The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Reputed Psychoactive Plants


“Legal Highs”


Because of the increasingly strict drug laws that began to be implemented in the 1960s, aficionados have looked for new possibilities for obtaining a legal high. In doing so, they have swallowed or smoked a large number of legally obtainable plant products. Some of these legal highs do in fact have psychoactive effects, others work for only some of their users (e.g., Coleus blumei), and still others appear to have not much of an effect upon anyone. At the beginning of the 1970s, brochures and booklets introducing these legal plants began to appear (Gottlieb 1973*; Grubber 1991*). Through these as well as the “grapevine,” knowledge (or semi-knowledge) about exotic and legal psycho-active plants was disseminated (Brown and Malone 1978*). At the same time, numerous popular myths and legends about the efficacy of various plants also arose. This section provides a short introduction to those plants that are still regarded as legal highs but whose psychoactive properties are doubtful. It should be noted, however, that psychoactivity in these plants cannot be ruled out. Perhaps future research will uncover some interesting insights concerning, for example, appropriate methods of preparing and processing these plants, possible synergistic relationships with other ingredients, and other useful information.

“ ‘Legal high’ means it does not work!”


Terence McKenna


(lecture, February 1996)


The Genera Discussed in This Section










Matricaria (= Chamomilla), Musa





Many long-known medicinal plants now have a reputation of being psychoactive and are regarded as legal highs. It is highly questionable whether fennel, horsetail, and the others actually do produce anything apart from a placebo-induced state of inebriation. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731.)



From time to time, the leaves of the carrot (Daucus carota) have been smoked as a marijuana substitute. This “legal high” is sometimes attributed with a certain psychoactivity.


Actinidia polygama (Sieb. et Zucc.) Planch. ex Maxim.


(Actinidiaceae)—Chinese cat powder


It is rumored that the dried leaf of this tree, which is closely related to the kiwi bush (Actinida chinensis Planch.) (Schneebeli-Graf 1992, 93*), is a potent inebriant or strong tranquilizer for animals; hence its common name Chinese cat powder. In Asian zoos, it purportedly is used to sedate large wild cats. The branches and young leaves of this plant are said to produce hallucinogenic effects (Grubber 1991, 60*). The bush is found in Manchuria, Korea, Japan, and western China and on the island of Sakhalin. Both metatabilacetone and actinidine have been found in this plant (Emboden 1979, 168*).

Anethum graveolens L.


(Apiaceae: Umbelliferae)—dill


Known primarily as a spice, dill has also long enjoyed a reputation as an aphrodisiac. It is also said to be an inebriant, for “the garden plant is numbered among the so-called legal highs; when dried and smoked, dill induces a mild euphoria” (Sahihi 1995, 153*). In the American “drug scene,” dill leaves are sometimes smoked mixed with glutamate. Dill contains an essential oil (approximately 4%) consisting of carvone, limonene, phellandrene, terpinene, and myristicin. It is likely that dill is considered to be psychoactive because it contains myristicin (cf. Myristica fragrans) as well as dillapiol, a nonaminated precursor for the synthesis of DMMDA-2 (cf. Petroselinum crispum) (Gottlieb 1973, 12*). However, as Hildegard von Bingen noted, “[N]o matter how [dill] is eaten, it makes people sad” (Physica 1.67).

Arisaema dracontium (L.) Schott


(Araceae)—green dragon, dragon root


Also known as memory root, dragon root is reputed to have hallucinogenic effects (Schultes and Farnsworth 1982, 187*; Schultes and Hofmann 1980, 366*). There are several potently toxic plants in the Family Araceae (e.g., ArumDieffenbachiaDracunculus) as well as such questionable hallucinogens as sweet flag (Acorus calamus) (cf. Plowman 1969). The genus Arisaema is known for its allergenic effects when touched or eaten. Fruits and other parts of the plant contain microscopically small needles of crystallized calcium oxalate, contact with which can lead to heavy histamine secretion (Turner and Szczawinski 1992, 116*). The homeopathic agent Arum dracontium hom. is obtained from the flowers of this plant. The Ojibwa Indians are said to have used the root to counteract witchcraft (Moerman 1982, 101*). The related species Arum maculatum L. was used as a wine additive (cf. Vitis vinifera).



