The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Nymphaea ampla (Salisbury) DC.


White Water Lily


“The coolness of my foot,

the coolness of my hand,

when I cooled the eruption! [lit.:


Five are my white hail-stones,

my black hail-stones,

[my] yellow hail-stones.

Then I cooled the eruption.

Thirteen are the layers of my red dressing,

my white dressing,

[my] black dressing,

[my] yellow dressing,

when I received the force of the eruption.

A black fan was my symbol,

when I received the force of the eruption.

With me comes the white [aquatic] ixim-ha-plant,

when I received the force of the eruption.

With me comes the white nab-water-lily,

when I received the force of the eruption.

Shortly ago I applied [to it]

the coolness of my foot,

the coolness of my hand.








Nymphaeaceae (Water Lily Family); Apocarpiae Group, Subgenus Brachyceras

Forms and Subspecies


The species is divided into two varieties:


Nymphaea ampla var. pulchella (DC.) Caspary Nymphaea ampla var. speciosa (Martius et Zuccarini) Caspary


Moreover, in Mexico (and elsewhere) there are a number of crosses and hybrids of different Nymphaea species, including Nymphaea ampla cultivars, that have acquired a certain importance as ornamentals (Slocum et al. 1996*).




Folk Names


Apepe, japepe, lolha’ (Mayan, “flower of the water”), mexikanische seerose, naab270 (Mayan), nab, nikte’ha’ (Mayan, “flower/vulva of the water”), ninfa, ninfea, nukuchnaab (Mayan, “large water lily”),271pan de manteca, quetzalxochiatl (Aztec, “Quetzal feather flower”), saaknaab, saknaab (Mayan, “white water lily”), sol de agua (Spanish,“sun of the water”), u k’omin (Lacandon), u k’omin ha’, water-lily, white water lily, xikinchaak (Mayan, “the ear of the rain god”), zac-nab



The white water lily is represented in both pre-Columbian art and in Mayan manuscripts (Emboden 1983). It was first described scientifically in the nineteenth century. The first reports of its psychoactive use were published in the 1970s.



In southern Mexico, the plant occurs throughout the entire Mayan lowlands (Emboden 1979a). It is also found on the higher elevated lake plateaus of Chiapas (Lagunas de Montebello, Yahaw Petha’ Lago Metzabok, Laguna de Najá, et cetera) It is common in the cenotes (natural wells, limestone caverns) near Mérida in the northern Yucatán (Roys 1976, 267*) and in Lago Petén Itzá in Guatemala. It is also said to occur in Brazil.



The rhizome can be multiplied and will thrive when placed in a pond with drainage or in slow-moving water.



The plant develops a thick rhizome and has long-stemmed cordate leaves. The white flowers protrude some 20 to 30 cm above the floating leaves.

Nymphaea ampla is easily confused with the very similar European Nymphaea alba L.

Psychoactive Material


—Buds or flowers


Preparation and Dosage


The white water lily can be prepared as a tea or decoction. However, no information concerning dosages is currently known (cf.Nymphaea caerulea).

The dried buds and flowers can be smoked alone or in smoking blends. One or two buds is said to be a psychoactive dosage. The fresh rhizome can be eaten raw or cooked. Eating an entire rhizome produces a mild sensation of being high (Brett Blosser, pers. comm.).

Ritual Use


The water lily appears to have been used as an additive to the balche’ drink.

It has been said that Brazilians used the flowers as a narcotic inebriant with opium-like effects during the first half of the twentieth century (Emboden 1979a, 51). In the 1960s, “hippies” in Chiapas allegedly used the flowers as a recreational drug.



The water lily is a very common subject in Mesoamerican art. The rain god of Teotihuacan (Tláloc; cf. Argemone mexicana) is often depicted with water lily leaves, buds, and flowers. Sometimes he even has the buds in his mouth (Pasztory 1974). Curiously, the renowned ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson interpreted these very images of water lilies as representations of entheogenic mushrooms (see Psilocybe mexicana). (See Emboden 1981 and 1982 for more on this subject.)

The water lily was portrayed especially often in the art of the Classic Mayan period in icono-graphic contexts (Rands 1953) that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. There are essentially three motifs: water lilies sprouting from the backs of crocodiles swimming in the water; the head of the “earth monster,” around which water lilies are entwined; jaguars that are either wearing the stalks and buds of water lilies as a head ornament or dancing with water lilies. The association between the jaguar and the water lily is especially dominant (Rands 1953, 88; cf. Emboden and Dobkin de Rios 1981).


