The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Paullinia cupana Kunth ex H. B. K.


Guaraná Vine




Sapindaceae (Soapberry Family); Subfamily Sapindoideae, Paullinieae Tribe


The young guaraná vine (Paullinia cupana) in the Amazonian rain forest.


Forms and Subspecies


The wild form is Paullinia cupana H.B.K. var. typica (Seitz 1994, 53). The cultivated form, Paullinia cupana H.B.K. ssp. [or var.] sorbilis (Mart.) Ducke, is often regarded as a subspecies or variety (Erickson et al. 1984, 273).



Paullinia cupana H.B.K.

Paullinia sorbilis Mart.

Paullinia sorbilis (L.) Mart.

Folk Names


Brasilianischer kakaobaum, Brazilian cocoa, camú-camu (Shipibo), cipo-guaraná, cupana, cupána, dschungeltee, guarana, guaraná, guaraña, guaranáliane, guaranáranke, guaranastrauch, guaranáuva, guaraná vine, guaranazeiro, naraná, naranajeiro, uabano, uaraná, uraná



The use of guaraná—which the Indians regard as a gift from the gods—is said to have been discovered by the Amazonian Satéré-Mawé tribe and to have a tradition dating back thousands of years (Carneiro M. 1989, 60f.*; Pavia 1995, 137*; Straten 1996, 62). A drink made of water and the ground fruits of the guaraná vine was originally consumed by shamans so that they could acquire secret knowledge. Many Indians use guaraná drinks, which they call “elixirs of eternal youth,” as a hunting drug. The Amazonian Indians have known of the plant and its stimulating products for centuries.

In Europe, however, reports of the jungle vine did not appear until the mid-seventeenth century (Straten 1996, 60 f.). The plant became more well known through Alexander von Humboldt, who became acquainted with both the plant and the drink it yields during his travels from the Orinoco to the Rio Negro. The high caffeine content was detected in 1840 and has been confirmed numerous times (Berrédo Carneiro 1931). Today, guaraná is increasingly being exported to Europe, both as an agent of pleasure and for pharmaceutical processing (Schröder 1991, 108 f.*). Guaraná has become a popular coffee substitute (see Coffea arabica), and is now also known as a “techno drug” (cf. herbal ecstasy). It has also played a significant role in the development of energy drinks.


Around the world, stimulating drinks are now manufactured from guaraná seeds (Paullinia cupana).




The natural range is in central Amazonia from the Rio Madeira to the Rio Tapajos and on the Rio Negro and the Orinoco. Wild stands occur only in these areas. Amazingly, these regions are also the only places where the plant has been successfully cultivated (Schöder 1991, 109*).



Guaraná can be grown either from viable seeds or from cuttings taken from prunings. The method of pollination, which has a very strong influence on the yield, was long unknown. It now appears that hundreds of insects are responsible (Esteves Gondim 1984).

Guaraná has now been cultivated successfully for years in the central Amazon region (Schultes 1979, 259). The primary area of cultivation, consisting of some fifteen thousand acres (six thousand hectares), is near Manaus (Erickson et al. 1984). One plant produces about 1 kg of seeds per harvest. It is astonishing that guaraná cultivation has not been commercially successful in any other part of the world. Apart from the Central Amazon region, the plant has been cultivated only in Sri Lanka, Uruguay, and Central America (Seitz 1994, 54).



This woody, vinelike climber can grow over 12 meters long. It climbs up supporting trees by means of its spreading branches. The perennial underwood plant has a smooth, vertical stem and large, long leaves consisting of five ovate-oblong individual leaves. The white, scentless flowers are attached to short stalks and grow from the branch axis in bushy panicles. The three-chambered ovary usually contains a single developed seed that is about 1 cm in size, round, and embedded in a thin, dark brown seed coat. The seed is filled with two starchy cotyledons (Tschirch 1918). The flowers begin to blossom when the rainy period ends. The fruits (guaraná clusters) mature some three months later (Seitz 1994, 54).

