The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Banisteriopsis caapi (Spruce ex Grisebach) Morton


Ayahuasca Vine




Malpighiaceae (Barbados Cherry Family); Pyramidotorae, Banisteriae Tribe

Forms and Subspecies


Two varieties have been distinguished (D. McKenna 1996):


Banisteriopsis caapi var. caupari

Banisteriopsis caapi var. tukonaka


The first form has a knotty stem and is considered to be more potent; the second has a completely smooth stem.

The Andoques Indians distinguish among three forms of the vine, depending upon the types of effects each has upon the shamans: iñotaino’ (transformation into a jaguar), hapataino’ (transformation into an anaconda), and kadanytaino’ (transformation into a goshawk) (Schultes 1985, 62). The Siona make a distinction among the following cultivated forms: wa’í yahé (“flesh yahé,” with green leaves), ya’wi yahé(“pekari yahé,” with yellow-striped leaves), naso ãnya yahé (“monkey snake yahé”), naso yahé (“monkey yahé,” with striped leaves), yahé repa (“proper yahé”), tara yahé (“bone yahé,” with knotty stems), ‘aíro yahé (“forest yahé”), bi’ã yahé (“bird yahé,” with small leaves), sia sewi yahé (“egg sewi yahé,” with yellowish leaves), sêsé yahé (“white-lipped peccary yahé”), wêki yahé (“tapir yahé,” of large size),yaí yahé (“jaguar yahé”), nea yahé (“black yahé,” with dark stems), horo yahé (“flower yahé”), and sisé yahé (Vickers and Plowman 1984, 18f.*).



Banisteria caapi Spruce ex Griseb.

Banisteria quitensis Niedenzu

Banisteriopsis inebrians Morton

Banisteriopsis quitensis (Niedenzu) Morton


Folk Names


Amarón wáska, “boa vine”), ambi-huasca (Inga, “medicine vine”), ambiwáska, ayahuasca amarilla, ayahuascaliane, ayahuasca negra, ayahuasca vine, ayawasca, ayawáska, bejuco de oro (“gold vine”), bejuco de yagé, biaj (Kamsá, “vine”), biáxa, biaxíi, bichémia, caapi,51 caapí, camárambi (Piro), cauupuri mariri, cielo ayahuasca, cuchiayahuasca, cushi rao (Shipibo, “strong medicinal plant”), doctor, hi(d)-yati (d)yahe, iáhi’, kaapi, kaapistrauch, kaheé, kahi, kalí, kamarampi (Matsigenka), máo de onça, maridi, natem, natema, nepe, nepi, nishi (Shipibo, “vine”), oo’-na-oo (Witoto), purga-huasca, purga-huasca de los perros, rao (Shipibo, “medicinal plant”), reéma (Makuna), sacawáska, sacha-huasca (Inga, “wild vine”), seelenliane, seelenranke, shurifisopa, tiwaco-mariri, totenliane, vine of the dead, vine of the soul, yagé, yagé cultivado, yagé del monte, yagé sembrado, yahe, yaje, yáje, yajé, yajén, yaji, yaxé (Tukano, “sorcerer’s plant”)



The word ayahuasca is Quechuan and means “vine of the soul” or “vine of the spirits” (Bennett 1992, 492*). The plant has apparently been used in South America for centuries or even millennia to manufacture psychoactive drinks (ayahuascanatema, yahé, etc.). Richard Spruce (1817–1893) collected the first botanical samples of the vine between 1851 and 1854 (Schultes 1957, 1983c*). The original voucher specimens have even been tested for alkaloids (Schultes et al. 1969).

The German ethnographer Theodor Koch-Grünberg (1872–1924) was one of the first to observe and describe the manufacture of the caapi drink from Banisteriopsis caapi (1921, 190ff.). The pharmacology was first elucidated in the mid-twentieth century (see ayahuasca).



It is not certain where the plant originated, as it is now cultivated in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil, that is, throughout the entire Amazon basin. Wild plants appear to be chiefly stands that have become wild (Gates 1982, 113).



The plant is cultivated almost exclusively through cuttings, as most cultivated plants are infertile (Bristol 1965, 207*). A young shoot or the tip of a branch is allowed to stand in water until it forms roots, after which it is transplanted or simply placed into humus-rich, moist soil and watered profusely. The fast-growing plant thrives only in moist tropical climates and does not typically tolerate any frost.