Plowman, Timothy. 1969. Folk uses of New World aroids. Economic Botany 23 (2): 97–122.



Many species of jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema), members of the Family Araceae, are capable of producing dangerous toxic effects. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)



A species of Chinese cat powder (Actinidia sp.) has a psychoactive effect upon cats.



Dill (Anethum graveolens) has a folk reputation as an aphrodisiac. It is used in the “drug scene” as a marijuana substitute.


Borago officinalis L.




This ancient cultigen and spice plant, which is common in Europe and North America, is purported to have psychoactive or hallucinogenic effects (Farnsworth 1972, 68*; Schultes and Hofmann 1980, 367*). Borage contains the slightly toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids lycopsamine and intermedin, as well as their acetyl derivatives, amabiline and thesinine (Roth et al. 1994, 169*). In phytotherapy, borage is indicated for several conditions that are at least partially related to consciousness (Haas 1961): “An invigorating tea of leaves and flowers is ideal for stress, depression, or following a treatment with cortisone. Borage mitigates fever, dry coughs, and skin rash. The oil of the seeds is helpful for menstrual problems, nervous intestinal complaints, high blood pressure, and hangovers” (Bremness 1995, 233*). Borage pills are sold to dehydrate and “purify the blood.” Flowers harvested during the time of blossom are ingested as a folk medicinal sedative (Ratka 1992).



Haas, H. 1961. Pflanzliche Heilmittel gegen Nervenund Geisteskrankheiten. Arzneimittel-Forschung 4:49–59.


Ratka, Otto. 1992. Borago. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 4:528–32. Berlin: Springer.



Today, borage (Borago officinalis) is usually planted as an ornamental.



The white-blossomed variety of the Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus f. albus).



Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) was first encountered in the Caribbean. It is said to have psychoactive effects, although we know of no appropriate methods of preparation.


Catharanthus roseus (L.) G. Don


[syn. Ammocallis rosea Small, Lochnera rosea (L.) Reichb., Vinca rosea L.]


(Apocynaceae)—Madagascar periwinkle


The Madagascar periwinkle is apparently from the West Indies (Caribbean) but was first described for Madagascar (Morton 1977, 237*). It has pink flowers but also occurs in a pure white form (Catharanthus roseus f. albus [Sweet] Woodson). This evergreen is one of the truly well-investigated medicinal plants and is the subject of a rich monographic literature. In Caribbean folk medicine, periwinkle tea is used to treat diabetes. In Florida, the leaves are dried and smoked as a marijuana substitute (see Cannabis indica) (Morton 1977, 241*). It has often been claimed that the dried leaves are also smoked in Europe and are able to produce “euphoria and hallucinations” (Schuldes 1995, 30*). On the islands of Guadeloupe, the plant is known as herba aux sorciers (“plant of the sorcerers”); it may possibly be used in magical voodoo rites (see zombie poison).

The plant contains more than seventy alkaloids, most of them indole alkaloids, some of which are of the ibogaine type (e.g., catharanthine; Scott et al. 1980). The root cortex contains the sedative and antihypertensive alstonine (cf. Alstonia scholaris) (Morton 1977, 238*). Recent investigations have shown that different laboratory methods can influence the biosynthesis of indole alkaloids and may even be able to control it to produce a desired outcome (Schrisema and Verpoorte 1992). In the future, this may make it possible to breed strains that will in fact produce psychoactive indoles of the ibogaine or voacangine types (cf. Tabernanthe ibogaVoacanga spp.).

The use of Catharanthus is not without risk. Chronic use has been observed to result in severe damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems (Morton 1977, 241*; Roth et al. 1994, 204*).

The dwarf periwinkle (Vinca minor L.), also known as the sorcerer’s violet (Emboden 1974, 66*), is occasionally characterized as having psychoactive properties (Schultes and Hofmann 1980, 366*). It contains a number of indole alkaloids (including vincamine) with antihypertensive effects (Roth et al. 1994, 730*; Wilms 1972). “It was believed to offer protection against witches and storms and was also used at séances. Periwinkle was a component of many love drinks” (Weustenfeld 1995, 45*).