“The first description of guaraná was written in the year 1669 by the Jesuit missionary J. F. Betendorf, who spoke about the diuretic effects of the drink and its use for headaches, fever, and cramps. In the eighteenth century, interest in guaraná was the reason for searching for a trade route across central Brazil, from Mato Grosso across the source rivers of the Rio Tapajós to the Rio Maués. The merchants needed 9–10 months to journey back and forth by boat, which had to be pulled over land in some places, but the effort was obviously worthwhile. The Maué intensified the cultivation to meet the demand, and the Brazilians themselves built plantations.”






The guaraná vine can be easily confused with other species of the genus Paullinia (see Paullinia spp.).

Psychoactive Material



—Pasta guarana (pasta guaraná, pasta seminum paulliniae, massa guaranae, guarana paste, guaraná paste)

Preparation and Dosage


The traditional method of preparing the seeds is to manufacture guaraná breads (also known as bastão):


The fruits are placed in water, allowing the outer hull to swell so that it can be more easily removed. The seeds are then lightly roasted so that the starch adheres the cotyledons together. The seeds that have been prepared in this way are then ground with the shells or pounded with a pestle. Mixed with manioc starch flour [Manihot esculenta Crantz] and perhaps also cacao [Theobroma cacao], it is kneaded with water to produce a doughy paste. This guarana paste, whose caffeine content can vary considerably depending upon the amounts of the admixtures, is dried in the sun or over a low fire for the domestic market in the form of rolls about a foot long and the width of a wrist. (Schröder 1991, 110*)


These loaves are easily transported. The Amazonian Indians use the ossified tongue (hyoid bone) of an Amazonian fish called pirarucú (Arapaima gigas Cuvier) to rasp off the amount they wish to use and drink the powder suspended in water.

For pharmaceutical and industrial processing, guaraná is prepared by mixing the dried, shelled, more or less strongly roasted and powdered seeds with water to produce a paste (Seitz 1994, 54).

One-half teaspoon of the prepared powder is often given as an average daily dosage. One gram of pharmaceutical guaraná paste represents a single dose (Seitz 1994, 56).

Ritual Use


According to the mythology of the Brazilian Tupí Indians, the guaraná plant had a shamanic origin. The shamaness Omniamasabé, who possessed a very comprehensive knowledge of the “real world that is hidden to humans,” was impregnated in the forest solitude by the snake god Mboy. Shortly thereafter, she gave birth to a son. Her jealous brothers enlisted a hostile shaman to kill the son. This shaman drank ayahuasca and transformed himself into an ara parrot. In this form, he searched out and killed the boy. As the tears of the mother poured over the body, it was transformed into the guaraná vine. Since that time, shamans eat the guaraná fruits so that they may be initiated into the secrets of the knowledgeable shamaness Omniamasabé.

Most Amazonian Indians, including the Mundurucú, tell some version of the following origin myth:


A son born to a couple of the Maué tribe, so the story goes, was an exceptional child who spread happiness and good will wherever he went, a veritable angel. A jealous evil spirit resolved to eliminate the youngster. Despite close supervision by the tribe the child slipped out alone one day to collect fruit in the forest. The evil spirit, Iurupari, transformed himself into a snake that attacked and killed the child. When rescuers found him he was lying facing the sky, bearing a benevolent expression in death, eyes opened wide.

Soon thereafter a shattering bolt of lightning shook the earth, halting the lamentations of the assembled tribe. Enter the mother who gave a lengthy discourse on how she had received divine instructions to bury the excised eyes of the child. No one wanted to accept the gruesome task so a lottery was conducted, and the interment performed by the loser. Later a shrubby plant sprouted from the buried eyes. This was the first guaraná and its origin accounts for ripe fruit having the appearance of living eyes. (In Erickson et al. 1984, 280)


For the Indians, this story also explains the plant’s abilities to help a person stay awake. The fruit’s eyelike shape is interpreted as a kind of signature for mystical vision. Because of this, the plant has a certain significance as a shamanic plant and is ingested when diagnosing diseases (cf. Karlinger 1983, 128–32). For this reason, the Indians do not pick the guaraná berries until the first “eye” has opened (Seitz 1994, 54). Some Amazonian Indians also use guaraná for ritual fasts (Straten 1996, 143).

