The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Herbal Ecstasy



Other Names


Cyberorganic ecstasy, herbal XTC, natural ecstasy, nature XTC, thrill pills


The modern techno parties or raves of the 1990s were like a reflowering of the ancient bacchanalias and recalled the medieval dance frenzies. To non-participating observers, they seem like witches’ sabbaths, Haitian voodoo dances, Indian powwows, or the trance dances of the San (!Kung Bushmen) of the Kalahari Desert (cf. Ferraria glutinosa). In particular, the so-called goa parties, which usually take place outdoors and are attended mainly by aging hippies and neo-hippies, resemble the ecstatic dance rituals of archaic peoples (Saunders and Doblin 1996).

These weekend parties, which usually begin around midnight and last until the following afternoon, seem to be an imitation of what Aldous Huxley described as “experiences of heaven or paradise” in his classic book Heaven and Hell (Huxley 1963*). Light shows reveal the mystical “otherworldly” light, and burning sticks of incense (cf. incense) evoke the delightful scents of heaven, carried on the “breezes of paradise.” The DJs (disc jockeys) function as the high priests of a cult community, which clothes itself in special (“techno-style”) garb. The DJs have the task of leading their congregation into an altered, ecstatic state—a task similar to that performed by tribal shamans. For this reason, many DJs like to refer to themselves as techno-shamans. These modern shamans employ the latest technology to take themselves and others into different realities. The powerful rhythmic music, called techno, trance, or psychedelic trance music, plays a central role (Cousto 1995).

Most techno-shamans and most of the partygoers agree that the rhythm of the music, especially in combination with psychoactive substances, helps induce trance experiences. A number of studies of the techno scene have shown that the partygoers selectively seek out the sound and rhythm that best functions for them. In general, a longing for ecstatic experience seems to provide the impetus for such party and dance activities (Krollpfeiffer 1995; Böpple and Knüpfer 1996; Rabes and Harm 1997).


One of the many products—sold mainly at raves and techno parties—circulating under the name herbal ecstasy.



“Gingko biloba

This tree’s leaf, which from the east in my garden propagates,

On its secret sensations we feast, As the wise ones it elevates.


Is it a living being and single, which in itself divides?

Is it two, which choose to mingle So that one the other hides?

To answer such a question,


I found a sense that’s right and true; Do you see by my songs and suggestions,

That I am both one and two?”






Most partygoers ingest psychoactive substances, such as ecstasy (= MDMA; cf. Myristica fragrans), LSD, psilocybin mushrooms (Psilocybe semilanceataPsilocybe cyanescens), hashish and marijuana (Cannabis sativa), cocaine, amphetamines, and guaraná (Paulliania cupana). The problems usually associated with MDMA began when the substance was banned internationally (1987). As a result, the black market was flooded with poor-quality preparations containing ingredients that the users often did not know about (Ahrens 1995). Uncertainties about the purity and quality of these products, combined with the development of a tolerance toward MDMA and the need for a “natural” alternative, have led to increasing numbers of plant products (so-called natural drugs) appearing on the party scene (cf. energy drinks). Distributors and producers advertise these products, usually sold under the name herbal ecstasy, as natural surrogates for MDMA, promising “very similar effects” (Leitner 1995; Saunders and Wright 1995).

The recipes for herbal ecstasy are based on the so-called brain foods and smart drugs coming from the United States. These compounds are made from plant stimulants (ephedrinecaffeine), vitamins, amino acids, and hormones (Pelton and Pelton 1989; Potter and Orfali 1993) and are reminiscent of traditional Chinese tonics (Teeguarden 1984). Many of them contain fo-ti-tieng (Centella asiatica [L.] Urban [syn. Hydrocotyle asiatica L.]), a tonic and sometimes mildly psychoactive plant (Emboden 1985; Storl 1995). They often include an extract of Ginkgo biloba L. [syn. Salisburia adiantifolia Sm.] (Gingkoaceae) as well; it is said to stimulate the brain and to strengthen memory424 (Schmid and Schmoll 1994). But the main ingredient is (was) usually ma-huang (Ephedra sinica). Sometimes yohimbé bark or extract (Pausinystalia yohimba) may also be added (Saunders and Doblin 1996, 157). It is doubtful whether these herbal ecstasy preparations actually do induce psychoactive, not to mention empathogenic, experiences. Even when ephedrine is present, the dosages would typically be too small.

