Latúe, Tree of the Magicians
Solanaceae (Nightshade Family); Subfamily Cestroideae, Nicotianeae Tribe
Forms and Subspecies
The genus is composed of just one species (D’Arcy 1991, 78*); it is possible that a distinction may be made between two forms on the basis of pronounced or almost absent thorns. The Mapuche Indians make a distinction between a male (thornless) and a female (thorny) form.
Latua pubiflora (Griseb.) Phil.
Latua venenata Phil. (misspelling in the literature)
Latua venenosa Phil.
Lycioplesium pubiflorum Griseb.
Árbol de los brujos (Spanish, “tree of the magicians”), baum der zauberer, latua, latue, latué (Mapuche, “he who kills”), latúe, latue-hue, latuhue, latuy,201 latuyé, palo de bruja (“tree of the witch”), palo de brujos (“tree of the magicians”), palo mato (“tree of death”), tayu, tree of the magicians, witches tree
It appears that this plant was already being used for shamanic purposes in southern Chile in pre-Spanish times. Sources from the colonial period do not mention any kind of use. The genus and species were first described by the German botanist Rudolph A. Philippi (1858). The name latúe is from the Mapudungun (Mapuche) language and means “that which causes death.” In Chile, many rumors circulate concerning the lethal effects of the tree, which is generally so feared that no one will speak of it (which does not make research any easier!).
In earlier times, Chilean fishers used the shrub as a fish poison. They combined the juice of the plant with bark from the sacred shamanic tree known as canelo (Drimys winteri Forst; see incense) (Plowman et al. 1971, 74). The not-unpleasanttasting plant juice was or is used to poison food (Houghton and Manby 1985, 100*). Such use occurs primarily as a method of taking revenge on people who are the objects of desire but do not reciprocate the feeling.
Latua pubiflora is endemic to Chile (Hoffmann 1994, 222) but is found only in very clearly delimited areas, e.g., in the Cordillera Pelada near Osorno (Mösbach 1992, 104*). The shrub is somewhat more common on the mountain ridges of the Cordillera de San Juan la Costa, which is in the center of the Mapuche region. Latua is also said to be indigenous to the island of Chiloé, but it is extremely rare there (Plowman et al. 1971).
Latua pubiflora is one of the rarest of all psychoactive plants. To date, it has never been cultivated anywhere else, nor has it been spread by humans.
Propagation can occur with pregerminated seeds (experiments are presently being carried out). The Mapuche propagate the beautiful plant using cuttings taken from green branches. Latua requires a mild, frost-free climate with much rain. However, the soil should not become too moist.
The leaves of the latúe plant grow considerably larger, and its appearance is (even more) beautiful when it is grown in the shade.
While this perennial shrub can attain heights between 2 and 10 meters, it usually grows to 3 to 4 meters. The plant has one or more main stems that become woody and can grow up to 25 cm in diameter. The gray branches grow curiously in all directions. On some plants, these branches are thickly covered with long, sharp, hard thorns, while on other individuals the thorns are almost entirely absent. The gray-green, lanceolate leaves are alternate and can grow as long as 8 cm (although they usually reach only 3 cm). The violet, bell-shaped flowers hang from the thorny branches as if in panicles and attain a length of some 4 cm. The fruits are small, round, yellow-green berries that contain a great number of tiny seeds. Flowering occurs between October and March, although individual shrubs may flower more than once a year. The fruits typically ripen in March. Pollination occurs via hummingbirds (Plowman et al. 1971, 68).
Latua is easily mistaken for Dasyphyllum diacanthoides (Less.) Cabr. [syn. Flotowia diacanthoides Less.], known as tayo or palo santo (“sacred tree”), which is used in folk medicine (Plowman et al. 1971, 70).
—Leaves, fresh or dried, and the juice obtained by pressing them
—Bark, fresh or dried
—The entire plant except for the root (tot.)
—Flowers, fresh or dried
Latua pubiflora, known as the tree of the magicians, is one of the rarest of all shamanic plants. Its range is restricted to a small area in southern Chile. (Photographed near Osorno)
The raw plant material from Latua pubiflora is used for folk medicinal purposes.