Literature (selection)


Schrisema, J., and R. Verpoorte. 1992. Regulation of indole alkaloid biosynthesis in Catharanthus roseus cell suspension cultures, investigated with 1H-NMR. Planta Medica 58 suppl. (1): A608.


Scott, A. Ian, Hajime Mizukami, Toshifumi Hirata, and Siu-Leung Lee. 1980. Formation of catharanthine, akuammicine and vindoline in Catharanthus roseus suspension cells. Phytochemistry 19:488–89.


Wilms, K. 1972. Chemie und Wirkungsmechanismus von Vinca-Alkaloiden. Planta Medica 22:324–33.


Cineraria aspera Thunb.




It is rumored that this South African plant has psychoactive or hallucinogenic effects (Schultes and Farnsworth 1982, 187*; Schultes and Hofmann 1980, 367*). Unfortunately, details about its use or effects are lacking (Emboden 1979, 173*).

Daucus carota L. ssp. sativus (Hoffm.) Schübl. et G. Martens




It is difficult to believe that this popular vegetable could have any psychoactive effects, but the reports to this end are numerous (Schultes and Hofmann 1980, 367*). The aboveground leaves are dried and smoked and are said to produce marijuana-like effects (cf. Cannabis indica). Amazingly, no information is available about the components of the leaves (Roth et al. 1994, 295*). In former times, carrot root was used as a counterfeit mandrake (see Mandragora officina-

rum). The leaves and corolla of the Eurasian wild carrot (Daucus carota L. ssp. carota) are said to produce “better” effects. Mattiolus wrote that combining the seeds with theriac will incite “unchaste desires.”

Digitalis purpurea L.


(Scrophulariaceae)—common foxglove Common throughout the mountains of central Europe (Alps) and found in many gardens as an ornamental, foxglove is one of the most potent poisonous plants known. This notwithstanding, there are rumors that the herbage is used for psychoactive or even hallucinogenic purposes (Schultes and Hofmann 1980, 367*). Foxglove contains several cardiac glycosides that have medicinal value when used in low dosages (Withering 1776/1785); higher dosages can cause cardiac arrest (Luckner and Diettrich 1992). As little as 0.3 g of dried leaves can be dangerously toxic for adults (Roth et al. 1994, 307*).



Luckner, Martin, and Beate Diettrich. 1992. Digitalis. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 4:1168–87. Berlin: Springer.


Withering, William. 1963. Bericht über den Fingerhut und seine medizinische Anwendung mit praktischen Bemerkungen über Wassersucht und andere Krankheiten. Mannheim: Boehringer.



Red foxglove (Digitalis purpurea L.). (From Giftgewächse, 1875)



In some circles, dwarf periwinkle (Vinca minor) is esteemed as a magical plant. It is said that the flowers are able to stimulate channeling.



When dried, the flowering top of wild carrot (Daucus carota ssp. carota) is claimed to be usable as a marijuana substitute.



The pharmacologically highly active foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) is sometimes attributed with mind-altering powers.


Dioon edule Lindl.


(Cycadaceae)—Mexican cycad


This edible cycad is from Mexico, where it is known as chamal. It is reputed to have psycho-active or even hallucinogenic effects (Schultes and Farnsworth 1982, 187*; Schultes and Hofmann 1980, 367*). This assumption is apparently due to the fact that in Mexico the plant is also known as hierba loca, “crazy herb” or “crazy-making herb,” and is said to cause animals to act strangely (Reko 1938, 185*). No other details suggesting any actual psychoactivity are known (Aguilar Contreras and Zolla 1982, 91*). The large seeds yield a good starch flour (Bärtels 1993, 59*). In Mexican folk medicine, the seeds are utilized to treat neuralgia (Martínez 1994, 409*). The plant contains the biflavones amentoflavone (main component), bilobetin, sesquioflavone, ginkgetin, sciadopitysin, 7,4’,7”,4”-tetra-O-methylamentoflavone, and diooflavone (Dossaji et al. 1973, 372).



Dossaji, S. F., E. A. Bell, and J. W. Wallace. 1973. Biflavones of DioonPhytochemistry 12:371–73.


Equisetum arvense L.