In recent years, guaraná has acquired a reputation in Europe as a “techno drug” (Walder 1995). Using copious amounts of guaraná makes it easier to dance through the night at techno parties, which have a distinct ritual character. In certain circles, guaraná is also used as a substitute for cocaine.



The Indians also use the guaraná paste to manufacture decorative articles. They shape it into figures of humans, animals, and plants, and even into relief pictures with depictions of village life. These sculptures are often decorated with colors that are produced from indigenous natural dyes [e.g., Bixa orellana] and minerals. The traditional value of these objects far exceeds their simple beauty. Because they are made from one of the Indians’ most valuable medicines and foods, they acquire a spiritual, almost religious significance. (Straten 1996, 64)


Medicinal Use


Many Indians of the Amazon esteem guaraná as an aphrodisiac. In the region of the Peruvian Amazon, the subspecies sorbilis especially is regarded as an aphrodisiac (Rutter 1990*). Apart from this, the plant is used primarily as a remedy for intestinal diseases (Schröder 1991, 110*). Guaraná also finds use in folk medicine for treating menstrual pains, difficulties with digestion, conditions of weakness, diarrhea, and fever (Seitz 1994, 56).

In phytotherapy and alternative medicine, guaraná has been found to be effective primarily as an antidepressant, to treat “coffee addiction,” for migraines, and for chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) (Straten 1996, 70, 155).

In homeopathy, a tincture of pure seeds, Guarana hom. HAB34 or Paullinia sorbilis hom. HPUS88, is used to treat headaches and other afflictions (Schneider 1974, 3:33*; Seitz 1994, 57).



Guaraná is the strongest of all caffeine drugs. It is some three times stronger than coffee (Coffea arabica) and eight times as potent as maté (Ilex paraguariensis).

The seeds contain approximately 5% caffeine, 3% fatty oil, 9% tannic acids, 8% resin, 10% starch, 50% fiber, minerals (potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium), some protein, sugar, and water. The oil is sometimes attributed with “hallucinogenic” properties, for example, in the package inserts of commercial guaraná products that are sold on the techno scene.

The leaves contain 0.38% caffeine and up to 1.2% theobromine (cf. Theobroma cacao). All the other parts of the plant also contain traces of caffeine and other purines (Seitz 1994, 54).

The active constituents and concentrations change as the seeds are made into the paste. Cyanogenic glycosides are presumably produced during this process. The paste contains 3.6 to 5.8% caffeine, 0.03 to 0.17% theobromine, 0.02 to 0.06% theophylline, up to 12% tanning agents (proanthocyanidin, [+]-catechin, [–]-epicatechin), saponins, seed fat, minerals, and water. A portion of the caffeine occurs in a complex bond with the tanning agents. This complex was formerly referred to as guaranine (Seitz 1994, 55).

“On this occasion, I noticed that a missionary seldom undertakes a journey without taking along the prepared seeds of the cupana vine. This preparation requires great care. The Indians grind the seeds, mix them with manioc flour, wrap the mass in banana leaves, and allow this to ferment in the water until the mass has turned saffron yellow. This dough is dried in the sun, and after water has been poured over it, it is consumed in the morning instead of tea. The drink is bitter and strengthens the stomach, but I found the taste to be very unpleasant.”






To the Indians, the medicinal value of this plant [Paullinia cupana] and its ability to stimulate the brain and keep the body active and vital is nothing short of a miracle.”




(1996, 62)




Guaraná has potent stimulating effects due to the caffeine and the “guaranine.” However, the overall effects are distinctly different from those produced by coffee and other purine drugs. It is thought that the long duration of the stimulant effects (in contrast to the relatively short duration of the effects of coffee) is due to the complex binding of caffeine to the tanning agents. Guaraná also has an inhibiting effect upon sensations of hunger and thirst. It has been characterized as “a harmless, mild antidepressant” (Straten 1996, 11). There have been many reports of aphrodisiac effects (Miller 1988, 57*; Straten 1996, 61). Curiously, some people do not experience any effects or paradoxically become tired, even with high dosages.

Commercial Forms and Regulations


To protect its own economy and its monopoly status, Brazil does not allow the export of viable seeds (Schröder 1991, 109*). Apart from this, guaraná is subject to the various laws regulating foods.

