The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Salvia divinorum Epling et Játiva-M.


Ska María Pastora




Labiatae (Lamiaceae; Mint Family); Subfamily Nepetoideae, Salvieae Tribe, Salviinae Subtribe, Dusenostachys Section

Forms and Subspecies


Only clones or races of varying bitter taste are known. The Wasson clone is very bitter and is derived from plants collected in 1962; the “palatable clone,” which has hardly any bitter taste, was collected in Llano de Arnica, Oaxaca, by the American ethnobotanist Bret Blosser (Ott 1996, 33).




Folk Names


Aztekensalbei, blätter der hirtin, diviner’s sage, foglie della pastora, hierba de la pastora, hierba de la virgen, hoja de la pastora (Spanish, “leaf of the shepherdess”), hojas de adivinación, hojas de maría pastora, la hembra, leaves of the Mary shepherdess, mazatekischer salbei, pipiltzitzintli, sage of the seers, salvia, salvia of the seers, ska maría pastora, ska pastora (Mazatec, “leaf of the shepherdess”), wahrsagesalbei, yerba de maría, yerba maría, zaubersalbei



The Aztecs knew and used a plant they called pipiltzintzintli (literally “the noblest little prince”) in entheogenic rituals in a manner very similar to the ways in which they used mushrooms (Psilocybe spp.). A number of authors have suggested that this plant was Salvia divinorum (Wasson 1962; Ott 1995, 1996).287

Gordon Wasson discovered the plant and its divinatory use in 1962. That same year, the plant was first botanically described by Carl Epling and Carlos D. Játiva-M., botanists from UCLA. In the 1960s, Albert Hofmann was unable to discover any active constituents in an initial analysis of juice pressed from the plant (Hofmann 1979, 151–68*; 1990). The chemistry and pharmacology was not clarified until the 1980s and 1990s, when salvinorin A was discovered (Ortega et al. 1982; Valdés 1994; Valdés et al. 1987; Siebert 1994).



Salvia divinorum is endemic to the Mazatec region of the Sierra Madre Oriental in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Apart from this, the plant is found only as a cultigen among “neo-shamans” and in botanical gardens. It occurs naturally in tropical rain and cloud forests at altitudes between 300 and 1,800 meters (Reisfield 1993). Because of its small original range, the plant is one of the rarest of all natural entheogens. It is now grown by plant enthusiasts around the world.



Propagation is performed with cuttings or layers/shoots. All leaves except the topmost pair are removed from an 8 to 12 cm long branch tip, which is then placed in water. The cutting should develop roots in about two weeks. It can be planted in soil after about four weeks. Salvia divinorum requires a great deal of water and prefers high to very high humidity. If the edges of the leaves turn brown, this is a sure sign that the air is too dry. As a shade plant, it does not tolerate any direct sunlight, prefers dark soil, and needs copious amounts of water, i.e., it should be watered almost every day. Although the plant is sensitive to cold, cultivated Salvia divinorum can survive a mild frost.

Methods for cultivating the plant from seed are currently being investigated (cf. Reisfield 1993).



The evergreen plant is an herbaceous perennial that can grow to over 1 meter in height. Its most characteristic feature is its completely four-sided, sometimes even square stem, which can grow as thick as 2 cm. Its edges are angular. Both the opposite leaves and the side branches develop from nodes on the stem. The light to dark green leaves are entirely covered in fine hairs and attain a length of over 20 cm and a width of some 10 cm. The leaves are lanceolate and tapered at both ends. The panicled inflorescences appear at the ends of the stalks and look exactly like those of Coleus blumei. The campanulate calyxes are bluish or purple in color, while the petals are always white (Reisfield 1993; cf. Brand 1994, 540). In Mexico, the plant blossoms between October and March but primarily in January. In cultivation, the plant seldom flowers, and fruits almost never develop. Recently, however, one clone has been discovered that develops fruits and seeds more frequently. A hummingbird has been observed as a pollinator (Reisfield 1993). The seeds germinate and begin to develop, but with our current gardening techniques, they all eventually die.

Salvia divinorum can be confused with a similar, closely related Central American species, Salvia cyanea Lamb. ex Benth. (Epling et Játiva-M. 1962; Mayer 1977, 777).

Psychoactive Material


—Fresh or dried leaves (salvia divinorum leaves, folia salviae divinorum, divination leaf)

Preparation and Dosage


The Mazatec take thirteen pairs of fresh leaves (twenty-six leaves in all) and roll them into a kind of cigar (quid) that they place in the mouth and suck on or chew while retaining it in the mouth. The juice is not swallowed, as the active constituents can be absorbed only through the mucous membranes of the mouth. At least six fresh leaves are needed to prepare one quid (threshold dosage), while more distinct effects will occur with eight to ten leaves. When consumed in the form of a quid, the effects appear after almost exactly ten minutes and persist for some forty-five minutes. The dried leaves are best smoked by themselves. Here, as little as half an average-sized leaf (two or three deep inhalations) can be sufficent to elicit profound psychoactive effects. Usually, however, one or two leaves are smoked. The dried leaves can be soaked in a Salvia divinorum tincture, after which they should again be allowed to dry.