The bud and open flower of the white water lily (Nymphaea ampla), found throughout southern Mexico and Guatemala. (Wild plant, photographed in Lago Petén Itzá, Guatemala)


The water lily is frequently seen on ceramic vessels that appear to depict primarily visionary scenes from the underworld or other worlds (Coe 1973; Emboden 1979b):


In association with the transforming tadpoles and balche’ vessels, the water lily appears to invoke shamanic ecstasy. The tadpole changes its form and becomes a toad; the shaman undergoes a similar transformation and manifests himself in his alter ego. In some cases, the toad is seen in a human form which is offering libations; these may consist of balche’ or of balche’ to which water lilies have been added, so that the transformation is easier. (Emboden 1979a, 51)


There is even a Mayan hieroglyph known by the name jaguar–water lily, which has played an important role in the decipering of the Mayan writing system (Coe 1993, 257). In all likelihood, the jaguar–water lily is a transformed shaman. In the American tropics, the jaguar is the most important shamanic animal and/or is the animal that is identical to the shaman and whose shape he can assume (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1975*; Walter 1956*).

The uay glyph (see illustration on right) may indicate that the shaman was transformed into a jaguar by means of a potent balche’ drink and is traveling in another reality. The iconographic element of the water lily may possibly be a symbol for the balche’ drink, the water in which the inebriated jaguar swims, the inebriation itself, or the other reality. The water lily also appears as a ritual scepter and is depicted over balche’ vessels (Emboden 1979a, 50; 1992, 81).

Medicinal Use


The water lily was invoked in numerous Mayan magical conjurations from the colonial period to heal ulcers and skin diseases (Roys 1965, 39 f., 123). It has been said that the plant is still used for ethnomedicinal purposes in the Yucatán today (Barrera M. et al. 1976*).



The flowers have been found to contain aporphine, a substance that is closely related to the opiate apomorphine (Tamminga et al. 1978). It differs only in the lack of two hydroxyl groups. It is possible that aporphine can be transformed into apomorphine through processing, storage, or metabolism (Emboden 1979a, 50). Aporphine is also found in the poppy species Papaver fugax Poir. (Phillipson et al. 1973; cf. Papaver spp.). Alkaloids of the aporphine type also occur in the Family Lauraceae (e.g., Litsea sebifera Pers., Litsea wightiana Hook. f., Actinodaphne obovata Bl.) (Uprety et al. 1972). The backbone chain of aporphine is boldine, a substance also contained in the leaves of the boldo tree (Peumus boldus), which have traditionally been used as incense.

In addition to aporphine, Nymphaea ampla appears to contain quinolizidine alkaloids (Emboden 1983).



A tea made from the buds is said to have psychoactive effects (Dobkin de Rios 1978). It can also have psychodysleptic effects and can induce vomiting, but it does not have any toxic aftereffects (Emboden 1979a, 51). Further human pharmacological experiments are required.




Commercial Forms and Regulations





See also the entries for Nymphaea caerulea and balche’.


Coe, Michael D. 1973. The Maya scribe and his world. New York: The Grolier Club.


———. 1993. Breaking the Maya code. London: Thames and Hudson.


Conrad, H. S. 1905. The waterlilies: A monograph of the genus Nymphaea. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution.


Dobkin de Rios, Marlene. 1978. The Maya and the water lily. The New Scholar 5 (2): 299–307.


Emboden, William A. 1979a. Nymphaea ampla and other Mayan narcotic plants. Mexicon 1:50–52.


———. 1979b. The water lily and the Maya scribe. The New Scholar 8 (2): 103–27.


———. 1981. Pilz oder Seerose—literarische und bildliche Zeugnisse von Nymphaea als rituellem Psychotogen in Mesoamerika. In Rausch und Realität, ed. G. Völger, 1:352–57. Cologne: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum. für Völkerkunde.


———. 1982. The mushroom and the water lily. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 5:139–48.


———. 1983. The ethnobotany of the Dresden Codex with special reference to the narcotic Nymphaea amplaBotanical Museum Leaflets 29 (2): 87–132.



The uay glyph from the Classic Mayan period (from a vase painting). The Mayan word uay (literally “transformation,”“magic”) refers to either the nagual (an animal-shaped alter ego) or a shaman who is able to change his shape as he wishes. The picture shows a jaguar (inebriated?) swimming in a lake. The glyph text reads (from top to bottom): Water lily—jaguar—his nagual/his animal transformation—Seibal [place glyph]—ahau (“lord”); freely translated: “The lord of the city of Seibal has the water lily–jaguar as his nagual (animal spirit/animal form).”