Guaraná is the main ingredient in numerous manufactured products that are freely available (supermarkets, body shops, health food stores, gas stations, et cetera). Buzz Gum, a sugar-free chewing gum made with guaraná extract, is sold in the United States. Gumdrops containing guaraná extract as well as caffeine and taurine are sold in Switzerland. In Germany, tea bags containing guaraná and maté (Ilex paraguariensis) have recently become available in stores.



See also the entries for Paullinia spp. and caffeine. Berrédo Carneiro, Paulo E. de. 1931. Le Guarana et


Paullinia Cupana H.B.K.: Contribution à l’etude des plantes à caféine. Paris: Jouve et Cie. Editeurs.


Erickson, H. T., Maria Pinheiro F. Corréa, and José Ricardo Escobar. 1984. Guaraná (Paullinia cupana) as a commercial crop in Brazilian Amazonia. Economic Botany 38 (3): 273–86.


Esteves Gondim, Carlos José. 1984. Alguns aspectos da biologia reprodutiva do guaranazeiro (Paullinia cupana var. sorbilis (Mart.) Ducke—Sapindaceae. Acta Amâzonica 14 (1–2): 9–38.


Henman, Anthony Richard. 1982. Guaraná (Paullinia cupana var. sorbilis): Ecological and social perspectives on an economic plant of the central Amazon basin. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 6:311–38.


Karlinger, Felix, and Elisabeth Zacherl. 1976. Südamerikanische Indianermärchen, Cologne: Diederichs.


Schultes, Richard Evans. 1979. The Amazonia as a source of new economic plants. Economic Botany 33:259–66.


Seitz, Renate. 1994. Paullinia. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 6:52–59. Berlin: Springer.


Straten, Michael van. 1996. Guarana: Energiespendende und heilkräftige Samen aus dem Amazonas-Regenwald. Aarau and Stuttgart: AT Verlag.


Tschirch, A. 1918. Über den Bau der Samenschale von Paullinia cupana Kunth. Schweizerische Apotheker-Zeitung 56 (35): 445–47.


Walder, Patrick. 1995. Technodrogen. In Techno, ed. Philipp Anz and Patrick Walder, 192–97. Zurich: Verlag Ricco Bilger.


Paullinia spp.


Paullinia Species




Sapindaceae (Soapberry Family); Subfamily Sapindoideae, Paullinieae Tribe

Several species of the genus Paullinia occur in the tropics of Central and South America. The genus encompasses some 150 to 200 species in all, some of which contain large quantities of caffeine (see Paullina cupana), while others (e.g., Paullinia curruru L.) have very toxic properties and have been used as fish poisons and to produce arrow poisons with curare-like effects (Blohm 1962, 67*; Millspaugh 1974, 167*; Schultes 1942, 314). Species in the very closely related genus Serjania also contain powerful fish poisons (Schultes 1942, 314).


Paullinia australis St.-Hil.

Indigenous to the forests of Brazil, this species is said to produce a toxic or psychoactive honey (Millspaugh 1974, 167*). The leaves and roots of Argentinean plants contain an alkaloid with sedative and narcotic properties (Schultes 1942, 314).


Paullinia carpopodea Camb.

In Brazil, the leaves of this species are used in folk medicine to treat pain. They may contain a narcotic or analgesic principle.


Paullinia emetica Schultes

The Karijona Indians of Colombia used a tea made from the leaves of this species medicinally and ritually as a potent emetic agent (Schultes 1977b, 119*). At the present, we can only conjecture as to whether the species also contains caffeine or has psychoactive properties.


Paullinia pinnata L. [syn. Paullinia angusta N.E. Br., Paullinia nitida Steud., Paullinia pinnata DC., Serjania curassavica Radlk.]—timbosipo, cururu apé, guaratimbo

In Amazonia, this evergreen climber is known as sapo huasca (sapo means “toad”!) and is purportedly used as an inebriant. The root cortex is said to contain a toxin (“timboine” or “timbol”) with narcotic properties (Duke and Vasquez 1994, 132*; Millspaugh 1974, 167*; Schultes 1942, 314).

