Aztec Dream Grass, Zacatechichi
Compositae (Aster Family); Subfamily Heliantheae, Galinsoginae Tribe/Subtribe
Forms and Subspecies
A number of varieties have been described (Flores 1977, 12 ff.):
Calea zacatechichi var. calyculata Robinson
Calea zacatechichi var. laevigata Standley
Calea zacatechichi var. macrophylla Robinson et Greenman
Calea zacatechichi var. rugosa (DC.) Robinson et Greenman
Calea zacatechichi var. xanthina Standley et L.O. Williams
Calea zacatechichi var. zacatechichi
There is also said to be a form that occurs only in Guadalajara (Flores 1977, 15).
Aschenbornia heteropoda Schauer
Calea rugosa Hemsley
Calea ternifolia Kunth var. ternifolia
Calydermos rugosus DC.
Ahuapatli, amula, atanasia amarga, Aztec dream grass, bejuco chismuyo, betónica, chapote,69 chichicxihuitl (Nahuatl, “bitter plant”), chichixihuitl, cochitzapotl, dream herb, falso simonillo, hierba amarga, hoja madre (“leaf of the mother”), iztactzapotl, jaral, jaralillo, juralillo, mala hierba, matasano, oaxaqueña (“the one from Oaxaca”), paiston, poop taam ujts, prodigiosa, pux lat’em (Huastec), sacachcichic, sacachichic, sacatechichi, simonillo, techichic, tepetlachichixihuitl (Nahuatl, “bitter plant of the mountains”), thle-pelacano, thle-pela-kano (Chontal, “leaf of god”), tsuleek’ ethem (“racoon’s trachea”), tzicinil, tzikin, xikin (Maya, “dove’s plant”),70 xtsikinil, x-tzicinil, yerba amarga (“bitter plant”), zacachichi, zacachichic, zacate amargo (Mexican, “bitter grass”), zacatechi, zacatechichi, zacate de perro (Mexican, “dog grass”)
Zacachichic (Conyza filaginoides Hieron.), the false zacatechichi, was probably used as dream grass. (From Hernández, 1942/46 [Orig. pub. 1615]*)
This Compositae was used for magical and medicinal purposes in pre-Columbian times. It is possible that Calea zacatechichi helped Aztec magicians (nagualli) travel deeper into Tlálocan, the realm of dreams.
The Aztec name zacatechichi is translated as “bitter grass.” The first botanical description of the plant comes from the nineteenth century (1834). Its psychoactive use was first described by Thomas MacDougall (1968). Research into its pharmacology and phytochemistry did not begin until relatively recently (Flores 1977).
Aztec dream grass grows primarily in the highlands of central Mexico (1,500 to 1,800 meters in altitude), in the mountainous regions of Oaxaca, Veracruz, and Chiapas, in Jalisco and Morelos, and in the lowlands of Yucatán (Barrera Marin et al. 1976*; Martínez 1987*). The plant also occurs in Costa Rica in association with pines (Pinus spp.) and oaks (Quercus spp.) (Schuldes 1995, 23*). It is more easily found in pure pine forests (Flores 1977, 12).
In Mexico, the closely related species Conyza filaginoides DC. is also known as zacatechichi (Schultes 1970, 48*).
Dream grass can be grown from germinated seeds. The dried fruit husks should be removed prior to planting. It is best planted in good topsoil and watered thoroughly.
The herbaceous, branched plant grows to a height of approximately 1.5 meters and in rare cases to 3 meters. It has small, oval leaves that are crispate (curled) on the edges and forms small yellow or occasionally whitish flowers. The undersides of very young leaves are violet. The plant is difficult to recognize and is easily mistaken for a number of other plants. Its most noticeable feature is its intense green color. It sometimes occurs in small fields that distinguish themselves from the surrounding vegetation through their green luminescence.
Dream grass is very easily confused with the closely related Calea cordifolia, which also bears yellow flowers.
