The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

The Study of Psychoactive Plants


Science begins by collecting data, facts, and objects and ends with systematic knowledge. This process characterized all of the early works of science, which condensed and concentrated the knowledge of their time and their world. There is also the human desire to experiment. We learn by trying things out, and we change our behavior as a result of our experiences. It is striking that all of the great plant researchers have been avid collectors of both information and materials and have also tested the effects of as many plants as possible on themselves, for how can one evaluate the effects of a plant if one has never seen or touched it, not to mention ingested it?

The study of psychoactive plants began with the beginnings of botany. Theophrastus (ca. 370–287 B.C.E.), the “father of botany,” has given us descriptions of numerous psychoactive plants and substances. Systematic science, which some trace back to the poet Homer (ninth–eighth centuries B.C.E.), was already being practiced in ancient times:


But Homer, who was the forefather of the sciences and of the history of ancient times and was a great admirer of Circe, attributed Egypt with the fame of its valuable herbs. . . . At least he described a great number of Egyptian herbs which were given to his Helen by the Pharaoh’s wife, and spoke of that renowned nepenthes, which induced one to forget sorrow and forgive and which Helen should have had all the mortals drink. But the first of whom we still have knowledge was Orpheus, who reported some interesting things about herbs. We have already mentioned the admiration which Musaios and Hesiod, following his lead, had for polium. Orpheus and Hesiod recommended the burning of incense. . . . After him, Pythagoras, the first person known for his knowledge, wrote a book about the effects of plants in which he attributed their discovery and origin to Apollo, Asclepius, and all of the immortal Gods in general. Democritus also produced such a compilation; both visited the magicians in Persia, Arabia, Ethiopia, and Egypt. (Pliny, Natural History 25.12–3)


In late ancient times, other books of herbal lore joined Pliny’s (23–79 C.E.Natural History. The most important of these was Dioscorides’s (ca. first century) Teachings on Medicines, which is still important in our time. This work provides information about numerous psychoactive plants, including their various names, preparations, and uses (cf. Rätsch 1995a).

In the Middle Ages, descriptions of psycho-active plants were found especially in the writings of Arabic and Indian authors, such as Avicenna (980–1037). In Germany, many plants (including hemp, henbane, and deadly nightshade) were described by the abbess Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) (Müller 1982).

The great period of the “fathers of botany” dawned at the beginning of the modern era. This period witnessed the publication of voluminous herbals full of information about psychoactive plants. Among their authors are Leonhart Fuchs (1501–1566), Jacobus Theodorus Tabernaemontanus (1522–1590), Hieronymus Bock (1498–1554), Otto Brunfels (ca. 1490–1534), and Pierandrea Matthiolus (1500–1577).

During the colonization of the New World, the Spanish king sent physicians and botanists to Mexico and Peru. Their task was to investigate the indigenous flora to determine potential medicinal uses. The results were published in a number of compendia dedicated to American flora and its healing effects. All of these works contain numerous references to psychoactive plants and their medicinal and psychoactive uses (Pozo 1965, 1967).

The systematic study of psychoactive plants first began in the nineteenth century. Dr. Ernst von Bibra (1806–1878), a baron from Lower Franconia, was a private scholar typical of his time. He was wealthy by birth, achieved academic distinction, and dedicated his life to his studies, which he preferred to carry out within his own four walls. He studied medicine and philosophy in Würzburg and later lived in Nuremberg. When he was not traveling, he spent most of his time at his estate at Schwebheim. Bibra held liberal political views and was actively involved in the Revolution of 1848. Because of this, he was forced to leave the country for a time, during which he journeyed through South America (1849–50). While there, he became acquainted not only with many exotic cultures but also with a number of South American inebriants, especially coca and guaraná.