In Paraguay, where the plant is known as erejna, the Ayoré Indians use Paullinia pinnata L. to treat rheumatism (Schmeda-Hirschmann 1993, 107*). The vine is called bejuco de zarcillo (“earring vine”) in Venezuela. The stalks and roots were used as fish poison and to commit suicide (Blohm 1962, 67*).

Few chemical studies of the plant have been conducted to date.


Paullinia yoco Schultes et Killip ex Schultes—yoco

This woody vine, which can grow to a very long length and can have a diameter of up to 12 cm, is found in southern Colombia (Putumayo) and Ecuador, where it is known as yoco or yoko (Schultes 1942). The Indians make a distinction among a number of forms: yoco blancoyoco coloradohuarmy yocotaruco yocoyagé yococanaguche yocoverde yoco, and others; however, these are not distinguished botanically (Schultes 1942; 1987, 527). The name yagé yoco suggests an association with Banisteriopsis caapi or a use of yoco as an additive in ayahuasca. The name canaguche yoco indicates the addition of yoco to a type of chicha known as chicha de canaguche, which is fermented from the fruits of Mauritia minor Burrett (cf. palm wine) (Schultes 1942, 312). The Kofán differentiate between two ecological forms with the names to-to-oa-yoko, “white yoco,” and cu-i-yoko. The first form is preferred because it contains more latex (Schultes 1981, 23*). The use of yoco was discovered only in the 1920s (Schultes 1942, 309). The Inga, Kofán, and Coreguaje use yoco as a daily morning stimulant. These Indians never go on hunting expeditions or journeys without taking a supply of pieces of the vine (Schultes 1942, 322).


The Mexican plant aquiztli (Paullinia fuscescens H.B.K.) was the first species in the caffeine-producing genus Paullinia to be described and illustrated. (From Hernández, 1942/46 [Orig. pub. 1615]*)


“Yoco is undoubtedly the most curious caffeine-rich plant that people have bent to their use. A forest liana of the westernmost Amazon of Columbia, Ecuador, and Peru, it is the only species the bark of which is employed in the preparation of a stimulant drink. The liana is the most important non-food plant in the life of numerous tribes of Indians; when a local supply of the wild source is exhausted, the natives find it necessary to abandon their home-site and re-locate in another area where the plant is found in greater abundance. It appears that the liana is rarely or never cultivated, probably because it is extremely slow growing.”






(1987, 527)


A milky latex that contains a very high level of caffeine flows through the bark. Yoco bark is drunk only in the form of a cold-water extract. The vine (epidermis, bark) is scraped, and the bark pieces and the caffeine-rich latex yield a mass that is then pressed in cold water. One dosage is prepared from 15 to 28 ounces (= 420 to 790 g) of scraped bark and a tree gourd (jicara) full of water (Schultes 1987). The effects are a powerful stimulation with tingling in the fingers. A general sensation of well-being and clear wakefulness manifests within a few minutes of consuming the drink. The appetite is profoundly and persistently suppressed. Most yoco users drink two jicaras in the morning right after rising and do not eat until the late afternoon (Schultes 1942, 323).

The bark is also added to the tobacco preparation known as ambíl (see Nicotiana tabacum) and is mixed with Ilex guayusa.

Yoco bark contains 2.73% caffeine (Rouhier and Perrot 1926). No other active constituents have been detected. The buds have also been found to contain caffeine (Schultes 1942, 313).



See also the entries for Paullinia cupana and caffeine.


Perrot, E., and Alexandre Rouhier. 1926. Le yocco, nouvelle drogue simple à caféine. Comptes Rendus Hebdomadaires des Séances Acad. de Science 182:1494–96.


Rouhier, A., and E. Perrot. 1926. Le “yocco,” nouvelle drogue simple à caféine. Bulletin de Science Pharmacologique 33:537–39.


Schultes, Richard Evans. 1942. Plantae Colombianae II—Yoco: A stimulant of southern Colombia. Botanical Museum Leaflets 10 (10): 301–24.


———. 1987. A caffeine drink prepared from bark. Economic Botany 41:526–27.