Inflorescence of the Aztec dream grass (Calea zacatechichi)
The entire aboveground herbage provides the dream-inducing raw drug of Calea zacatechichi.
—Leaves and stems, before the fruits ripen
Preparation and Dosage
The dried drug is used to prepare a tea, either an infusion or a decoction. The dried leaves and stems can also be smoked in a pipe or in the form of a cigarette (MacDougall 1968, 105).
When used for folk medicinal purposes—e.g., to treat malaria—a total of 10 g of dried herbage is made into a tea and drunk three times a day (Schultes 1970, 49*).
In Mexico, an alcohol extract of the leaves of the closely related Calea urticifolia (Mill.) DC. var. axillaris (DC.) Blake was formerly drunk as an inebriant (von Reis Altschul 1975, 324*).
Although the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican peoples were almost certainly using the plant ritually in pre-Columbian times, very little information is contained in the sources. Dream grass is probably identical with chichixihuitl, “bitter herb,” an inebriating plant mentioned in sources from the colonial period.
The Chontal Indians of Oaxaca, whose language is related to Mayan, call the plant thlepela-kano, “leaf of god,” and venerate it as a plant of the gods. The curanderos (healers) of the Chontal boil crushed fresh leaves to produce a powerful and astringent brew that they drink in order to produce visions and clairvoyant, dreamlike states. They also lie down in a partially or fully darkened room and smoke a cigarette of dried leaves. The curanderos report having altered, dreamlike states in which they can hear the voices of the gods and spirits, recognize the causes of illnesses, look into the future, and locate lost or stolen objects. This form of divination is known as oneiromancy (divination through dreams).71 The Chontal healers consider a handful of dried herbage (approximately 60 g) an effective dosage.
The fresh herbage is sometimes placed under the pillow to induce dreams.
As of this writing, no artifacts are known.
Colonial medical texts from Yucatán indicate that crushed fresh leaves were used to prepare an herbal plaster to treat a swollen scalp. Steamed leaves were applied to treat skin diseases (Roys 1976, 290, 295*). Today, the Yucatán Maya still use dream grass as an herbal medicine (Barrera M. et al. 1976). During the Aztec period, the plant was also used to treat “cold stomach” (Flores 1977, 8).
The herbage is used in Mexican folk medicine as a laxative and febrifuge. Teas made from the plant are used as appetite stimulants (once the bitter taste has disappeared from the mouth) and stomach tonics and are also beneficial for diarrheal diseases (Mayagoitia et al. 1986, 230). The herbage also finds folk medicinal use in the treatment of headaches and diabetes, as a stimulant, and for menstrual complaints (Argueta V. et al. 1994, 1407*; Jiu 1966, 252*).
The herbage contains a complex of horrible-tasting bitter principles consisting of several sesquiterpene lactones: germacranolide72 (1β acetoxy-zacatechinolide, 1-oxo-zacatechinolide), germacrene 7, caleicine I and II, caleocromene A and B, caleine A and B, zexbrevine and analogs, and budleine A and analogs (Argueta V. et al 1994, 251*; Bohlmann and Zdero 1977; Herz and Kumar 1980; Lara Ochoa and Marquez Alonso 1996, 123f.*; Mayagoitia et al. 1986, 231; Quijano et al. 1979). The flavones acacetin and O-methylacacetin have also been found (Herz and Kumar 1980). Several studies have indicated the presence of an alkaloid (?) of unknown structure that has mild psychoactive and central sedative properties. According to Díaz (1979, 79*), there are different chemical races of the plant, of which one is psychoactive while the other(s) are not. This would explain why Chontal healers distinguish between “good” and “bad” specimens of the plant.
The active ingredients are water soluble. They may also be alcohol soluble, as tinctures are also used (cf. Schuldes 1995, 23*).
The subtle psychoactive effects on humans are best described as dream-inducing or oneirogenic. Calea also appears to promote sleep. Animal studies have demonstrated that cats quickly fall asleep when administered a dosage equivalent to that which induces dreaming in humans (Mayagoitia et al. 1986, 230).
