The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Mucuna pruriens (Linnaeus) DC.






Leguminosae-Papilionaceae (Legume Family): Sub-family Papilionoideae: Phaseoleae, Erythrininae Tribe

Forms and Subspecies


The species can be divided into at least two or three subspecies (Zander 1994, 385*; Lassak and McCarthy 1992, 66*):


Mucuna pruriens (L.) DC. ssp. deeringiana (Bort) Hanelt

Mucuna pruriens (L.) DC. ssp. pruriens

Mucuna pruriens (L.) DC. ssp. gigantea (15 cm long fruits)


Mucuna utilis Wall. ex Wight, once considered a species in its own right, is now regarded as a variety (Allen and Allen 1981, 448*): Mucuna pruriens (L.) DC. var. utilis (Wall. ex Wight) Backer.



Dolichos pruriens L.

Mucuna deeringianum (Bort) Merr.

Mucuna prurita Hook. f.

Mucuna prurita Wight

Mucuna utilis Wall. ex Wight

Mucuna utilis Wall. ex Wight var. utilis Backer ex Burck

Stizolobium deeringianum Bort

Stizolobium pruriens (L.) Medik.

Stizolobium pruritum Piper

Folk Names


Acharriya-pala, afrikanische juckbohne, akushi (Bengali), baidhok, balagana, chiikan (Mayan), chipororo, chiporro, cowhage, cowhage-winde, cowitch, cow itch, demar pirkok (Cuna), haba, huacawuru (Shipibo), itchweed, jeukboontje (Dutch), juckbohne, juckende fasel, juckfasel, kachaguli, kawanch, kiwach (Hindi, “bad to rub”), korodu, kuhkrätze, mucunán, ojo de vaca (Spanish, “eye of the cow”), ojo de venado (Spanish,“eye of the deer”), ojo de zamuro, oyobe, pica pica, pois à gratter, pois pouillieux, pwa gwatê, shabun baranti (Shipibo), siliqua hirsuta, velvet bean, wich yuk (Lacandon, “deer eye”), wodza, zizi, zootie



Almost nothing is known about the early history of the plant. In India, it has long been used for ethnomedicinal purposes. The genus name Mucuna is derived from the Tupí word mucunán, which is used in Amazonia to refer to several members of the genus (Allen and Allen 1981, 446*). In 1688, Hans Sloane brought to London a collection of cowhage seeds that were exhibited there as “itch powder” (Allen and Allen 1981, 447*). One substance obtained from the plant, L-dopa, has become rather well known and has revolutionized the treatment of Parkinson’s disease (Remmen and Ellis 1980).

“The total indole alkylamine content [of cowhage] was studied from the point of view of its hallucinogenic activity. It was found that marked behavioral changes occurred which could be equated with hallucinogenic activity.”






(1992, 50*)




It is no longer possible to determine where cowhage originated, although it may have come from tropical Asia (Zander 1994, 385*). It is now found in tropical regions in both hemispheres (the Americas, Africa, and Asia). It often grows in cultivated areas and at the borders of forests, near the ocean, and in sandy soils.



The plant can be grown from pregerminated seeds and also propagated vegetatively. Little is known about its cultivation.



Cowhage is a vigorous climber that produces clusters of luxuriant violet inflorescences. The seedpods are approximately 8 to 10 cm long and covered with fine hairs. The pods contain the large, round, flat seeds, which are dark brown with a darker stripe.

Cowhage is easily confused with a wisteria species (Wisteria sinensis). The genus Mucuna is composed of some 150 species, many of which are very similar to one another (Allen and Allen 1981, 446*).

Psychoactive Material




Preparation and Dosage


For aphrodisiac and ethnomedicinal purposes, the dried seeds are ground and ingested with liquid. They also may be suitable for use in producing ayahuasca analogs. An aphrodisiac dosage (for men) is regarded as 15 g (Argueta V. et al. 1994, 1151*).

For medicinal purposes, the fruits are boiled (decoction).

The dried leaves—which dry in one day even in the humid tropics—can be smoked; one to two cigarettes is regarded as an effective dosage (Anonymous 1995).

Ritual Use


In India (Karnataka), the seeds are used to produce an aphrodisiac; two ground seeds are taken in cow’s milk in the evening (Bhandary et al. 1995, 155*). It is possible that aphrodisiacs made from cowhage seeds are also used in sexual rituals of the tantric cult (cf. Alstonia scholaris). A folk love magic for strengthening the procreative powers suggests that this might be so:


Here, two plants are used: Mucuna pruritus [sic] and Feronia elephantum [= Limonia acidissima L.; Rutaceae]. These are dug up with the following words: “Oh plant, you have been uprooted by bulls. You are the bull who foams over from lusty strength: And now you are being dug up by me for a bull of this kind!” . . . After they have been chopped and softened in water, decoctions of [the plants] are mixed with some milk. The patient, who sits upon a club or an arrow, drinks the mixture while reciting the magical formula for procreative power . . . :“Oh Indra, give power to this agent; its heat is like that of the fire. Like the male antelope, you, oh plant, possess all the power there is, you brother of the great soma.” (I. Shah 1994, 198*)




The large seeds are made into amulets wherever they are found, including Mexico, Guatemala, the Caribbean, tropical Africa (Ghana), and India. The seeds are often used in necklaces or as pendants (Madsen 1965, 110).