This giant vine forms very long and very woody stems that branch repeatedly. The large, green leaves are round-ovate in shape, pointed at the end (8 to 18 cm long, 3.5 to 8 cm in width), and opposite. The inflorescences grow from axillary panicles and have four umbels. The flowers are 12 to 14 mm in size and have five white or pale pink sepals. The plant flowers only rarely (Schultes 1957, 32); in the tropics, the flowering period is in January (although it can also occur between December and August). The winged fruits appear between March and August (Ott 1996) and resemble the fruits of the maple (Acer spp.). The plant is quite variable, which is why it has been described under several different names (see “Synonyms”).


Inflorescence and fruit of the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi). Under cultivation, the vine rarely develops flowers. (Drawing by Sebastian Rätsch)



The Tukanos and other Indians of the Amazon regard the ayahuasca vine as a snake that can bear humans into the world of the spirits. (Traditional representation, from Koch-Grünberg, Zwei Jahre bei den Indianern Nordwest-Brasiliens, 1921*)


The vine is closely related to Banisteriopsis membranifolia and Banisteriopsis muricata (see Banisteriopsis spp.) and can easily be confused with these (Gates 1982, 113). It is also quite similar to Diplopterys cabrerana.

Psychoactive Material


—Stems, fresh or dried (banisteriae lignum)

—Bark, fresh or dried, of the trunk (banisteriae cortex)

—Leaves, dried

Preparation and Dosage


In Amazonia, dried pieces of the bark and the leaves are smoked. The Witotos powder dried leaves so that they can smoke them as a hallucinogen (Schultes 1985).

The vine is rarely used alone to produce ayahuasca or yagé:


The Tukano prepare the yajé by dissolving it in cold water, not, as is done by other tribes to the south, by boiling. Short pieces of the liana are macerated in a wooden mortar, unmixed with the leaves or with other ingredients. Cold water is added, and the liquid is passed through a sieve and placed in a special ceramic vessel. This solution is prepared two or three hours before its proposed ceremonial use, and it is later drunk by the group from small cups. These drinking vessels hold 70 cubic cm and between drinks, six or seven in number, intervals of about an hour elapse. (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1970, 32).


In between they drink chicha, a slightly fermented beer, and smoke copious amounts of tobacco (Nicotiana rusticaNicotiana tabacum).

The vine is usually prepared together with one or more additives so that it develops either psychedelic (using plants that contain DMT, primarily Psychotria viridis) or healing (e.g., with Ilex guayusa) powers (see list at ayahuasca).

Small baskets made of strips of ayahuasca bark 4 to 6 mm in thickness (total dry weight = 13 to 14 g) are now being produced in Ecuador; each basket corresponds to the dosage for one person. These little baskets are stuffed with leaves of Psychotria viridis (approximately 20 g) and boiled to prepare a psychedelic drink.

Ritual Use


The Desana, a Colombian Tukano tribe, drink pure ayahuasca only on ritual occasions, although these do not have to be associated with any particular purpose, such as healing or divination. Only men may consume the drink, although the women are involved as dancers (i.e., as entertainment). The ritual begins with the recitation of creation myths and is accompanied by songs. It lasts for eight to ten hours. Very large amounts of chicha are also consumed while the ritual is in progress (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1970, 32).

For more on ritual use, see ayahuasca.



See ayahuasca.

Medicinal Use


In some areas of the Amazon, and among the followers of the Brazilian Umbanda cult, a tea made from the ayahuasca vine is drunk as a remedy for a wide variety of diseases and may also be used externally for massaging into the skin (Luis Eduardo Luna, pers. comm.).



The entire plant contains alkaloids of the βcarboline type. The principal alkaloids are har-mineharmaline, and tetrahydroharmine. Also present are the related alkaloids harmine-N-oxide, harmic acid methylester (= methyl-7-methoxy-βcarboline-1-carboxylate),harmalinic acid (= 7-methoxy-3,4-dihydro-β-carboline-1-carboxyl acid), harmic amide (= 1-carbamoyl-7-methoxy-βcarboline), acethylnorharmine (= 1-acetyl-7-methoxy-β-carboline), and ketotetrahydronorharmine (= 7-methoxy-1,2,3,4-tetrahydro-1-oxo-β-carboline) (Hashimoto and Kawanishi 1975, 1976). Also present are shihuninine and dihydroshihunine (Kawanishi et al. 1982).

The stems contain 0.11 to 0.83% alkaloids, the branches 0.28 to 0.37%, the leaves 0.28 to 0.7%, and the roots between 0.64 and 1.95%. Of these, 40 to 96% is harmine. Harmaline is completely absent in some samples, while in others it can comprise as much as 15% of the total alkaloid content (Brenneisen 1992, 458). The stems and bark also contain large quantities of tanning agents.

It has also been reported that the vine contains caffeine. This information is probably due to confusion with Paullinia yoco (cf. Paulinia spp.) (Brenneisen 1992, 458).



