Red Powder Puff
Leguminosae (Legume Family): Mimosaceae
Forms and Subspecies
Calliandra grandiflora (L’Hér.) Benth.
Cabellito, cabellitos de ángel, cabellitos de una vara, cabello de angel, cabellos de ángel, cabeza de angel (Spanish,“angel’s head”), canela, chak me’ex k’in (Lacandon, “the red beard of the sun/of the sun god”), ch’ich’ ni’ (Tzotzil, “bloody nose”), clagot, coquito, engelshaupt, hierba de canela, lele, meexk’in, pambonato, pombotano, red powder puff, saqaqa (Totonac), tabardillo, tepachera, tepexiloxóchitl, texoxóchitl, timbre, timbrillo, tlacoxilohxochitl, tlacoxiloxochitl (Aztec), tlamacatzcatzotl, tzonxóchitl, u me’ex k’in, xiloxóchitl
The spectacular red powder puff is originally from Mexico, where it was already being used for medicinal purposes in pre-Spanish times. The first reports about the plant are from Francisco Hernández, made in the fifteenth century. The Aztecs are said to have used the plant as a narcotic (Emboden 1979, 4*).
Both Calliandra anomala and the genus Calliandra as a whole have been little studied, even though the genus encompasses several interesting medicinal plants and very attractive and beautiful ornamental shrubs.
Calliandra anomala occurs in the tropical zones of Central and South America. In Mexico, it is primarily found in Chiapas,Veracruz,Oaxaca,Morelos, Chihuahua, and Sinaloa (Martínez 1994, 319*).
The shrub can be propagated from seeds or cuttings. The seeds must be pre-germinated to ensure success. The plant requires a warm to moist/hot climate; it does not tolerate cold or frost (Grunner 1991, 19*).
This branched shrub can grow as tall as 6 meters, although it usually attains a height of only 3 to 4 meters. The finely pinnate leaves are opposite. The bark is thick and covered with short hairs and has an olive-colored sheen. The characteristic inflorescences develop at the tips of the branches. The actual white flowers are inconspicuous and arranged in rings around the branch. From these sprout the enormously long, luminously red filaments that give the inflorescence the appearance of a powder puff. In the tropics, the bush blooms throughout the year. The fruits, which usually appear in February, are long, flat pods that contain several flat seeds.
The genus encompasses some 110 species that are found primarily in the tropical zones of the Americas (Anzeneder et al. 1993, 53*; Bärtels 1993, 144*). The species Calliandra fulgens Hook. and Calliandra tweedi Benth. also produce red filaments and can thus have a similar appearance.
—Bark (cortex calliandrae)
Preparation and Dosage
Calliandra anomala was used as a pulque additive (see Agave spp.) and may have been used as an additive to cacao (Theobroma cacao).
The plant can allegedly be used to manufacture a snuff: “Several days after several incisions were made into the bark, the resin that had appeared was collected, dried, powdered, mixed with ashes, and sniffed” (Schuldes 1995, 24*). The powdered root has an irritating effect upon the mucous membranes of the nose (it is a sneezing powder, similar to Veratrum album). To date, no other effects have been reported.
The total daily dosage should not exceed 120 g; in one known case of overdose, a dog died following a dosage of 90 g (Martínez 1994, 320*).
The closely related species Calliandra angustifolia and Calliandra pentandra are used in South America as ayahuasca additives.
In Aztec mythology and cosmology, Calliandra is associated with the heavenly realm of the dead (the House of the Sun in Heaven) and with the nourishment for reborn souls:
The third place to which one went was in the House of the Sun in Heaven. Those who had fallen in battle went there, those that had either died right in battle, so that they were carried away on the battlefield, that their breath ceased there, that fate found them there, or those that were brought home so that they could be sacrificed later, whether in the Sacrificio gladiatorio or by being thrown alive into the fire, or stabbed to death, or thrown onto the cactus [Coryphantha spp.], or in battle, or bound with pine chips—all of these go to the house of the sun. . . . And where those who had fallen in battle dwell, there are wild agaves [Agave spp.], thorny plants, and groves of acacias [Acacia spp.]. And he can see all of the offerings that are brought to them, that can make it to him. And after they have spent four years in this manner, they change into birds with bright feathers: hummingbirds, flower birds, into yellow birds with black, hollow depressions around their eyes; into chalk-white butterflies, into downy butterflies, into butterflies (as large) as drinking vessels, which suck honey from all types of flowers, the flowers of the equimitl [Erythrina spp.], the tzompantli tree [Erythrina americana], the xiloxochitl [Pseudobombax ellipticum H.B.K.; cf. amapola], and the tlacoxilohxochitl [Calliandra anomala].(Sahagun,in Seler 1927,301f.*)
It is possible that the shrub may have had a ritual significance among the Maya, for the Lacandon of Chiapas still refer to it as chäk me’ex k’in, “the red beard of the sun god.”
