The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum (A. Berger) Britton et Rose






Cactaceae (Cactus Family)

Forms and Subspecies





Cereus pecten-aboriginum A. Berger Pachycereus pectenaboriginum

Folk Names


Bigi-tope (Zapotec), bitaya mawali (Tarahumara), cardón, cardón barbón, cardón espinoso, cardón pelo, carve, cawé, chave, chawé, echo, hecho, kammbaumkaktus, órgano, pitahayo, pitayo, sagüera, sahueso, shawé (Tarahumara), wichowaka, xáasx (Serí)



This striking cactus was certainly already known in prehistoric times and was being used for ethno-botanical purposes similar to those for which it is used today (Strombom and Bruhn 1978). Mexican Indians use the thorny fruit as a hairbrush and plant the cactus as a living fence. In former times, the wood of the cactus was used as a building material. The Tarahumara collect the fruits and seeds for food (Bruhn and Lindgren 1976, 175).


Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum in its natural environment in Baja California (Mexico).




The cactus is found only in Mexico: Baja California, Chihuahua, Sonora, Colima, and also near Tehuantepec.



In Mexico, the cactus is propagated by planting pieces that have been cut from young shoots. The cactus is often planted in dense rows to protect houses and gardens as a living fence.



This cactus develops long, straight stems that grow upward, parallel to one another, and recall the pipes of an organ. The cactus can grow to a height of 5 to 6 meters, is somewhat thorny, and bears thorny fruits.

This species is easily confused with the closely related Pachycereus pringlei (S. Wats) Britt. et Rose [syn. Cereus pringlei S. Wats], which is known in Sonora by the names cardóncardón pelo, and sagüera(Martínez 1987, 1176*). A similar species (Pachycereus emarginatus [DC.] Britt. et Rose) is known in Mexico by the names órgano and pitayo but is cultivated primarily as a living fence (Dressler 1953, 140*). The alkaloid-containing Pachycereus weberi (Coult.) Backeb. also has a similar appearance (Mata and McLaughlin 1980).

Psychoactive Material


—Young branches (stalks)

Preparation and Dosage


The fresh cactus flesh is pounded in a hollowed-out stone. The resulting juice is mixed with water (approximately one part cactus juice to three parts water). Unfortunately, there is no information describing the amounts of this solution that must be drunk in order to induce psychoactive effects (Bruhn and Lindgren 1976, 175).

The Tarahumara press the juice from the fresh stalks and drink it to induce visions. The juice is either mixed with tesgüino (maize beer, chicha) or boiled and fermented (Bye 1979b, 34*).

Ritual Use


In former times, the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico drank the cactus juice during secret ceremonies in the western canyons (Bruhn and Lindgren 1976, 175; Pennington 1963, 166f.). Apart from this, the cactus is used as a peyote substitute (see Lophophora williamsii).



A pre-Hispanic clay vessel from Colima has the shape of four stalks of a column cactus as a decorative element. It may be a representation of this cactus.

Medicinal Use


The cactus is used in Mexican folk medicine to treat stomach ulcers and cancer (Bruhn and Lindgren 1976, 175). Heated, the fresh cactus flesh of Pachycereus pringlei is applied externally to treat rheumatism (Felger and Moser 1974, 421*).



The cactus flesh contains the β-phenethylamines carnegine (= pectenine), 3-hydroxy-4-methoxyphenethylamine, salsolidine, 3,4-dimethoxyphenethylamine, heliamine, 3-methoxytyramine, and arizonine (Bye 1979b, 35*; Bruhn and Lindgren 1976; Mata and McLaughlin 1982, 109*).



Freshly pressed cactus juice, mixed with water, is said to produce effects similar to those of peyote (see Lophophora williamsii), including dizziness and visions (Bruhn and Lindgren 1976, 175; Pennington 1963, 167). The fermented juice also has strong purgative effects (Bye 1979b, 34*).

Commercial Forms and Regulations





See also the entry for Lophophora williamsii.


Bruhn, Jan G., and Jan-Erik Lindgren. 1976. Cactaceae alkaloids. XXIII: Alkaloids of Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum and Cereus jamacaruLloydia 39 (2–3):175–77.


Mata, Rachel, and Jerry L. McLaughlin. 1980. Tetrahydroisoquinoline alkaloids of the Mexican columnar cactus Pachycereus weberiPhytochemistry 19:673–78.


Pennington, C. W. 1963. The Tarahumara of Mexico: Their environment and material culture. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.


Strombom, J., and J. G. Bruhn. 1978. Alkaloids of Pachycereus pectenaboriginum, a Mexican cactus of ethnopharmacologic interest. Acta Pharm. Suecica 15:127.



This ancient Mexican petroglyph (Olmec horizon) shows a wild cat as it licks a cactuslike plant. This may be a reference to the psychoactive powers of a column cactus of the genus Pachycereus. The cat may be a shaman who has transformed himself with the aid of the cactus juice.