The vine functions as a potent MAO inhibitor, whereby only the endogenous enzyme MAO-A is inhibited (see ayahuasca). As a result, both endogenous and externally introduced tryptamines, such as N,N-DMT, are not broken down and are thus able to pass across the blood-brain barrier.


The ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) blooms in January. The plant only flowers in the tropics.








“Caapi is a decoction of a Malpighiaceae shrub (Banisteria) and is prepared in the following way by the men only, for the women do not drink any Caapi. The roots, stems, and leaves are pounded in a wide, trough-shaped mortar into a greenish brown mass that is washed in a pot with a little water, squeezed thoroughly, and then pounded in the mortar and washed again. The resulting mush, which bears something of a resemblance to cow dung, is strained through two fine sieves placed on one another into the Caapi vessel, whereby this is aided by hitting against the edge of the sieve. The pot with the unappetizing drink is covered carefully with leaves and placed in front of the house for a time. The Caapi vessel always has the same bulging urn shape and is always painted with the same yellow pattern against a dark red background. Remarkably, these are very similar to the patterns that are painted on the round exterior of the signal drums. At the upper edge, the vessel has two leaf-shaped handles that protrude out horizontally and are used to carry it, and two holes, in which a string for hanging it is attached. It is never washed but is newly painted from time to time.


“The effects of Caapi resemble hashish inebriation. One can see how the Indians say that everything is much larger and more beautiful that it really is. The house is enormously large and magnificent. They see many, many people, especially many women.—The erotic appears to play a central role in this inebriation. —Large, colorful snakes wind their way up and down the house posts. All of the colors are garishly colorful. Some who drink Caapi suddenly fall into a deep unconsciousness state and then have the most beautiful dreams, and admittedly also the most beautiful headache when they awake—hangover.”






(1921, 119f.*)


When the vine is used alone, it produces mood-enhancing and sedative properties. In higher dosages, the harmine present in the plant (above 150 to 200 mg) can induce nausea, vomiting, and shivering (Brenneisen 1992, 460).

In the 1960s, Reichel-Dolmatoff was able to take part in numerous ayahuasca rituals among the Desana. He wrote the following about his experience with a repeated administration of a drink that was said to have been made only from Banisteriopsis caapi:


My own experience was as follows: first draft, pulse 100, a sense of euphoria, followed by a passing drowsiness; second draft, pulse 84; fourth drink, pulse 82 and strong vomiting; sixth draft, pulse 82, severe diarrhea. Almost immediately there appeared to me spectacular visions in color of a multitude of intricate designs of marked bilateral symmetry, which passed slowly in oblique bands before my range of vision, my eyes being half closed. The visions continued, becoming modified, for more than twenty minutes, during which time I was entirely conscious and able to describe my experience very clearly on the tape recorder. There were no acoustical phenomena and no figures represented. (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1970, 33)


Commercial Forms and Regulations


Pieces of the vine are only rarely offered in ethnobotanical specialty stores. There are no regulations concerning the plant.



See also the entries for Banisteriopsis spp.Diplopterys cabrerana, and ayahuasca.


Brenneisen, Rudolf. 1992. Banisteriopsis. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 4:457–61. Berlin: Springer.


Elger, F. 1928. Über das Vorkommen von Harmin in einer südamerikanischen Liane (Yagé). Helvetica Chimica Acta 11:162–66.


Friedberg, C. 1965. Des Banisteriopsis utilisés comme drogue en Amerique du Sud. Journal d’Agriculture Tropicale et de Botanique Appliquée 12:1–139.


Gates, Brownwen. 1982. A monograph of Banisteriopsis and Diplopterys, Malpighiaceae. Flora Neotropica, no. 30, The New York Botanical Garden.


———. 1986. La taxonomía de las malpigiáceas utilizadas en el brebaje del ayahuasca. América Indígena 46 (1): 49–72.


Hashimoto, Yohei, and Kazuko Kawanishi. 1975. New organic bases from Amazonian Banisteriopsis caapi. Phytochemistry 14:1633–35.


———. 1976. New alkaloids from Banisteriopsis caapi. Phytochemistry 15:1559–60.


Hochstein, F. A., and A. M. Paradies. 1957. Alkaloids of Banisteria caapi and Prestonia amazonicum. Journal of the American Chemical Society 79:5735–36.


Lewin, Louis. 1928. Untersuchungen über Banisteria caapi Spruce (ein südamerikanisches Rauschmittel). Naunyn Schmiedeberg’s Archiv für Experimentelle Pathologie und Pharmakologie 129:133–49.