One recipe that is considered to be effective in the European scene contains the following ingredients:


The packaging of the American product Herbal Ecstacy. The “psychedelic” butterfly is intended to symbolize the purported effects (“soul flight”).



The ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba) is an ancient Asian medicinal plant. Since its positive effects on brain function have become known in the West, there has been renewed interest in this traditional herbal medicine. Because ginkgo is now regarded as a brain tonic, the extract is often added to so-called brain foods and to herbal ecstasy. (Copperplate engraving from Kaempfer, Amoenitates Exoticae, 1712)




The recommended dosage is one to three capsules (0.8 g per capsule) per person. Unfortunately, the recipe does not provide any information as to the relative proportions of ingredients. I perceived mild stimulant and aphrodisiac effects after taking three capsules but did not notice any similarities to the effects of MDMA.

Herbal Ecstasy, a trademarked product marketed in the United States as 100% natural, consists of the following ingredients:


The effects of this product are comparable to those of the first (disappointing).

The marketing of Herbal Ecstacy and similar products (Ultimate Euphoria, et cetera) is big business ($300 million in annual sales; Jolly 1996). In the United States, this has resulted in an FDA investigation into the ingredients and the component that is typically the only one with any activity, namely the ephedrine-containing Ephedra extracts. Ultimately, this and other problems led to a ban on ephedra and on all products that contain ephedra (cf. Saunders and Doblin 1996, 160). Since the summer of 1996, the makers of herbal ecstasy (and other preparations) have been advertising ephedra-free herbal ecstasy. The result is a kind of “decaffeinated coffee” or, in other words, “ecstasy-free ecstasy,” a harmless but expensive placebo.



See also the entries for Myristica fragrans and energy drinks.


Ahrens, Helmut. 1995. Safer Use von Partydrogen. In Risiko mindern beim Drogengebrauch, ed. J.-H. Heudtlass, H. Stöver, and P. Winkler, 37:129–38. Frankfurt/M.: Fachhochschulverlag.


Böpple, Friedhelm, and Ralf Knüfer. 1996. Generation XTC: Techno und Ekstase. Berlin: Verlag Volk und Welt.


Cousto, Hans. 1995. Vom Urkult zur Kultur: Drogen und Techno. Solothurn: Nachtschatten Verlag.


Emboden, William A. 1985. The ethnopharmacology of Centella asiatica (L.) Urban (Apiaceae). Journal of Ethnobiology 5 (2): 101–7.


Hofferberth, B. 1994. The efficacy of EGb 761 in patients with senile dementia of the Alzheimer type, a double-blind, placebo-controlled study on different levels of investigation. Human Psychopharmacology 9:215–22.


Jolly, Mark. 1996. King of the thrill pill cult. Details (December): 170–76, 208.


Krollpfeiffer, Katrin. 1995. Auf der Suche nach ekstatischer Erfahrung: Erfahrungen mit Ecstasy. Berlin: VWB.


Leitner, Simone. 1995. Herbal Ecstasy. 4U—Das Jugendmagazin der Berner Zeitung BZ (no. 34; July 7, 1996): 5–7.


Pelton, Ross, and Taffy Clarke Pelton. 1989. Mind food and smart pills. New York: Doubleday.


Potter, Beverly, and Sebastian Orfali. 1993. Brain boosters: Foods and drugs that make you smarter. Berkeley, Calif.: Ronin Publishing.


Rabes, Manfred, and Wolfgang Harm, eds. 1997. XTC und XXL—Ecstasy. Reinbek: Rowohlt.


Saunders, Nicholas. 1996. Ecstasy: Dance, trance and transformation. With Rick Doblin. Oakland, Calif.: Quick American Archives.


Saunders, Nicholas. 1995. Ecstasy and the dance culture. With Mary Anna Wright. London: self-published.


Schmid, Maria, and Helga Schmoll [Helga Eisenwerth], eds. 1994. Ginkgo: Ur-Baum und Arzneipflanze—Mythos, Dichtung und Kunst. Stuttgart: WVG.


Storl, Wolf-Dieter. 1995. An ethnobotanical portrait of the Indian pennywort. Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness 3 (1994): 267–82


Teeguarden, Ron. 1984. Chinese tonic herbs. Tokyo and New York: Japan Publications.


Trebes, Stefan. 1996. MDMA—Eine aktuelle Übersicht. Jahrbuch des Europäischen Collegiums für Bewußtseinstudien (1995): 209–19.