(Equisetaceae)—field horsetail


The horsetail is a well-known medicinal plant that is used in folk medicine around the world to treat diarrhea. It is uncertain why it is sometimes characterized as psychoactive (Schultes and Hofmann 1980, 367*). It contains primarily silicic acid (up to 10%), flavonoids, saponins, potassium salts, and other compounds (Pahlow 1993, 273*). The closely related species Equisetum fluvatile L. and Equisetum hyemale L. are regarded as mildly toxic. The marsh horsetail (Equisetum palustre L.) contains the alkaloids palustrine and palustridine, which can cause the “staggers” in animals. All species of Equisetumhave been found to contain traces of nicotine (Roth et al. 1994, 321 f.*). In southern Mexico, Equisetum myriochaetum Schlecht. et Cham. is regarded as an aphrodisiac (Rätsch 1994b, 86*; cf. Pérez G. et al. 1985). Alison B. Kennedy has proposed that the soma plant was a Himalayan species of Equisetum.



Pérez Gutiérrez, R. M., G. Tesca Laguna, and Aleksander Walkowski. 1985. Diuretic activity of Mexican equisetum. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 14:269–72.


Evodia bonwickii F. Muell.


[= Euodia]




This plant has a reputation of producing “psycho-tomimetic” effects (Farnsworth 1972, 71*; Schultes and Farnsworth 1982, 187*; Schultes and Hofmann 1980, 368*). The shrub is used in Papua New Guinean ethnomedicine for treating psychological complaints (Scott 1963). Coumarins have been detected in several species of the genus (E. alata F. Muell., E. beleha Baill., E. hupehensis Dode, E. vitefloraF. Muell.).



Scott, K. 1963. Medicinal plants of the Mt. Hagen people in New Guinea. Economic Botany 17:16–22.


Foeniculum vulgare


[syn. Foeniculum officinale]




It has often been claimed that fennel or fennel oil can have psychoactive effects (Albert-Puleo 1980, 339). This psychoactivity has been suggested since at least the time of Hildegard von Bingen, who noted, “No matter how it is eaten, it makes people happy. . . . Even a person who is plagued by melancholy, he should pound fennel to a juice and rub this often on the forehead, temples, chest, and abdomen, and the melancholy in him will yield” (Physica1.66).

Smoked, the herbage of this well-known spice is said to be psychoactive (Schultes and Hofmann 1980, 367*). Fennel contains a sweet-smelling essential oil (around 6%) consisting primarily of trans-anethol and fenchene (Brand 1993; Pahlow 1993, 132*). Fennel tea finds folk medicinal use as a calmative (which is probably how it acquired its psychoactive reputation). The seeds are said to contain the greatest amount of “psychotropic oil” in the plant (Grubber 1991, 32*). Estragole, found in the essential oil, is regarded as a precursor to 4-methoxy-amphetamine (Gottlieb 1973, 50*). Anethol has a primarily estrogenic effect (Albert-Puleo 1980). Fennel and anise are used in Greece in the production of ouzo (see alcohol).


The Mexican cycad Dioon edule is edible and is said to have inebriating effects.



The marsh horsetail (Equisetum arvense) is a very common wild plant in Europe.



The blossoming herbage of wild fennel (Foeniculum vulgare var. vulgare) is said to be usable as a marijuana substitute.



The Asian Hydrangea paniculata in full bloom.




Albert-Puleo, Michael. 1980. Fennel and anise as estrogenic agents. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 2:337–44.


Brand, Norbert. 1993. Foeniculum. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 4:156–81. Berlin: Springer


Hydrangea paniculata Sieb. var. grandiflora


(Saxifragaceae)—peegee hydrangea


This garden and ornamental plant, which is from China and Japan (Grubber 1991, 39*), has occasionally been described as a euphoriant, although its use is “strongly unadvised” (Schuldes 1995, 41*). When smoked, the dried leaves and flowers are said to have effects similar to those of marijuana (see Cannabis indica). The leaves contain the isocoumarin hydragenol, which has been linked to contact allergies (Roth et al. 1994, 411*). Other constituents include a substance known as hydrangin, saponins, and hydrocyanic acid compounds (Gottlieb 1973, 20*).