———. 1986. Banisteria caapi, ein neues Rauschgift und Heilmittel. Berlin: EXpress Edition, Reihe Ethnomedizin und Bewußtseinsforschung—Historische Materialien 1. (Orig. pub. 1929.)


Kawanishi, K., et al. 1982. Shihuninine and dihydroshihunine from Banisteriopsis caapi. Journal of Natural Products 45:637–39.


McKenna, Dennis. 1996. Lecture given at Ethnobotany Conference, San Francisco.


Mors, W. B., and P. Zaltzman. 1954. Sôbre o alcaloide de Banisteria caapi Spruce e do Cabi paraensis Ducke. Boletím do Instituto de Quimica Agricola 34:17–27.


Morton, Conrad V. 1931. Notes on yagé, a drug-plant of southeastern Colombia. Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences 21:485–88.


Ott, Jonathan. 1996. Banisteriopsis caapi. Unpublished electronic file. Cited 1998.


Reichel-Dolmatoff, Gerardo. 1969. El contexto cultural de un alucinogeno aborigen: Banisteriopsis caapi. Revista de la Academia Colombiana de Ciencias Exactas, Físicas y Naturales 13 (51): 327–45.


———. 1970. Notes on the cultural context of the use of yagé (Banisteriopsis caapí) among the Indians of the Vaupés, Colombia. Economic Botany 24 (1): 32–33.


Schultes, Richard Evans. 1985. De Plantis Toxicariis e Mundo Novo Tropicale: Commentationes XXXVI: A novel method of utilizing the hallucinogenic Banisteriopsis. Botanical Museum Leaflets 30 (3): 61–63.


Schultes, Richard Evans, et al. 1969. De Plantis Toxicariis e Mundo Novo Tropicale: Commentationes III: Phytochemical examination of Spruce’s original collection of Banisteriopsis caapi. Botanical Museum Leaflets 22 (4): 121–32.


Banisteriopsis spp.


Banisteriopsis Species




Malpighiaceae (Barbados Cherry Family); Banisteriae Tribe

Today, some ninety-two species of the genus Banisteriopsis are recognized. Most species occur in the tropical lowlands of Central and South America. A few species are also found in Asia.

Banisteriopsis argentea (Spreng. ex A. Juss.) Morton


A native of India, this species contains tetrahydroharman, 5-methoxytetrahydroharman, har-mineharmaline, and the β-carboline leptaflorin (Ghosal et al., 1971). The leaves contain only 0.02% alkaloids [(+)-Nb-methyltetrahydroharmane, N,N-DMTN,N-DMT-Nb-oxide, (+)-tetrahydroharmine, harmaline, choline, betaine, (+)-5-methoxytetrahydroharmane] (Ghosal and Mazumder 1971). We know, however, of no traditional use as a psychoactive plant (Schultes and Farnsworth 1982, 147*). Banisteriopsis argentea may be synonymous with Banisteriopsis muricata (see below).

Banisteriopsis inebrians Morton


In the Amazonian lowlands of Ecuador, Banisteriopsis inebrians is known as barbasco. In South America, the word barbasco is used primarily to refer to fishing trees (Piscidia spp.) and other plants that can be used to poison fish (e.g., Clibadium spp.). The Indians pound the fresh roots of Banisteriopsis inebrians, place the result into a coarse-meshed basket, and put this in the water. The fish poison then spreads as a milky exudation (Patzelt 1996, 261*).

In southern Colombia (in the Vaupés and Río Piraparaná region), this ayahuasca species is used ritually to prepare yagé or kahi primarily by the Barasana (see ayahuasca). In the language of the Barasana, this species is known as kahi-ukó, “yagé catalyst,” yaiya-sûava-kahi-ma, “red jaguar yagé,” and kumua-basere-kahi-ma, “yagé for shamanizing.” Under the influence of this vine, it is said that one sees thing in shades of red, dances, and is able to see people who are normally invisible. According to the mythology of the Barasana, this vine was brought to people in the yuruparí trumpet; for this reason, it is also known as hêkahi-ma,“yuruparí yagé” (Hugh-Jones 1977, 1979; Schultes 1972, 142f.*). Today, it is regarded as a synonym for Banisteriopsis caapi. It contains the same alkaloids (O’Connell and Lynn 1953).

Banisteriopsis maritiniana (Juss.) Cuatrecasas var. laevis Cuatrecasas


This species is found in the Amazon region of Colombia. The Makuna Indians purportedly use it to manufacture yajé (Schultes 1975, 123).

