” (Boericke 1992, 532*). It also is used in homeopathic compound medicines, e.g., Sulfur Pentarkan, which consists of sulfur, Atropa belladonna, mercury, “Myristica sebifera,” and silicic acid.


Two devices (made of bones and shells) from northwestern Brazil for ingesting Virola (parika) snuff powder. (From Koch-Grünberg Zwei Jahre bei den Indianern Nordwest-Brasiliens, 1921*)




It was once thought that the active constituent of the parica drugs was myristicin (cf. Myristica fragrans) (Schultes 1954, 247). However, this conjecture has not been substantiated.

Many Virola species contain tryptamines (N,N-DMT5-MeO-DMT, and others) and β-carbolines. Some, e.g., Virola cuspidentata, even contain harmane derivatives (6-methoxyharma-lane, 6-methoxyharmane, 6-methoxytetrahydroharmane) as well as diarylpropanes of the virolane and virolin types (Brenneisen and Hasler 1994, 1154). Those Virola species that have been the most intensively investigated contain tryptamines, most commonly DMT (Holmstedt et al. 1982).

Virola calophylla contains N,N-DMT, MMT, 5-MeO-DMT, 5-MeO-MMT, and β-carbolines (Duke and Vasquez 1994, 174). Astonishingly, no psychoactive indoles or tryptamines have been found in the latex of those species or individuals that produce a great deal of red resin (Schultes et al. 1977, 260). MMT, DMT, and 5-MeO-DMT have been detected in the bark (Farnsworth 1968, 1088*).

The resin of Virola theiodora contains 8% 5-MeO-DMT (Soares Maia and Rodrigues 1974).

The bark of Virola elongata contains resin as well as sesartemin and yangambin, substances that are said to inhibit aggressiveness.

Although no actual active constituent has yet been found in Virola surinamensis (the latex contains diarylpropanoids, neolignans, and long-chain esters: Barata et al. 1978; Gottlieb et al. 1973), its pharmacological activity has been experimentally demonstrated (Beloz 1992). Long-chain esters are found in many Virola species (Kawanishi and Hashimoto 1987).

The seeds contain an abundance of oil that is sold under the name virola fatucuúba, or ucuúba butter and is reminiscent of cocoa butter (it is even made into candles; Plotkin and Schultes 1990, 357).



The effects of Virola snuffs are described as very intense and not necessarily pleasant. Schultes reported almost only unpleasant side effects as a result of his own experiment (severe headache, ocular pressure, disturbances of coordination, et cetera). Shamans typically enter into a sleeplike trance state accompanied by dreams and hallucinations. It has even been reported that a shaman died while under the influence of Virola powder (Schultes 1954, 251).

The Colombian Desana characterize the effects of the snuff as follows: “This Virola bark, this lucid dot, it penetrates into us and makes us dizzy/ sedated” (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1979, 36).

The resins of various Virola species, especially Virola elongata, have antifungal properties (Duke and Vasquez 1994*).

It is uncertain whether oral ingestion can in fact produce hallucinogenic effects:


The efficaciousness of the oral application forms (pills, pastes, etc.) is controversial primarily with regard to the role of monoamine oxidase and therewith the metabolic deactivation of the β-carboline derivatives that inhibit the tryptamine derivatives, as these alkaloids as a rule are biogenically present in only small amounts. It is however conceivable that these alkaloids largely arise only during the preparation of the bark exudates as artifacts of tryptamine alkaloids. It has been conjectured that other constituents of Virola, e.g., flavonoids, neolignans, and diarylpropane, may as antioxidants nonspecifically inhibit the oxidative first-pass breakdown of the tryptamine alkaloids through MAO, mixed functioning oxigenases, and are thereby able to increase the oral efficaciousness. (Brenneisen and Hasler 1994, 1158)


Commercial Forms and Regulations


None, apart from the mother tincture known as Myristica sebifera (cf. Brenneisen and Hasler, 1994: 1157)



See also the entries for Justicia pectoralis and snuffs.


Agurell, S., B. Holmstedt, J.-E. Lindgren, and R. E. Schultes. 1969. Alkaloids in certain species of Virola and other South American plants of ethnopharmacologic interest. Acta Chemica Scandinavica 23:903–16.


Barata, L. E., P. M. Baker, O. R. Gottlieb, and E. A. Ruveda. 1978. Neolignans of Virola surinamensisPhytochemistry 17:783–86.


Beloz, Alfredo. 1992. Brine shrimp bioassay screening of two medicinal plants used by the Warao: Solanum straminifolium and Virola surinamensisJournal of Ethnopharmacology 37:225–27.


Bennet, B. C., and Rocío Alarcón. 1994. Osteophloeum platyspermum and Virola duckei (Myristicaceae): Newly reported as hallucinogens from Amazonian Ecuador. Economic Botany 48 (2): 152–58.