Medicinal Use


In Mexico, the powdered seeds are regarded as a potent aphrodisiac (Martínez 1994, 255*). A Mexican folk medicinal practice involves washing the eyes of newborns with a decoction of the seeds to prevent eye inflammation (Patten 1932, 210). In Puebla, a decoction of the fruits is drunk as an anthelmintic (Argueta V. et al. 1994, 1151*). In Brazil, the plant is used as an aphrodisiac and nerve tonic. The Cuna Indians also use it as an aphrodisiac (Duke 1975, 290*). In Trinidad, crushed seeds are ingested with sugarcane juice to treat intestinal worms (Wong 1976, 126*).

The seeds have long been used in Ayurvedic medicine and the Unani system as an aphrodisiac (Bhattacharya et al. 1971, 53). The tribal peoples of Bastar use the seeds to increase semen production and to cure “nocturnal dreams” (wet dreams?) (Jain 1965, 241*).

In the folk medicine of Nepal, the seeds are prescribed as a treatment for nervous disorders. In India, four or five hairs from the seedpod are taken with milk or buttermilk as an anthelmintic (Bhandary et al. 1995, 155*).

A common belief in Southeast Asia is that the seeds of Mucuna pruriens var. utilis, which are known as achariya-pala, can suck out the venom of a scorpion simply by being placed on the wound (Macmillan 1991, 424*). In the countries of the region, “herbal medicine [uses] a decoction of the root and the hulls as a diuretic and to alleviate inflammations of the nasal cavities” (Stark 1984, 69*).

The seed is also used as an anthelmintic in West African folk medicine (Ott 1993, 400f.*).

Homeopathic medicine uses a tincture made from the hairs of the seedpods known as Dolichus pruriens—Cowhage (Schneider 1974, 2:334*). Extracts of the seeds may be suitable for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease (Hussain and Manyam 1997).


The fruits of Mucuna pruriens ssp. gigantea. (Photographed in Palenque, Mexico)



This cowhage (Mucuna pruriens) seed, which contains DMT, is being used as the centerpiece of a traditional necklace made by the Lacandon of the rain forest of southern Mexico.



Flower and seed pod of an as yet undescribed Mucuna species from Panama, which may be a potent source of DMT.




The seeds contain N,N-DMT, DMT, DMT-N-oxide, 5-MeO-DMT, and bufotenine along with two β-carbolines (Bhattacharya et al. 1971). Serotonin (= 5-hydroxytryptamine) and L-dopa have also been detected (Argueta V. et al. 1994, 1151*; Ott 1993, 400*), as have the alkaloids mucunine, mucunadine, prurienene, prurieni-nine, mucuadine, mucuadinine, mucuadininine, prurienidine, and nicotine (Allen and Allen 1981, 447*). Tryptamines are present in the leaves.

The substances aproteine and mucunaine occur in the hairs on the seedpods and are responsible for the skin irritation (Seaworth 1991, 142*).

The cells contain a phenoloxidase, tyrosine, that is transformed into L-dopa when given to the cells as a substrate (Woerdenbag et al. 1989; cf. also Remmen and Ellis 1980).

It is likely that other members of the genus Mucuna also contain appreciable amounts of psychoactive tryptamines. L-dopa has been detected in several Mucuna species (Remmen and Ellis 1980; Yoshida 1976).









Animal experiments (with rats) have demonstrated that an extract of the seeds probably has hallucinogenic effects (Bhattacharya et al. 1971). Very few pharmacological experiments with humans have been conducted. There is one very interesting report describing the effects of smoking the leaves:


Smoking a joint the size of a cigarette will produce a general CNS stimulation (a pounding “tryptamine high”). The ingestion of 3 grams of harmala [seeds of Peganum harmala] and two smoked mucuna joints led to a pounding in my head, accompanied by colorful geometric patterns. A slight irritation developed within an hour to a delicate feeling (pulsating colorful patterns moved around me in a spiral fashion, I felt a strong need to lie down. Very delicate and detached.). (Anonymous 1995, 33)


Commercial Forms and Regulations


The seeds are sometimes sold as beads in shops that trade in artwork and antiquities from Africa and other overseas locations. The plant is not subject to any specific regulations.

“In Spain, these beans [of Mucuna pruriens] are set in silver and worn to ward off illness, headache, and the evil eye. . . .


“. . . They are also known as ‘haba’ (bean), a name that is usually given to the shell of the dry snail.”





(1996, 142 f.*)




See also the entries for N,N-DMT and ayahuasca analogs.


Anonymous. 1995. Mucuna pruriens. Entheogene 5:33.


Bhattacharya, S. K., A. K. Sanyal, and S. Ghosal. 1971. Investigations on the hallucinogenic activity of indole alkylamines isolated from Mucuna pruriens DC. Indian Journal of Physiology 25 (2): 53–56.


Hussain, Ghazala, and Bala V. Manyam. 1997. Mucuna pruriens proves more effective than L DOPA in Parkinson’s disease animal model. Phytotherapy Research 11:419–23.


Madsen, Claudia. 1965. A study of change in Mexican folk medicine. New Orleans: Middle American Research Institute.


Patten, Nathan van. 1932. Obstetrics in Mexico prior to 1600. Annals of Medical History, n.s., 4 (2): 203–12.


Remmen, Shirley F. A., and Brian E. Ellis. 1980. DOPA synthesis in non-producer cultures of Mucuna deeringiana. Phytochemistry 19:1421–23.


Woerdenbag, H. J., N. Pras, H. W. Frijlink, C. F. Lerk, and Th. M. Malingre. 1989. Cyclodextrin-facilitated bioconversion of β-estradiol by cultured cells of Mucuna pruriens and derived phenoloxidase preparations. Planta Medica 55:681.


Yoshida, Takeo. 1976. A new amine, stizolamine, from Stizolobium hassjoo. Phytochemistry 15:1723–25.