Rhaphithamnus spinosus, which is used as an antidote for Latua overdoses, has a similar appearance to the tree of the magicians, especially in its long thorns. (Photographed in Chiloé)
Preparation and Dosage
The shamans of the southern Chilean Mapuche (so-called machi; cf. Bacigalupo 1995) normally use a juice obtained by pressing freshly harvested leaves, which they dilute with water. The freshly pressed plant juice is also mixed with wine; occasionally, a decoction made from the bark of young shoots is preferred. Dried parts of the plant are used to make a tea (infusion) (Houghton and Manby 1985, 100*). Unfortunately, no information is available concerning the quantities that are used.
The Mapuche shamans ingest some of the tea every twenty to thirty minutes. In this way, the effects gradually become evident and overdoses can be avoided (Plowman et al. 1971, 81).
There are many recipes for (psychoactive) latúe incense (saumerio de latúe). Usually, equal parts of canelo bark (Drimys winteri), romero herb (Fabiana imbricata), and palqui leaves (Cestrum parqui) are mixed with Latualeaves. Another recipe calls for equal parts of Fabiana, Latua, and Cestrum parqui. A third recipe lists a mixture of Latua, wheat, maté (Ilex paraguariensis), and Fabiana, to which horse bones are sometimes added (Nakashima Degarrod n.d., 11f.).
The flowers and leaves are dried in the shade, after which they can be smoked. Initial experiments have indicated that the dosage should not exceed 1 g per person.
For external treatments, alcohol extracts (licor) are prepared from the leaves, often in combination with other herbs. A handful of the dried raw plant (tot.), boiled in water, is used as a bath additive to treat rheumatism (baño de reumatismo).
The traditional antidote for Latua overdose is a decoction of hierba mora (Solanum nigrum; see Solanum spp.) and the herbage of an Oxalis species or the fruit of Rhaphithamnus spinosus (A. Juss.) Moldenke (Plowman et al. 1971, 75).
This plant formerly was used by the shamans (machi) of the Mapuche in the region of Valdívia.202 Most Mapuche shamans are female; only a very few men hold this position (Philip 1994).
One Mapuche group, the Huilliche, still revere the plant as a shamanic tree, for it brings power, knowledge, and realization; offers magical protection; and can heal (Nakashima Degarrod n.d., 8).
An offering (bread, cooked chicken, wheat porridge, tobacco) must be made to the plant before it is harvested. Then a short but important prayer is said to the spirit of the plant: “Little plant, come to me, I will take something of you so that you will give me health.”
Many shamans claim that they acquired their powers and abilities by consuming latúe preparations during their initiation (Nakashima Degarrod n.d., 11).
For the Mapuche shamans, latúe is the most important incense for dispelling evil spirits, bad moods, worries, and grief. To this end, the herb, which is always mixed with other substances (see above), is scattered over an open fire.
The plant is also used by black shamans (kalku) for their nefarious deeds (witchcraft, death magic).
No artifacts are known. However, it is possible that the Mapuche shamans do manufacture or use some.
Latúe is considered to be an aphrodisiac and was utilized as an ingredient in love drinks (Bodendorf and Kummer 1962). The Mapuche believe that small doses of the plant help develop physical strength and that children should be given some Latua so that they become “big and strong” (Nakashima Degarrod n.d., 13). Mapuche sha-mans administer weak infusions of the leaves and fruits internally to alleviate pain (Nakashima Degarrod n.d., 15).
In Chile, the bark of the bush, known as tayu, is used in folk medicine as a decoction for treating contusions and bruises (Schultes 1970, 48*). Shamans recommend a decoction of latúe, Fabiana imbricata, and palqui (Cestrum parqui) as a medicinal bath additive. A licor de latúe is applied externally to treat rheumatism, arthritis, coughing, pain, et cetera.