Takeda, Kosaku, Tomoko Yamashita, Akihisa Takahashi, and Colin F. Timberlake. 1990. Stable blue complexes of anthocyanin-aluminium-3-pcoumaroyl- or 3-caffeoyl-quinic acid involved in the blueing of Hydrangea flower. Phytochemistry 29 (4): 1089–91.


Laurus nobilis L.


(Lauraceae)—true laurel, sweet bay


The evergreen laurel tree was sacred to the ancient Greeks. It was consecrated especially to Apollo, the god of mental ecstasy. According to ancient mythology, the plant was originally an enchanting woman or nymph named Daphne. Hence, daphne was another name for this tree in ancient times.342 The aromatic leaves were once used as an additive to beer and wine.

Laurel leaves were an important incense at Delphi. The Pythia, the oracular priestess of Delphi, would chew fresh laurel leaves and inhale laurel smoke before falling into a trance, during which she would open up her body to the god Apollo and allow him to utter prophecies through her mouth (cf. Hyoscyamus albus). The ancient singers, poets, and seers who chewed laurel leaves or inhaled the smoke were known as daphnephages (Melas 1990, 54 ff.). The priest-physicians of Asclepius (cf. Papaver somniferum) would inhale laurel smoke so that they could diagnose the causes of diseases (so-called daphnomancy). Their practice entailed more than simply inhaling the smoke, however, for they also interpreted the crackling of the burning leaves as well as the shape of the rising smoke (Rätsch 1995a, 222 –27*).

In the ancient literature (Dioscorides, Pliny), the true laurel was characterized as a potent psychoactive plant. According to Proclus, laurel smoke was well suited for holding spirits that appeared so that they could be placed into service. To date, all attempts at using laurel for psychoactive purposes have failed. It is likely that other plants were also known as daphne in ancient times, and one of these species—whose botanical identity has remained unknown—may have been psychoactive:


The leaves of other trees or bushes that we refer to as laurel are usually bitter and often even toxic. The snowball [Viburnum spp.] is known as bastard or stone laurel, while rose laurel refers to the oleander [Nerium oleander; cf. honey], summer laurel to the sassafras tree [Sassafras albidum], poison laurel to the false star anise [Illicium anisatum L. (syn. Illicium religiosum Sieb. et Zucc.)], wild laurel to the English holly [Ilex aquifolium L.; cf. Ilex paraguariensis], camphor laurel to the camphor tree [Cinnamomum camphora], mountain laurel to the laurel rose [Kalmia spp.; cf. kinnikinnick], and cherry laurel to the cherry laurel [Laurus cerasi]. The most poisonous are the leaves of the mountain laurel, which the Delaware Indians used to prepare their version of the hemlock drink [cf. Conium maculatumwitches’ ointments] for purposes of committing suicide. (Root 1996, 240*)


Umbellularia californica is known as California laurel; its leaves are used as a substitute for those of the true laurel.

Laurel leaves (from Laurus nobilis) contain 2% essential oil, consisting of cineol, pinene, phellandrene, sesquiterpenes, eugenol, terpineol, linalool, geraniol, and bitter substances.



Melas, Evi. 1990. Delphi: Die Orakelstätte des Apollon. Cologne: DuMont.



A laurel tree (Laurus nobilis) at the temple of Apollo at Delphi.



The powdered wood of Liriosma ovata is found in international trade under the name muira puama.



True chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is an ancient medicinal plant that is sometimes attributed with psychoactive powers.


Liriosma ovata Miers


[syn. Dulacia inopiflora (Miers) O. Kuntze, D. ovata (Miers) K., Liriosma inopiflora Miers, L. micrantha Spruce ex Engl.]


(Olacaceae)—potency wood, muira puama


This small tree, which grows to a height of only about 15 meters, comes from tropical South America (the Amazon basin). The wood of the trunk and roots is marketed internationally under the name lignum muira puama and is esteemed chiefly as an aphrodisiac (potency wood!) and nerve tonic (600 to 1,200 mg) (Gottlieb 1974, 54*; Stark 1984, 87*). Small pieces of the wood are added to a number of psychoactive smoking blends. It is sometimes claimed that the wood produces not just erotic but also psychoactive effects. The constituents are completely unknown (Schweins and Sonnenborn 1993, 706). The dried roots of a related tree, Ptychopetalum olacoides Benth., are also sold under the same name (lignum muira puama and also radix muira puama). These roots contain a mixture of esters composed of the behenic acid ester of lupeol (0.4 to 0.5%), phytosterols, and an essential oil consisting of camphene, camphor, β-caryophyllene, α-humulene, and αand β-pinene. This root is said to have aphrodisiac effects. Experimental and pharmacological studies, however, are lacking (Brand 1994, 308 f.).