Banisteriopsis muricata (Cavanilles) Cuatrecasas [syn. Banisteria acanthocarpa Juss., Banisteria muricata Cav., Banisteriopsis argentea (H.B.K.) Robinson in Small, Heterpterys argentea H.B.K., and others]


In Ecuador, where this species is known as mii, the Waorani use it as the basis for ayahuasca. The shaman (ido) prepares the drink from bark scrapings that are slowly boiled. He can use the drink to heal a person as well as to send him a disease or even death. A disease can be healed only when the person who has caused the illness also brews the healing drink (Davis and Yost 1983, 190f.*).

The Witoto from Puca Urquillo on the Rió Ampiyacu (Peru) call this vine sacha ayahuasca, “wild vine of the soul,” and say that it can be used in place of Banisteriopsis caapi (Davis and Yost 1983, 190f.*). In Peru, this plant is also known as ayahuasca de los brujos (“ayahuasca of the sorcerers”); in Bolivia it is called bejuco hoja de plata (“silver leaf vine”); in Argentina, sombra de tora (“shadow of the steer”); and in El Salvador, bejuco de casa (“vine of the house”), pastora (“shepherdess”; cf. Salvia divinorumTurnera diffusa), and ala de zompopo. Of all the species of Banisteriopsis, this plant is the most widely distributed.

The vine is also found in the lowlands of southern Mexico (Selva Lacandona) and in Petén (Guatemala) (per oral communication from Rob Montgomery). It is possible that the ancient Maya may have used it to produce a kind of “maya-huasca” (see ayahuasca analogs).

The plant contains both β-carbolines (har-mine, etc.) and N,N-DMT. DMT is present not in the vine itself (i.e., the stems) but in the leaves. This American species may be identical to the Indian Banisteriopsis argentea (see above).



Intertwining stems of Banisteriopsis muricata, found in Petén (Guatemala) and Chiapas (Mexico), recall numerous illustrations of cosmic umbilical cords from the Classic and post-Classic Mayan period. Some people believe that the Maya used this vine to brew a type of “mayahuasca.” (Photographed in Tikal)



This yellow-blossomed vine was published under the name Banisteria tomentosa. (Copperplate engraving, colorized, nineteenth century)


Banisteriopsis quitensis (Niedenzu) Morton


This species is purported to have hallucinogenic effects (Schultes and Farnsworth 1982, 188*). Today, it is regarded as a synonym for Banisteriopsis caapi.

Banisteriopsis rusbyana (Niedenzu) Morton


This name is now regarded as a synonym for Diplopterys cabrerana.


An Indian plays on the yuruparí trumpet; according to mythical tradition, the trumpet came from the heavens filled with Banisteriopsis spp. (From Koch-Grünberg, Zwei Jahre bei den Indianern Nordwest-Brasiliens, 1921*)


“Ayahuasca [from Banisteriopsis spp.] is drunk among the Cashinahua to obtain information which would otherwise remain concealed. The hallucinations are regarded as the experiences of one’s own dream spirit; they are clues about the future and memories of the past, and with them the drinker can learn about things, people, and events that are far removed.”





Early illustration of the frankincense tree, which was long unknown in Europe. (Woodcut from Gerard, The Herball or General History of Plants, 1633*)




See also the entries for Banisteriopsis caapiDiplopterys cabreranaayahuasca, and ayahuasca analogs.


Der Marderosian, Ara H., Kenneth M. Kensinger, Jew-Ming Chao, and Frederick J. Goldstein. 1970. The use and hallucinatory principle of a psychoactive beverage of the Cashinahua tribe (Amazon Basin). Drug Dependence 5:7–14.


Ghosal, S., and U. K. Mazumder. 1971. Malpighiaceae: Alkaloids of the leaves of Banisteriopsis argentea. Phytochemistry 10:2840–41.


Ghosal, S., U. K. Mazumder, and S. K. Bhattacharya. 1971. Chemical and pharmacological evaluation of Banisteriopsis argentea Spreng. ex Juss. Journal of Pharmaceutical Science 60:1209–12.


Hugh-Jones, Stephen. 1977. Like the leaves on the forest floor . . . space and time in Barasana ritual. In Actes du XLIIe Congrès International des Américanistes (Paris). 2:205–15.


———. 1979. The palm and the Pleiades: Initiation and cosmology in Northwest Amazon. New York: Cambridge University Press.


O’Connell, F. D., and E. V. Lynn. 1953. The alkaloids of Banisteriopsis inebrians Morton. Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association 42:753–54.


Schultes, Richard Evans. 1975. De Plantis Toxicariis e Mundo Novo Tropicale: Commentationes XIII: Notes on poisonous or medicinal Malpighiaceous species of the Amazon. Botanical Museum Leaflets 24 (6): 121–31.

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