“The Huilliche [a Mapuche tribe] believe that Latua pubiflora is inhabited by a spirit and is thus sacred. It is thought that the plant can bring physical strength, healing, death, and good luck and contains shamanic powers. These powers, however, are only associated with the female plant. The female plant is considered to be that one which produces fruits and has thorns, which are lacking in the male plant. Only the female plant is used by the Huilliche. It is thought that the plant is jealous and possessive. For this reason, the people keep the rituals associated with it secret. In addition, they show the plant a deep respect, for they believe that they will otherwise be severely punished. Several conceptions about the plant exhibit syncretism with Christianity. For some people, the plant is sacred because it is associated with Jesus: the thorns are said to have been used to crown Christ before the crucifixion.”
LYDIA NAKASHIMA DEGARROD
CONTEMPORARY USES OF THE LATUA RUBIflORA AMONG THE HUILLICHE OF CHILE
The entire plant contains the tropane alkaloids atropine and scopolamine (Schultes and Farnsworth 1982, 166*); the concentration of atropine (0.18%) is greater than that of scopolamine (0.08%) (Plowman et al. 1971, 86). The leaves contain 0.18% hyoscyamine (= atropine) and lesser amounts of scopolamine (Bodendorf and Kummer 1962). Earlier analyses suggested that the leaves contain the highest concentrations of active constituents, while the stem contains less and the fruits are devoid of alkaloids. Yet other analyses have indicated that the stem contains the highest alkaloid content and the seeds and leaves only slight amounts (Plowman et al. 1971, 86).
Latúe is said to cause severe delirium and visual hallucinations and induces pronounced dryness of the mouth, pupillary dilation, headaches, and confusion. The effects last up to three days; aftereffects (similar to those of Brugmansia) can linger for weeks. Even a tea made from the leaves is capable of inducing hallucinations and cramps (Houghton and Manby 1985, 100*). It is also said that Latua can produce permanent “imbecility” (Murillo 1889). The shamans are apparently not harmed by the plant; on the contrary, it helps them learn about things that are otherwise hidden.
Smoking the dried leaves produced in me very pleasant bodily effects with aphrodisiac sensations and great mental relaxation with associative thoughts (very similar to the effects of various species of the genus Brugmansia).
Commercial Forms and Regulations
A statue of El Brujo, “the magician,” lord of Latua pubiflora. (Sculpture in the Museum of Ancud, Chiloé)
See also the entries for atropine, tropane alkaloids, and scopolamine.
Bacigalupo, Ana Mariella. 1995. Renouncing shamanistic practice: The conflict of individual and culture experienced by a Mapuche machi. Anthropology of Consciousness 6 (3): 1–16.
Baumann, Peter. 1981. Valdivia: Die Entdeckung der ältesten Kultur Amerikas. Frankfurt/M.: Fischer.
Bodendorf, K., and H. Kummer. 1962. Über die Alkaloide in Latua venenosa. Pharmazeutische Zentralhalle Deutschlands 101:620–22.
Hoffmann, J. Adriana E. 1994. Flora silvestre de Chile: Zona araucana. Santiago: Ediciones Fundación Claudio Gay.
Miranda, J. B. 1918. Estudio químico, fisiológico y terapéutico de Latua venenosa (Palo de Bruja). Actes de la Société Scientifique du Chile 23 (3): 10–26.
Murillo, A. 1889. Plantes Médicinales de Chile. Paris: Imprimerie de Lagny.
Nakashima Degarrod, Lydia. n.d. Contemporary uses of the Latua pubiflora among the Huilliche of Chile. Unpublished manuscript, written ca. 1988.
Philip, Arturo. 1994. La curación chamánica: Experiencias de un psiquiatra con la medicina aborigen americana. Buenos Aires: Editorial Planeta.
Philippi, Rudolph A. 1858. Latua Ph., ein neues Genus der Solanaceen. Botanische Zeitung 33 (Aug.): 241–42.
Plowman, Timothy, Lars Olof Gyllenhaal, and Jan Erik Lindgren. 1971. Latua pubiflora—magic plant from southern Chile. Botanical Museum Leaflets 23 (2): 61–92.
Silva, M., and P. Mancinelli. 1959. Atropina en Latua pubiflora (Griseb.) Phil. Boletín de la Sociedad Chilena de Química 9:49–50.
Vásquez, A. 1864. Substancias del Latua venenosa de Chiloé, Latue o árbol de los brujos. Anales de la Sociedad de Farmacia de Santiago 2 (3): 71–75.