Brand, Norbert. 1994. Ptychopetalum. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 6:307–10. Berlin: Springer.


Schweins, Sabine, and Ulrich Sonnenborn. 1993. Liriosma. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 5:706–7. Berlin: Springer.


Matricaria recutita L.


[syn. Matricaria chamomilla L., Chamomilla recutita (L.) Rauschert]


(Asteraceae)—true chamomile


Chamomile was one of the most highly esteemed medicinal plants of Asclepius, the late ancient Greek god of healing (cf. Laurus nobilisPapaver somniferum). It appears that the temple sleepers who came to seek help found that chamomile was frequently recommended during their therapeutic and visionary dreams (Rätsch 1995a, 194*). It is uncertain why chamomile acquired its reputation as a psychoactive plant (Schultes and Hofmann 1980, 367*). The entire plant contains an essential oil of complex composition whose main components are α-bisabolol and chamzulene. Also present are flavonoids and coumarins, which produce the well-known anti-inflammatory effects of chamomile only in connection with (synergistically with) the essential oil (Schilcher 1987). Apart from occasional allergic reactions, the toxicological literature contains no reports of truly interesting effects (Roth et al. 1994, 489*).



Schilcher, Heinz. 1987. Die Kamille. Stuttgart: WVG.


Musa x sapientum L.




In the mid-1960s, a rumor surfaced espousing the idea that dried banana peels or scrapings of the inner peel could be smoked and that the effects were identical to those of marijuana (cf. Cannabis indica) (Schultes and Hofmann 1980, 367*). This rumor was based in no small part on the song “Mellow Yellow,” by the folk/rock singer Donovan (DeRogatis 1996, 59; Krikorian 1968, 385). Many young hippies of the time truly believed that it was possible to “take a trip” using these dried or baked peels. Time magazine featured a lead article “Tripping on Banana Peels” (April 1967) that popularized the idea even more. In the United States, the government actually initiated studies to determine whether the banana should be scheduled as a dangerous drug (because of the tremendous “danger of misuse”). The rumor has remained alive up to the present day, and from time to time it appears anew. It has even been claimed that banana peels contain a highly efficacious alkaloid called “bananadine” (Krikorian 1968). The only substance in bananas that may possibly be active is serotonin. According to our current pharmacological understanding, however, serotonin is inactive when ingested orally (cf. Panaeolus subbalteatus).


Toward the end of the 1960s, smoking dried banana peels became a popular way to get “high.” (Banana inflorescence with unripe fruit)




DeRogatis, Jim. 1996. Kaleidoscope eyes. Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel.


Krikorian, A. D. 1968. The psychedelic properties of banana peel: An appraisal. Economic Botany 22:385–89.


Panax ginseng C.A. Mey


[syn. Panax schinseng Th. Nees]


(Araliaceae)—ginseng (panacea)


Ginseng is the most renowned medicinal plant in Asia and has become the very symbol of traditional Asian or Chinese medicine and phytotherapy. The plant has also been called the mandrake of the East and the Chinese mandrake (cf. Mandragora officinarumPhytolacca acinosa) (Kirchdorfer 1981, 30 ff.). These names may be the origin for ginseng’s reputation as a psychoactive plant (Schultes and Hofmann 1980, 367*). Ginseng is one of the most well-known aphrodisiacs and is also regarded as a panacea (Kimmens 1975). The ginsenosides in the root have general tonic and stimulating (“harmonizing”) effects on the body and mind (Fulder 1984, 1985). The Chinese say that ginseng “kindles the inner fire.” Ginseng is used in homeopathy for a variety of ailments, including defects of memory and depression. It is found in numerous traditional and modern nerve tonics (Hu 1976). Ginseng is a harmonizing and somatensive medicine, i.e., it stimulates in a completely nontoxic manner and produces no stress. It increases the flow of oxygen to brain cells and can even alleviate the lack of oxygen in the brain that can be caused by amphetamines and other stimulants (Fulder 1995, 210). It lowers the amount of alcohol in the blood by about half, i.e., consuming ginseng can shield a person from becoming inebriated (Lee 1996, 47 ff.).