Dried Salvia divinorum leaves are becoming popular as an ingredient in smoking blends and even in the manufacture of psychoactive incense (Valdés 1994).

Tinctures are prepared from fresh or dried leaves by using an ethanol-water mixture (60% alcohol). The tincture can be either used to impregnate dried leaves, thereby potentiating their effects, or applied sublingually. Dosages appear to vary considerably in their effects among individuals. In addition, several experiments seem to be needed before the effects become apparent. Looking back, however, one realizes that there were noticeable effects before.

For information concerning the use and dosage of the primary constituent, see “Constituents” and also the discussion of salvinorin A (cf. also Ott 1995; Siebert 1994; Valdés 1994).

Ritual Use


The shamans and shamanesses of the Mazatec of Oaxaca use Salvia divinorum in divinatory and healing rituals, usually as a substitute for the preferred psychoactive mushrooms (cf. Psilocybe mexicanaPsilocybe spp.). Only a few shamans prefer to use this Salvia. The ritual use is very similar to that of the mushrooms (Hofmann 1990).

Salvia divinorum rituals almost always take place at night in complete darkness and silence. Either the healer is alone with the patient or other patients as well as healthy participants are present. Before the shaman and perhaps other people chew and suck the leaves in the form of a quid, the leaves are fumigated with copal (cf. incense) while prayers are spoken and the quids are consecrated to the higher powers. After chewing the leaves, the participants lie down and try not to make any sound. Both sounds and sources of light will greatly disturb the visionary experience. Because the effects of the leaves are much shorter in duration than those of the mushrooms, Salvia rituals rarely last more than one or two hours. If the visions are sufficiently pronounced, the shaman will have identified the cause of the illness or some other problem. He then reports to the patient, provides appropriate advice, and ends the nocturnal meeting (Hofmann 1990; Mayer 1977; Ott 1995; Valdés et al. 1987; Wasson 1962).

In Mazatec folk taxonomy, Salvia divinorum is related to two species of ColeusSalvia is la hembra (“the mother), Coleus pumila (a species introduced from Europe) is el macho (“the father”), and Coleus blumei is both el nene(“the child”) and el ahijado (“the godchild”) (Wasson 1962, 79). It is this relationship that is responsible for the psychoactive reputation of Coleus.

In the region of Puebla, a similar and botanically as yet unidentified species of Salvia known as xiwit is cultivated for use in treating the folk ailment susto (“fright”) and in rituals. The ritual is said to be very similar to that practiced by the Mazatec (Díaz 1979, 91*).


The “sage of the seers” (Salvia divinorum), from the Mazatec region of Oaxaca, is known only from cultivation.


“Under the direction of Maria Sabina, one of the children, a girl of about ten years of age, prepared the pressed juice of five pairs of fresh leaves of hojas de la pastora for me. I wanted to make up the experience with this drug, which I had missed in San José Tenango. The drink is said to be especially powerful when it is prepared by an innocent child. The cup with the pressed juice was also fumigated and Maria Sabina and Don Aurelio spoke over it before it was handed to me. . . . Probably as an effect of the hojas, I found myself for a time in a state of increased sensitivity and intense experience that was not accompanied by any hallucinations.”




(1979, 164 f.*)




The botanist William Emboden has suggested that certain floral elements in the Mayan hieroglyphic manuscripts may represent Salvia divinorum (cf. Nymphaea ampla). This interpretation is difficult to imagine, for the plant is entirely unknown in the Yucatán Peninsula.

The American artist Brigid C. Meier has produced several paintings inspired by her own Salvia divinorum visions.

A riotous novel titled Nice Guys Finish Dead (Debin 1992) features Salvia divinorum and a “super drug” called NICE made from the plant.

Medicinal Use


Indians use nonpsychoactive preparations to treat defecation and urination disorders, headaches, rheumatism, and anemia and to reinvigorate the infirm, the aged, and the dying (Brand 1994, 541; Valdés 1994, 277).



The leaves contain the neoclerodan diterpenes salvinorin A and salvinorin B (= divinorin A and divinorin B) as well as two other similar substances whose composition has not been completely determined (Brand 1994, 540; Siebert 1994; Valdés 1994). The main active constituent is salvinorin A, which can induce extreme effects in dosages as small as 150 to 500 [μ]g (Siebert 1994, Zubke 1997).

Loliolide,288 a substance known from Lolium perenne L. (cf. Lolium temulentum), has also been detected (Valdés 1986).

Neither an essential oil nor thujone, which is known to occur in other Salvia species, has been discovered to date (Ott 1996, 35).