Just one year after Bibra published the remarkable journal of his travels,12 his groundbreaking book Die narkotischen Genußmittel und der Mensch [The Narcotic Agents of Pleasure and Man] (Nuremberg 1855; published in English as Plant Intoxicants in 1995) appeared. A unique work, it became a true literary sensation, providing the first detailed descriptions of the psychoactive drugs that were known at the time and their effects. The author’s own experiences, as well as his liberal disposition, were very discernible:


One could not name a single country in the whole wide world in which the inhabitants are not using some sort of narcotic. Indeed, almost all use several of them. Although perhaps only a few tribes use certain of these substances, millions of people employ the vast majority of them. (Bibra 1995, 218)


In his book, Bibra reported at great length about coffee, tea, maté, guaraná, cacao, fahan tea, fly agaric, thorn apple, coca, opium, lactucarium, hashish, tobacco, betel, and arsenic. The conclusions of his discussion have a very modern ring:


We have learned from experience that man can live without narcotics or without alcoholic drinks, which we wish to include here because of their similar effects. By taking these substances, however, man’s life becomes brighter and therefore they ought to be approved. (221)


Clearly, the notion that we have a right to inebriation was already current at that time!

In German-speaking countries, Bibra’s work launched a wave of interdisciplinary drug research that has continued into the present day. He was the chief source of inspiration for pharmacist Carl Hartwich (1851–1917), who compiled the most voluminous work on psychoactive plants to date (Hartwich 1911), as well as for toxicologist Louis Lewin (1850–1929). Even Albert Hofmann (b. 1906), a modern-day Swiss chemist specializing in the investigation of naturally occurring substances, feels a kinship with the baron, for Bibra called upon the chemists who would come after him to dedicate themselves to the study of psychoactive plants.

Arthur Heffter (1860–1925) took Bibra at his word. He was the first person to test an isolated plant component, in his case mescaline, by trying it out on himself. It is for this reason that we still refer to this method of conducting research through self-experimentation as the Heffter technique.

At about the same time as Bibra, the American Mordecai Cubitt Cooke (1825–1913) also was studying human inebriants, which he poetically described as the “Seven Sisters of Sleep” (Cooke 1860, reprinted in 1989). Paralleling Cooke’s work, the Scotsman James F. Johnston was investigating the chemistry of everyday life and the substances that humans ingest for their pleasure. He published his work in 1855, the same year as Bibra.

In Italy, Paolo Mantegazza (1831–1910) is regarded as a pioneer of drug research (Samorini 1995b). In 1871, Mantegazza published in Milan his 1,200-page main work Quadri della natura umana: Feste ed ebbrezze [Pictures of Human Nature: Festivals and Inebriations].

Mantegazza was partial to coca, and in 1858 he published a sensational work entitled Sulle virtù igieniche e medicinali della coca e sugli alimenti nervosi in generale [On the Hygienic and Medicinal Virtues of Coca and Nerve Nourishment in General]. Like Bibra and Hartwich, Mantegazza was interested in all agents of inebriation and pleasure and was guided and inspired by these his entire life. Since most of his writings have appeared only in Italian, they have not attracted as much international attention as the publications of Bibra, Johnston, and Cooke.

Mantegazza’s classification of inebriants is especially interesting. He divided the “nerve nourishment” into three families: 1. alcoholic nerve nourishment, with the two branches fermented and distilled beverages; 2. alkaloid nerve nourishment, with the branches caffeine and narcotics (among the narcotics, he included opium, hashish, kava-kava, betel, fly agaric, coca, ayahuasca, and tobacco); and 3. aromatic nerve nourishment (sage, oregano, rosemary, cinnamon, pepper, chili, etc.).

The psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin (1856–1926), who in 1882 published his medical and psychologically oriented book Über die Beeinflussung einfacher psychologischer Vorgänge durch einige Arzneimittel[On the Influencing of Simple Psychological Processes by Some Medicines], followed a path different from Bibra’s. That same year witnessed the publication of the revised second edition of Die Schlaf- und Traumzustände der menschlichen Seele mit besonderer Berücksichtigung ihres Verhältnisses zu den psychischen Alienationen [The Sleeping and Dreaming States of the Human Mind, with Special Emphasis Upon Their Relationship to the Psychic Alienations], by Heinrich Spitta, a dream researcher and professor of philosophy. Both books, each in its own way, dealt with the chemical agents that can be used to induce altered states. Shortly thereafter, the neurologist and “father of dream theory” Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) published his work Ueber Coca [On Coca], which helped make the use of cocaine fashionable. These pioneering works led to the development of psychopharmacology or pharmacopsychology, a field that has attracted psychiatrists, pharmacologists, pharmacognosists, and chemists. Pharmacopsychology has been defined as “the doctrine of influencing the mental life by means of chemically effective substances introduced into the body” (Lippert 1972, 10).