In the toxicological literature, the side effects of frequent use of ginseng are given as euphoria and sleeplessness (Roth et al. 1994, 532*). The dried leaves find use in smoking blends. It is doubtful whether these have psychoactive effects. The same is true for American ginseng, Panax quinquefolium L. (Emboden 1986, 165*; Pritts 1995).

Literature (selection)


Fulder, Stephen. 1984. Über Ginseng. Bonn: Hörnemann Verlag.


———. 1985. Tao der Medizin. Basel: Sphinx Verlag.


———. 1995. Das Buch vom Ginseng. Munich: Goldmann.


Hu, Shiu-Ying. 1976. The genus Panax (ginseng) in Chinese medicine. Economic Botany 30:11–28.


Kappstein, Stefan. 1980. Das Buch vom Ginseng. Bern: Morzsinay Verlag.


Kimmens, Andrew C., ed. 1975. Tales of ginseng. New York: William Morrow and Co.


Kirchdorfer, Anton Maria. 1981. Ginseng: Legende und Wirklichkeit. Munich: Droemer Knaur.


Lee, Florence C. 1996. Facts about ginseng: The elixir of life. Seoul: Hollym.


Pritts, Kim Derek. 1995. Ginseng: How to find, grow, and use America’s forest gold. Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books.


Phrygilanthus eugenioides (L.) H.B.K.




A relative of mistletoe (Viscum album L.), Phrygilanthus eugenioides is used in the voodoo cult as a magical plant. It is said to have psychoactive or hallucinogenic powers (Schultes and Farnsworth 1982, 187*; Schultes and Hofmann 1980, 367*). Curiously, the ancient texts suggest that mistletoe may also produce psychoactive effects (cf. Benthamia alyxifolia).

Podophyllum peltatum L.




The mayapple is from North America, where it is also called mandrake, wild mandrake, American mandrake, Indian apple, devil’s apple, et cetera (Morton 1977, 87*). The number of names can lead to some confusion. Mandrake is actually the English name for Mandragora officinarum. Settlers applied the name to the mayapple because North American Indians used its root as an amulet and as medicine (Emboden 1974, 149*). Because of this confusion, many people, especially English-speaking Americans, continue to believe that the mayapple is psychoactive. But the root contains no known psychoactive constituents, only toxic glycosides and podophyllin, a resin with cathartic effects (Meijer 1974; Morton 1977, 88*).

The Asian mayapple (Podophyllum pleianthum Hance [syn. Dysosma pleiantha (Hance) Woodson]), a native of China and Japan, is mixed with hemp (Cannabis sativa) and sweet flag (see Acorus calamus) to produce a psychoactive substance that “allows one to see spirits” (Li 1978, 23*). In the Kumaon region of India, the seeds of a species known as bankakri (Podophyllum hexandrum [syn. P. emodiWall. ex Hook. f. et Th.]) are used to ferment an alcoholic beverage (beer) (Shah and Joshi 1971:417*).

In homeopathy, the extract Podophyllum is still used in various dilutions. While developing its symptom picture, some strong alterations of consciousness were observed:


The Asiatic ginseng root and especially the wild-grown Korean ginseng root are attributed with aphrodisiac, stimulating, and magical powers as well as with mind-altering effects. (Typical Panax ginseng roots from Korea)



The mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), which blooms in the month from which it takes its name, is also known as the American mandrake.


Podophyllum exhibits a bilious temperament. . . . Furthermore, there exists the delusion of a serious heart or liver disease, he [the patient] believes that he is becoming seriously ill and will die. Everything makes him melancholy and sad, and nowhere does he see a ray of light. Sometimes, the delusion arises that through his own fault he has gambled away his own grace or endangered the well-being of his soul by a mortal sin. Still others feel as if the clouds in heaven were too dark or everything were running the wrong way. (Vonarburg 1996, 215)


This example provides a clear illustration of the ways in which the psychological patterns that arise when a medicine is administered can be influenced and shaped by a person’s culture.