Most people who have ingested Salvia divinorum in the form of a quid or tincture or by smoking have reported very bizarre and unusual psychoactive effects that are difficult to compare to the known effects of euphoric or psychedelic substances. Space is often perceived as curved, and surging and rolling body sensations or out-of-body experiences are frequently described as typical.

Daniel Siebert has summarized the phenomenology of the effects of Salvia divinorum in the following way:


Certain themes are common to many of the visions and sensations described. The following is a listing of some of the more common themes:


1.      Becoming objects (yellow plaid French fries, fresh paint, a drawer, a pant leg, a Ferris wheel, etc.).

2.      Visions of various two dimensional surfaces, films and membranes.

3.      Revisiting places from the past, especially childhood.

4.      Loss of the body and/or identity.

5.      Various sensations of motion, or being pulled or twisted by forces of some kind.

6.      Uncontrollable hysterical laughter.

7.      Overlapping realities. The perception that one is in several locations at once.

(SIEBERT 1994, 55)

These effects are strongly reminiscent of those that are experienced at subanesthetic dosages (50 to 100 mg) of ketamine (Ketanest®) (Bolle 1988; Jansen 1996).289


Commercial Forms and Regulations


Living plants are increasingly available from sources specializing in ethnobotanical products, especially in North America and Europe. The plant is not regulated in any way.

“When I wish to heal a sick person during the time in which there are no mushrooms, then I must turn to the leaves of the pastora. When you rub and eat them, they work like the nienn. Of course, the pastora is not as powerful as the mushrooms.”






(ESTRADA 1980, 125**)



Salvinorin A



Salvinorin B




See also the entries for Coleus blumeiditerpenes, and salvinorin A.


Bolle, Ralf H. 1988. Am Ursprung der Sehnsucht: Tiefenpsychologische Aspekte veränderter Wachbewußtseinszustände am Beispiel des Anästhetikums KETANEST. Berlin: VWB.


Brand, Norbert. 1994. Salvia. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 6:538–74. Berlin: Springer.


Clebsch, Betsy. 1997. A book of salvias: Sages for every garden. Cambridge, U.K.: Timber Press.


Debin, David. 1992. Nice guys finish dead. New York: Random House.


Epling, Carl, and Carlos D. Játiva-M. 1962. A new species of salvia from Mexico. Botanical Museum Leaflets 20 (3): 75–76.


Hofmann, Albert. 1990. Ride through the Sierra Mazateca in search for the magic plant “Ska María Pastora.” In The sacred mushroom seeker, ed. Th. Riedlinger, 115–27. Portland, Ore.: Dioscorides Press.


Jansen, Karl L. R. 1996. Using ketamine to induce the near-death experience: Mechanism of action and therapeutic potential. Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness 1995 (4): 55–79. Berlin: VWB.


Mayer, Karl Herbert. 1977. Salvia divinorum: Ein Halluzinogen der Mazateken von Oaxaca. Ethnologia Americana 14 (2): 776–79.


Ott, Jonathan. 1995. Ethnopharmacognosy and human pharmacology of Salvia divinorum and salvinorin A. Curare 18 (1): 103–29.


———. 1996. Salvia divinorum Epling et Játiva (foglie della pastora/leaves of the shepherdess). Eleusis 4:31–39. (Very good bibliography.)


Reisfield, Aaron S. 1993. The botany of Salvia divinorum (Labiatae). Sida—Contributions to Botany 15 (3): 349–66.


Siebert, Daniel J. 1994. Salvia divinorum and salvinorin A: New pharmacologic findings. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 43:53–56.


Valdés, Leander J., III. 1983. The pharmacology of Salvia divinorum Epling and Játiva-M. PhD thesis, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.


———. 1986. Loliolide from Salvia divinorum. Journal of Natural Products 49 (1): 171.


———. 1994. Salvia divinorum and the unique diterpene hallucinogen, salvinorin (divinorin) A. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 26 (3): 277–83.


Valdés, Leander J., José L. Díaz, and Ara G. Paul. 1983. Ethnopharmacology of ska maría pastora (Salvia divinorum, Epling and Játiva-M.). Journal of Ethnopharmacology 7:287–312.


Valdés, L. J., G. M. Hatfield, M. Koreeda, and A. G. Paul. 1987. Studies of Salvia divinorum. (Lamiaceae), an hallucinogenic mint from the Sierra Mazateca in Oaxaca, central Mexico. Economic Botany 41 (2): 283–91.


Wasson, R. Gordon. 1962. A new Mexican psychotropic drug from the Mint Family. Botanical Museum Leaflets 20 (3): 77–84.


Z[ubke], A[chim]. 1997. Salvia divinorum: Lieferant des stärksten aus dem Pflanzenreich bekannten Psychedelikums. Hanfblatt 4 (36): 15–19.