———. 1992. Medicinal water lilies. Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness 1992 (1):71–88. Berlin: VWB.


Emboden, William A., and Marlene Dobkin de Rios. 1981. Narcotic ritual use of water lilies among ancient Egyptians and the Maya. In Folk healing and herbal medicine, ed. G. G. Meyer, Karl Blum, and J. G. Cull. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas Publishers.


Pasztory, Esther. 1974. The iconography of the Teotihuacan Tlaloc. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks.


Phillipson, J. David, Günay Sariyar, and Turhan Baytop. 1973. Alkaloids from Papaver fugax of Turkish origin. Phytochemistry 12:2431–34.


Rands, Robert L. 1953. The water lily in Maya art: A complex of alleged Asiatic origin. Anthropological Papers, no. 34. Smithsonian Institution BAE Bulletin 151:75–153.


Roys, Ralph L. 1965. Ritual of the Bacabs. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.


Tamminga, C. A., et al. 1978. Schizophrenia symptoms improve with apomorphine. Science 200 (5): 567–68.


Uprety, Hema, D. S. Bhakuni, and M. M. Dhar. 1972. Aporphine alkaloids of Litsea sebiferaL. wightiana and Actinodaphne obovataPhytochemistry 11:3057–59.


Walter, Heinz. 1956. Der Jaguar in der Vorstellungswelt der südamerikanischen Naturvölker. MS diss., Hamburg.



A dancing jaguar (= shaman) with water lilies (Nymphaea ampla) in a vase painting from the Classic Mayan period.


Nymphaea caerulea Savigny


Blue Lotus Flower




Nymphaeaceae (Water Lily Family); Apocarpiae Group, Subgenus Brachyceras

Forms and Subspecies


None (cf. Slocum et al. 1996, 164*)



Nymphaea coerulea (misspelling!)


In ancient Egypt, the beautiful blue lotus of the Nile (Nymphaea caerulea) was cultivated as a sacred plant. It has now disappeared almost completely from the Nile region. (Copperplate engraving, colorized, nineteenth century)


Folk Names


Blaue lotusblume, blauer lotus, blaue seerose, blue lotus flower, himmelblaue seerose, λϖτοσ (ancient Greek), lotus (Roman), νχμφαιασ (ancient Greek), nymphaea (Roman), ssn (Egyptian), utpala (Sanskrit)



Blue and white lotuses were the most important cultivated (ritual) plants of ancient Egypt. They grew wild in ponds and in the lowlands of the Nile and were planted in all natural and artificial (built) bodies of water (Hugonot 1992). They were esteemed for their beauty, their enchanting hyacinth-like scent, their symbolism, and probably also their inebriating effects. The buds and flowers were popular head and hair ornaments. Both the living and the dead were festooned with garlands made from the plant. The garlands in the grave of the great pharaoh Ramses II (1290–1223 B.C.E.) were made almost entirely of white and blue lotus leaves (Germer 1988*). The Egyptian lotus (Nymphaea lotus [L.] Willd.) was described by Dioscorides, who was certainly aware of the blue lotus as well.


The blue lotus (Nymphaea caerulea) is now rare.


The blue lotus was first mentioned in the Egyptian Book of the Dead (Hornung 1993, 167, 364). The ancient Egyptians appear to have eaten the rhizome.


This hybrid water lily was derived in part from Nymphaea caerulea.




The blue lotus is found only in the Nile delta, the lowlands of the Nile, and, less frequently, Palestine (Zander 1994, 397*). Today, it has almost completely disappeared from around the Nile and is seriously endangered.



The plant can be propagated by placing pieces of the rhizome in still bodies of water.



The blue lotus has blue, sky blue, or sometimes slightly violet-tinged flowers that sit on long stems some 20 to 30 cm above the water’s surface. The long-stemmed, floating leaves are round.

The blue lotus is easily confused with the violet-blooming Nymphaea nouchali Burman f. [syn. Nymphaea stellata Willdenow].272

Psychoactive Material


—Buds or flowers

Preparation and Dosage


Six buds or flowers that have already opened and closed again should be boiled in water. The flowers should be squeezed in a linen cloth so that their greenish brown juice runs into the water.