Brenneisen, Rudolf, and Felix Hasler. 1994. Virola. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 6:1154–59. Berlin: Springer.


“Their master [the shaman] first sniffs the snuff, for he is experienced with it. They prepare the snuff, a lot of it. When this is done, they blow it into their nostrils. One dose in this nostril, one dose in the other nostril. After they have done this, they grind more. The snuff tube is made from a bone of a harpy eagle. . . . With this they ingest the Virola bark. When this is done, they throw a few white feathers into the air and sing as they rise.”















“In spite of its many miracle drugs, Western medicine does not yet have an effective treatment possibility for skin diseases caused by fungi. For many cancer and AIDS patients, this is often a serious problem, for they are often literally infested with fungi. Since fungal infections are common in the moist and warm rain forest, the natives have developed numerous methods of treatment. Of these, the juice of the nutmeg tree [Virola sp.] appears to be the most effective.”






Bristol, Melvin Lee. 1961. Carludovica palmata in broommaking. Botanical Museum Leaflets 19 (9): 183–89.


Fernandes, João B., M. Nilce de S. Ribeiro, Otto R. Gottlieb, and Hugo E. Gottlieb. 1980. Eusiderins and 1,3-diarylpropanes from Virola species. Phytochemistry 19:1523–25.


Fernandes, Joáo Batista, Paulo Cezar Vieira, and Regina Lúcia Fraga. 1988. Transformações químicas de liganas isolodas de Virola sebifera em análogos de podofilotoxina. Supl. Acta Amazônica 18 (1–2): 439–42.


Gottlieb, Otto R. 1979. Chemical studies on medicinal Myristicaceae from Amazonia. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 1:309–23.


Gottlieb, O. R., A. A. Loureiro, M. Dos Santos Carneiro, and A. Imbiriba Da Rocha. 1973. Distribution of diarylpropanoids in Amazonian Virola species. Phytochemistry 12:1830.


Holmstedt, B., J. E. Lindgren, T. Plowman, L. Rivier, R. E. Schultes, and O. Tovar. 1982. Indole alkaloids in Amazonian Myristicaceae: Field and laboratory research. Botanical Museum Leaflets 28 (3): 215–34.


Kawanishi, K., and Y. Hashimoto. 1987. Long chain esters of Virola species. Phytochemistry 26 (3): 749–52.


Lai, A., M. Tin-Wa, E. S. Mika, et al. 1973. Phytochemical investigation of Virola peruviana, a new hallucinogenic plant. Journal of the Pharmaceutical Society 62:1561–63.


Macrae, W. Donald, and G. H. Neil Towers. 1984. An ethnopharmacological examination of Virola elongata bark: A South American arrow poison. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 12:75–92.


Plotkin, Mark J., and Richard Evans Schultes. 1990. Virola: A promising genus for ethnopharmacological investigation. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 22:357–61.


Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo. 1979. Some source materials on Desana shamanistic initiation. Antropológia 51:27–61.


Rodrigues, William A. 1977. Novas espécies de Virola Aubl. (Myristicaceae) da Amazônia. Acta Amazônica 7 (4): 459–71.


———. 1980. Revisão taxonômica das especies de Virola Aublet (Myristicaceae) do Brasil. Acta Amazônica 10 (1) suppl.: 1–127.


Schultes, Richard Evans. 1954. A new narcotic snuff from the Northwest Amazon. Botanical Museum Leaflets 16 (9): 241–60.


———. 1969. De Plantis Toxicariis e Mundo Novo Tropicale Commentationes IV: Virola as an orally administered hallucinogen. Botanical Museum Leaflets 22:133–64.


———. 1979. Evolution of the identification of the Myristicaceous hallucinogens of South America. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 1 (2): 211–39.


Schultes, Richard Evans, and Bo Holmstedt. 1968. De Plantis Toxicariis e Mundo Novo Tropicale Commentationes II: The vegetable ingredients of the Myristicaceous snuffs of the Northwest Amazon. Rhodora 70:113–60.


———. 1971. De Plantis Toxicariis e Mundo Novo Tropicale Commentationes VIII: Miscellaneous notes on Myristicaceous plants of South America. Lloydia 34:61–78.


Schultes, Richard Evans, and Tony Swain. 1976. De Plantis Toxicariis e Mundo Novo Tropicale Commentationes XIII: Further notes on Virola as an orally administered hallucinogen. Journal of Psychedelic Drugs 8:317–24.


Schultes, Richard Evans, Tony Swain, and Timothy C. Plowman. 1977. De Plantis Toxicariis e Mundo Novo Tropicale Commentationes XVII: Virola as an oral hallucinogen among the Boras of Peru. Botanical Museum Leaflets 25 (9): 259–72.


Soares Maia, J. G., and William A. Rodrigues. 1974. Virola theiodora como alucinógena e tóxica. Acta Amazônica 4:21–23.