Dr. Ernst Freiherr von Bibra (1806–1878) was a pioneer in the ethnopharmacological study of psychoactive substances. His work Die narkotischen Genußmittel und der Mensch [The Narcotic Agents of Pleasure and Man] (1855) was the first comprehensive book on the topic and is still an important reference.



Shen-Nung, the legendary Red Emperor, is regarded as the founder of Chinese herbal medicine. He personally tried each herb, including the poisonous and inebriating ones, before recommending their use for healing purposes. Shen-Nung was thus the founder of the ethnopharmacological method of conducting bioessays, also known as the Heffter technique. (Ancient Chinese


The most important chemist in this history of research is the Swiss Albert Hofmann. Not only did he invent LSD while investigating the ergot alkaloids, but also he discovered the active principles in the magic mushrooms of Mexico as well as other American Indian magical drugs. Also of note is Alexander T. Shulgin, an American chemist of Russian descent who has played an especially significant role in the area of structure-effect relationships.

In anthropology or ethnology, investigations into the use of psychoactive plants did not begin until the twentieth century.13 Among the pioneers of psychoactive ethnology are Pablo Blas Reko, Weston La Barre, Johannes Wilbert, Peter Furst, and Michael Harner. Today, the role played by Carlos Castaneda is a source of considerable controversy.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, ethnobotany began to emerge as a specialized branch of science. The term was introduced in 1895 by John W. Harshberger (1869–1929). Both ethnologists and botanists have specialized in ethnobotany. A British scholar, Richard Spruce (1817–1893), was one of the pioneers of ethno-botany. Richard Evans Schultes (1915–2001), a former professor and former director of the Botanical Museum at Harvard University, is universally regarded as the “father of psychoactive ethnobotany.” His investigations in Mexico and South America have led to the discovery of numerous psychoactive plants (Davis 1996). Many of Schultes’s students have themselves become renowned ethnobotanists or ethnopharmacologists, including Timothy Plowman (1944–1989), Wade Davis, Mark J. Plotkin, and Tom Lockwood. The American botanist William Emboden is noted for making a creative leap to art history and has published many important works in this area.

Ethnomycology, the study of the cultural uses of fungi, was founded by the banker R. Gordon Wasson (1898–1986). In some ways, Jonathan Ott, a chemist who investigates natural substances, has become Wasson’s successor. Many other discoveries in ethnomycology have been made by Paul Stamets, Gastón Guzmán, and Jochen Gartz.

During the past thirty years, ethnopharmacology, the study of the cultural uses of pharmacologically active substances and their cognitive interpretations, has developed into a specialized field within the disciplines of ethno-botany and ethnomedicine. It is a young field that is very interdisciplinary in nature. This encyclopedia is a work of this nature.

Finally, we should also mention closet shamans. This term has come to be used for amateurs and hobbyists who experiment at home with psychoactive plants and preparations, occasionally making astonishing discoveries that are then eagerly taken up and pursued by scientists. Almost all of the research into ayahuasca analogs has been conducted by these closet shamans.

Most of the important discoveries in the field of psychoactive plants, including those having to do with their chemistry and pharmaceutical uses, have been made by German-speaking scientists. Is this an expression of some need of the German “soul”? Why this concentration on German soil? Is the Germanic god Wotan still at work? Wotan is both the god of knowledge and the restless shaman who will do whatever he can to satisfy his immeasurable thirst for knowledge. It was he who stole the Mead of Inspiration and brought it to us humans (Metzner 1994b).