Desfontainiaceae (only one genus); occasionally, the genus is assigned to the family Loganiaceae (Brako and Zarucchi 1993, 618*).
Forms and Subspecies
The variety Desfontainia spinosa Ruíz et Pav. var. hookeri (Dun.) Voss ex Vilmorin occurs in Chile (Emboden 1979, 176*). A small-leaved (Andean) form has been described as Desfontainia spinosa var. parvifolia (D. Don) Hooker (Brako and Zarucchi 1993, 618*).
Desfontainia obovata Kraenzlin
Desfontainia parvifolia D. Don
Desfontainia spinosa var. hookeri (Dun.) Reiche
Borrachera de páramo (“inebriator of the swamps”), chapico (“chili water”), desfontainia, intoxicator, latuy, latuye, mëchai, michai, michai blanco, michay, michay blanco, muerdago, taique, trau-trau (Mapuche, “unique”), trautrau125
Richard Evans Schultes discovered the psycho-active use of this beautiful plant in the Sibundoy Valley of Colombia in 1941 (Davis 1996, 173*). Unfortunately, the plant has been little studied or tested since that time.
The bush occurs from Colombia (Sibundoy) to southern Chile (Chiloé), as well as in Ecuador and in the higher Andean regions of Argentina (Brako and Zarucchi 1993, 618*). In southern Chile, the bush is found from the Río Maule to Magallanes, most frequently south of Valdivia, and typically in the underwood of lenga and coigüe forests. It has also been observed in Costa Rica (Zander 1994, 230*).
In southern Chile, Desfontainia is a recommended garden ornamental (Donoso Zegers and Ramírez García 1994, 49*). Methods of cultivation are still unknown. It likely can be propagated from seed or, even more easily, from cuttings. The plant requires moist to very moist soil (swampy areas, marshes).
Desfontainia spinosa is a small evergreen bush or shrublike tree that grows up to 2 to 3 meters in height. It has thick, thorny, mid- to dark green leaves and large, funnel-shaped flowers that are orange-red with yellow margins. The leaves resemble those of the English holly (Ilex aquifolium L.; cf. Ilex cassine). The flowers are similar to those on some nightshades, e.g., Iochroma fuchsioides.
The plant is easily confused with several species of the genus Berberis, especially Berberis darwinii Hook. In Chile, many species of Berberis (B. actinacantha Mart., B. chilensis Gill. ex Hook, B. darwinii, B. serrata, B. dentata) are known as michay (Mapuche, “yellow tree”; Mösbach 1992, 78*) and are used as sources of yellow dye (Donoso Zegers and Ramírez García 1994*). Berberis fruits are used to make chicha.
Preparation and Dosage
The leaves can be brewed or decocted into a hallucinogenic tea. The fruits are considered to be more effective and presumably are prepared as a decoction. No information concerning dosages is available. The fruits may once have been used to prepare a potently psychoactive chicha.
The shamans of the Kamsá in the Sibundoy Valley of Colombia drink a tea made from the leaves when they “want do dream” or receive visions to diagnose diseases (Schultes 1977, 100).
The machis (shamans) of the Mapuche appear to use the plant in the same manner as they use Latua pubiflora. This use, however, requires further research.
The folklore of Chiloé (an island in southern Chile) speaks of a mythical figure named El Trauco who may originally have been a plant spirit of Desfontainia, known locally as trau-trau. El Trauco is a small, perverse man, a “satyr of the forest.” He has a stone ax that he uses to cut down trees, and he looks like a mushroom spirit. There is a large statue of El Trauco in Ancud (Chiloé), and small replicas carved from stone are sold as souvenirs.
The Mapuche of southern Chile use the leaves to obtain a yellow dye that they use to color wool and the material they use for their traditional garments (Mösbach 1992, 101*).
The evergreen herbage of the Chilean shamanic plant Desfontainia spinosa, shown in blossom
El Trauco, a satyrlike forest spirit, is a popular figure in the mythology of Chiloé. It is possible that he is a representation of the plant spirit of Desfontainia spinosa, which is also known as trau-trau. (Section of a statue in Ancud, Chiloé, southern Chile)
The leaves are used in Chile as a folk remedy for upset stomachs. One older Chilean book about medicinal plants surprisingly makes reference to Desfontainia but states that it has no medicinal use (Urquieta Santander 1953, 87).
No constituents have been identified to date (McKenna 1995, 100*). A Dragendorff test for alkaloids yielded negative results (Schultes 1977, 100).
In southern Chile, the plant is regarded as poisonous (Mösbach 1992, 101*). However, no toxic component has yet been identified. Recently, Rob Montgomery and I collected information in Chiloé (May 1995) that indicates that the plant is well known among indigenous plant specialists, who regard it as nonpoisonous but hallucinogenic.
Smoking two dried leaves produced clear psychoactive effects with perceptual changes (flickering lights, feelings of being “high”).
Commercial Forms and Regulations
Schultes, Richard Evans. 1977. De Plantis Toxicariis e Mundo Novo Tropicale Commentationes XV: Desfontainia: A new Andean hallucinogen. Botanical Museum Leaflets 25 (3): 99–104.
Urquieta Santander, Carlos. 1953. Diccionario de medicacitsis e Mund. 5th ed. Santiago de Chile: Editorial Nascimento.