The astonishing flower of the tropical Calliandra anomala. (Photographed in Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico)
Various Calliandra species are used as ayahuasca additives in shamanic contexts.
The Aztecs trickled the sap of the plant into the nose in order to induce a hypnotic sleep (Argueta V. et al. 1994, 251*; Emmart 1937*). To treat coughs, the root was chewed or peeled, ground, and taken in water with honey(Emboden 1979, 4*). The root is still used in folk medicine today to treat diarrhea, fevers, and malaria. A cold-water extract of the root is used as an eyewash (Martínez 1994, 320*). In Mexico, the shrub is becoming increasingly important in the treatment of diabetes (Argueta V. et al. 1994, 251*).
The Tzotzil Indians (Chiapas, Mexico) use this and other species of Calliandra to treat severe diarrhea. They macerate the root in water, boil the result, and drink three to five cups of this extract daily (Berlin and Berlin 1996, 212).
Around 1900, the bark of two Mexican species (cortex calliandrae, cortex pambotani) was used in Europe to treat marsh fever (Schneider 1974, 1:215*).
The root drug contains quantities of tannins, fat, a resin called glucoresina, a glycoside called calliandreine, an essential oil, and minerals (Martínez 1994, 319f.*). The bark is said to contain harmane (per oral communication from Rob Montgomery). It is rumored that the bark also contains N,N-DMT. Felix Hasler and David Volanthen did not find any DMT in an analysis of Calliandra stem cortex material from southern Mexico. If DMT is in fact present in the stem cortex, it would have to be in amounts less than 0.1%. The root cortex has not yet been studied.
Calliandra angustifolia and Calliandra pentandra have been found to contain harmane and N,N-DMT. The closely related Calliandra houstoniana contains an alkaloid; this species is also the source of a gum resin that has industrial use (Cioro 1982, 74*). The leaves of Calliandra portoricensis Benth. contain saponines, tannins, flavonoids, and glycosides (Aguwa and Lawal 1988). Rare derivatives of pipecolic acid as well as derivatives of piperidine also occur in the genus (Marlier et al. 1979; Romero et al. 1983).
The effects of the resin have been characterized as hypnotic and sleep-inducing (Emboden 1979, 4*). It is unknown whether anyone has had psychoactive experiences with the plant.
The related species Calliandra portoricensis has sedative effects upon the nervous system (Adesina 1982; Berlin and Berlin 1996, 213).
Commercial Forms and Regulations
Adesina, S. K. 1982. Studies on some plants used as anticonvulsants in Amerindian and African traditional medicine. Fitoterapía 53:147–62.
Aguwa, C. N., and A. M. Lawal. 1988. Pharmacologic studies on the active principles of Calliandra portoricensis leaf extracts. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 22:63–71.
Berlin, Elois Ann, and Brent Berlin. 1996. Medical ethnobiology of the Highland Maya of Chiapas, Mexico. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Marlier, Michel, Gaston Dardenne, and Jean Casimir. 1979. 2S,4R-Carboxy-2-Acetylamino-4-Piperidine dans les feuilles de Calliandra haematocephala. Phytochemistry 1979:479–81.
Romeo, John T. 1984. Insecticidal aminoacids in leaves of Calliandra. Biochemistry and Systematic Ecology 12 (3): 293–97.
Romeo, John T., Lee A. Swain, and Anthony B. Bleecker. 1983. Cis-4-hydroxypipecolic acid and 2,4-cis-4,5-trans-4,5-dihydroxypipecolic acid from Calliandra. Phytochemistry 22 (7): 1615–17.