A group of Mexican researchers headed by José Díaz conducted a double-blind experiment using a placebo and a preparation of Calea zacatechichi and registered a significant increase in the number of meaningful dreams in the subjects who had ingested C. zacatechichi (Mayagiotia et al. 1986). The geomancy researcher Paul Devereux, whose Dragon Project investigates dream activity in ancient cultic sites, is planning to conduct an additional study of the induction of waking dreams by Calea zacatechichi.
A decoction made with a heaping tablespoon (approximately 25 g) of dried, chopped herbage, together with one standard joint, is regarded as an effective dosage for producing oneirogenic effects. After consuming the two, the person should lie down in a darkened room or go to bed:
After some 30 minutes, sensations of relaxation and calmness begin. The heartbeat is perceived more consciously. The stated amount of 25 grams clears the thoughts and the senses. (Schuldes 1995, 23*)
Some subjects have reported experiencing marijuana-like effects (cf. Cannabis) after smoking a cigarette made with Calea. I personally cannot (yet) confirm such an effect. The only effects I have noticed are an increase of blood flow to the head and mild sensations of being “high.”
The effects described in the literature are not reliable (cf. Ott 1993, 422*). To date, no side effects have been reported.
Commercial Forms and Regulations
In Mexico, the dried herbage is occasionally found in markets or herb shops. It is more rarely found in international specialty stores. There are no regulations concerning its use.
“I played tamboura in a concert of classical Indian music after I had drunk the Calea zacatechichi tea. As I did, I dove into the sound of the tamboura. My teacher describes the tamboura as a ‘river,’ the water, the bearer of the music (the tablas are the currents, the voices are the spirit). I had always regarded the river as only a surface, and that with my tamboura playing I would form the surface upon which the others could flow. But the Calea literally brought a new depth into this picture. I was not only the carrying wave upon which the other musicians could drift along . . . I saw that we all played under water this time, all dove down to the depths of the ocean. . . .”
(PERSONAL COMMUNICATION, 29 JULY 1996)
Bohlmann, Ferdinand, and Christa Zgero. 1977. Neue Germacrolide aus Calea zacatechichi. Phytochemistry 16:1065–68.
Ferreira, Zenaide S., Nídia F. Roque, Otto R. Gottlieb, Fernando Oliveira, and Hugo E. Gottlieb. 1980. Structural clarification of germacronolides from Calea species. Phytochemistry 19:1481–84.
Flores, Manuel. 1977. An ethnobotanical investigation of Calea zacatechichi. Senior honors thesis, Harvard University.
Giral, Francisco, and Samuel Ladabaum. 1959. Principio amargo del zacate chichi. Ciencia 19 (11–12): 243.
Herz, Werner, and Narendra Kumar. 1980. Sesquiterpene lactones of Calea zacatechichi and C. urticifolia. Phytochemistry 19:593–97.
Lourenço, Tânia O., Gokithi Akisue, and Nídia F. Roque. 1981. Reduced acetophenone derivatives from Calea cuneifolia. Phytochemistry 20 (4): 773–76.
MacDougall, Thomas. 1968. Calea zacatechichi: A composite with psychic properties? Garden Journal 18:105.
Martínez, Mariano, Baldomero Esquivel, and Alfredo Ortega. 1987. Two caleines from Calea zacatechichi. Phytochemistry 26 (7): 2104–6.
Martínez, Mariano, Antonio Sánchez F., and Pedro Joseph-Nathan. 1987. Thymol derivatives from Calea nelsonii. Phytochemistry 26 (9): 2577–79.
Mayagoitia, Lílian, José Díaz, and Carlos M. Contreras. 1986. Psychopharmacologic analysis of an alleged oneirogenic plant: Calea zacatechichi. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 18 (3): 229–43.
Quijano, L., A. Romo de Vivar, and Tirso Rios. 1979. Revision of the structures of caleine A and B, germacranolide sesquiterpenes from Calea zacatechichi. Phytochemistry 18:1745–47.