Meijer, Willem. 1974. Podophyllum peltatum—may apple: A potential new cash-crop plant of eastern North America. Economic Botany 28:68–72.


Vonarburg, Willem. 1996. Entenfuß—Podophyllum peltatum L. (Homöopathisches Pflanzenbrevier: Folge 11). Naturheilpraxis 49 (2): 212–16.


Polygala tenuifolia Willd.




This plant is native to China and Inner Mongolia and is the source of yuan-zhi (= yuan-chih, radix polygalae), which traditional Chinese medicine prescribes to “calm the mind” and “heal emotional disorders.” It is used to treat nervousness, sleeplessness, forgetfulness, mood swings, and depression (Paulus and Ding 1987, 258*). Also known as chodat and hsiao-ts’ao, the plant was prescribed in Taoist medicine to increase brain activity and enhance memory. This may be the reason why it is occasionally regarded as psychoactive (Schuldes 1995, 63*). It is used in the manufacture of herbal ecstasy. The “active component” is said to be “senegine,” which makes up 7% of the dry weight (Gottlieb 1973, 11*). The chemistry is well understood. The root contains primarily polygalitol, tetramethoxyanthones, and triterpenes (Paulus and Ding 1997, 259*) but not a trace of psychoactive compounds. The very similar Polygala sibirica L. is sometimes sold in place of this Chinese root drug.

Scutellaria lateriflora L.


(Labiatae)—mad-dog skullcap


Skullcap is a component of smoking blends with alleged psychoactive effects that are offered as a marijuana substitute (see Cannabis indica). The herbage formerly was used as a sedative and nerve tonic and was even prescribed for the treatment of epilepsy, neuralgia, and sleeplessness. The plant contains the flavonoid scutellarin, which has sedative and antispasmodic effects (Foster and Duke 1990, 186*). A species described under the name Scutellaria arvense is reputed to have psychoactive or hallucinogenic effects (Schultes and Hofmann 1980, 367*).

Sebastiana pavonia Muell. Arg.




This euphorbia has a questionable reputation as a hallucinogen (Schultes and Farnsworth 1982, 187*; Schultes and Hofmann 1980, 367*). This assumption apparently dates back to a report by Victor A. Reko in his book Magische Gifte [Magical Poisons] (1938, 176–81*), which claimed that North American Yaqui Indians use the crushed seeds of the plant as a tonic during strenuous exertion.

Swainsonia galegifolia R. Br.




As with so many species from the Legume Family, it has been alleged that this plant may have psychoactive effects (Schultes and Farnsworth 1982, 187*; Schultes and Hofmann 1980, 367*).

Ungernia minor




This little-known member of the Amaryllis Family is alleged to have psychoactive or even hallucinogenic effects (Farnsworth 1972, 68*). The biologically active alkaloid ungminorine was discovered in this plant (Abdymalikova et al. 1966). However, not even the botany of this plant is well understood (Schultes and Farnsworth 1982, 187*). It may have been confused with Boophane disticha.



Abdymalikova, N. V., Y. B. Zakirov, and I. K. Kamilov. 1966. Some pharmacological activities of the new alkaloid ungminorine. Akad. Nauk. Uz. SSR, Khim. Biol. Otd. Jg.:36–40.


Wisteria sinensis (Sims) Sweet


[syn. Wisteria chinensis]


(Leguminosae: Fabaceae)—Chinese wisteria


This climbing bush is originally from China. It produces clusters of wonderfully aromatic flowers and is now a popular ornamental. The plant has been alleged to be psychoactive, probably because of its close relationship with and similarity to Sophora secundiflora (Schultes and Hofmann 1980, 367*). The plant contains wistarine, a substance with effects similar to but more mild than those of cytisine (Roth et al. 1994, 736*). Wisteria is closely related to the soybean (Glycine max Merr.) (Keng 1974, 402*).


Whether there really is a psychoactive species of Polygala is doubtful. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)



Because of its purported inebriating effects, Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) is occasionally used as a tobacco substitute.