Ritual Use


In ancient Egypt, the blue lotus was closely linked to the detailed and visionary concepts of the afterlife and rebirth. Numerous buds, petals, and garlands have been found as mummy decorations and grave goods. The flower stands for the enlightened and reawakened consciousness of the deceased; it is “that lotus flower which shines in the earth” (Book of the Dead, chapter 174, line 30; cf. Dassow 1994). In the story of the battle between Horus and Seth, the lotus flower appears as a symbol of the divine, all-seeing eye. When Seth tracks down the resting Horus beneath a tree in an oasis, he rips both eyes from the sleeper and buries them in the sand, whereupon they are transformed into lotus flowers.

Because of the mythological, cosmological, symbolic, and artistic significance of the water lily, William Emboden (1978) has suggested that the ancient Egyptians used the blue lotus for its narcotic effects to produce a shamanic ecstasy among an elite priesthood. Since the blue lotus is usually portrayed in association with mandrakes (Mandragora officinarum) and poppy flowers (from Papaver somniferum or Papaver rhoeas; cf. Papaver spp.), it is highly probable that these images represent an “iconographic recipe.” A psychoactive ritual drink consisting of lotus buds, mandrake fruits, and poppy capsules is entirely conceivable (Emboden 1989).



A portrait head of Tutankhamen showing his head emerging from a lotus flower was discovered. The water lily was associated with the sun god Ra as the bringer of light. Usually, blue lotus flowers are portrayed together with yellow mandrake fruits and red poppy capsules (see above). They very often appear in scenes that have a shamanic, visionary, or initiatory character. Stylized lotus flowers were an important ornamental element in the art (container shapes, capitals of columns) of ancient Egypt (Emboden 1989). The blue lotus flower was also a symbol of Osiris, the god of the mystery cult, who was also regarded as the lord of beer and wine (see Vitis vinifera).

Medicinal Use


In ancient Egypt, water lilies were prescribed to treat the liver, to remedy constipation, to counteract poisons, and to regulate the urine. The petals were used both externally and internally, the latter being primarily in the form of enemas (Rätsch 1995, 351*).



“No pharmaceutical properties of Nymphea lotus and Nymphea coreulea [sic!] are known” (Germer 1979, 28*). Yet the leaves and flowers are alleged to have narcotic properties. According to Emboden (1978), Nymphaea caeruleapresumably contains alkaloids. The flowers produce an exquisite essential oil that is said to have aphrodisiac properties.



Three to six buds, drunk as a tea, are said to induce hypnotic effects. The effects of the decoction become apparent some twenty minutes after ingestion. The initial symptoms include muscle tremors and nausea. Then comes a sensation of calm with alterations of color perception, auditory hallucinations, and other changes in auditory perception. The effects dissipate quickly after some two hours.

Commercial Forms and Regulations


Today, the blue lotus is a rare plant. It is doubtful whether it is sold in any form. The essential oil is only rarely available. When found, it is usually dissolved in sandalwood oil and is extremely expensive (John Steele, pers. comm.).



See also the entry for Nymphaea ampla.


Dassow, Eva von, ed. 1994. The Egyptian book of the dead. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.


Emboden, William A. 1978. The sacred narcotic lily of the Nile: Nymphaea caeruleaEconomic Botany 32 (4): 395–407.


———. 1989. The sacred journey in dynastic Egypt: Shamanistic trance in the context of the narcotic water lily and the mandrake. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 21 (1): 61–75.


Hornung, Erik. 1993. Das Totenbuch der Ägypter. Munich: Goldmann.


Hugonot, J. C. 1992. Ägyptische Gärten. In Der Garten von der Antike bis zum Mittelalter, ed. M. Carroll-Spillecke, 9–44. Mainz: Philipp von Zabern.



The white-blossomed Egyptian lotus (Nymphaea lotus) had a symbolic meaning in ancient Egypt that was very similar to that of the blue lotus. However, the white lotus does not appear to be psychoactive. (Woodcut from The Penny Magazine, July 7, 1834)



Ancient Egyptian representations of the sacred lotus as cut flowers for sacrifice and decoration. (From Engel)


“O you two fighters, tell the Noble One, whoever he may be, that I am this lotus-flower which sprang from the earth. Pure is he who received me and prepared my place at the nostril of the Great Power [Re]. I have come into the Island of Fire, I have set right [maat] in the place of wrong. . . . I have appeared as Nefertum, the lotus at the nostril of Re.”




(DASSOW 1994, CH. 174)