Nature's Pharmacopeia: A World of Medicinal Plants

Chapter 7



Lophophora williamsii


A hunt for peyote in Wirikuta. (Yarn painting by the shaman Ramón Medina Silva [twentieth century]; Fowler Museum of Cultural History, UCLA. Purchase courtesy of the Ford Foundation)

The perennial thornless peyote cactus grows low to the ground and produces flat-topped, round shoots 4 to 10 centimeters in diameter, and only a few centimeters from the surface of the soil (figure 7.1). Its root is thick and deep, shaped like a carrot or turnip. The shoot portion of the plant, in the form of a disc of ribbed nodes consisting of the plant’s vegetative bud and leaves, can be harvested by cutting at the base, yielding the medicinal peyote “button.” The shoot can regrow if cut in this way and is more likely to produce multiple new branch shoots in response. Each rib is topped by a tuft of whitish hairs (trichomes). Peyote produces a small number of prominent pinkish-white flowers (occasionally yellow) at the center of the stem that give rise to thin red fruits no longer than 2 centimeters.1 Peyote grows wild in far southern Texas and much of northern Mexico, generally at low elevation in desert scrub ecosystems.2 It can also be cultivated, although it grows slowly. Its genus consists of two species, the less common type occurring rarely in one part of Mexico.3 In literature and common speech, peyote is sometimes mistakenly called mescal, a name that refers instead to both a North American psychoactive legume (Sophora secundiflora) and the distilled fermented sap of the Mexican maguey plant (Agave americana).4


FIGURE 7.1   Peyote: (top) cactus; (bottom) flower. (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service)


Although there are no written records and few archaeological clues to the antiquity of peyote use in pre-Columbian times, early Spanish writings and more recent ethnographic accounts indicate that it probably served a role in indigenous North American medical-spiritual practices for many centuries before the arrival of Europeans. The small handful of archaeological investigations that have come across intact peyote demonstrate that peyote use probably extends back more than 5000 years.5 For example, an analysis of a string of buttons associated with a burial site in northern Mexico revealed it to be about 1000 years old.6Peyote buttons that probably came from an archaeological site near the Rio Grande in southern Texas have been subjected to chemical analysis, which gave an age of around 5700 years.7 In both ancient samples, investigators were able to detect peyote alkaloids, lending evidence to the notion that people harvested peyote for its psychoactive properties. The principal alkaloid, mescaline, is concentrated in the crown of the cactus and is likely responsible for many of the mystical and medicinal powers with which the plant has been associated.

As the Spanish took account of their freshly subjugated New World colonies during the sixteenth century, they recorded descriptions of peyote use among the indigenous people. According to one such report by the botanist-physician Francisco Hernández (1514–1587), peyotl (from the Aztecs’ Nahuatl language) “is a medium size root, bringing forth no branches nor leaves above ground, but with some sort of wool adhering to it.” Explaining what he learned from the local people, he wrote:

It seems to be of a sweet taste and of moderate heat. If ground and applied it is said to cure pains of the limbs; this wonderful thing is said about this root (provided one gives credence to a thing which is most popular among them), that by eating it they can foresee and predict anything; for instance, whether enemies are going to attack them the following day? whether they will continue to be in favorable circumstances? who has stolen household goods or something else? and other things of this sort, which the Chichimeca [seminomadic peoples of northern Mexico] try to know by means of this kind of medication. When they want to find out whether the root is hidden in the ground, and where it is growing, or whether it will be harmful, they learn by eating another one.8

In this brief account, peyote comes across as an herb with healing abilities and visionary powers used in various divination practices. Around the same time, the missionary Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590) described peyote’s mind-altering, mood-modifying, and hunger- and thirst-suppressing capabilities. “Those who eat it or drink it see visions, horrible or laughable,” the priest wrote. “This intoxication lasts two or three days, and then it goes away. It is like a food to the Chichimeca, which supports them and gives them courage to fight, and to have neither fear nor thirst nor hunger, and they say that it keeps them from all harm.”9

These early descriptions of peyote outlined a range of uses among indigenous people in therapy, prognostication, and bolstering the resolve, and whether or not such accounts accurately described the local peoples’ beliefs and practices, they certainly must have raised concerns among the Spanish, many of whom were in the business of saving indigenous souls. In its missionary zeal, the Inquisition prohibited peyote use in 1620, declaring it “opposed to the purity and integrity of our Holy Catholic Faith.” According to the Holy Office, the supposed visions experienced by peyotists could not possibly be caused by peyote itself, “nor can any [herb] cause the mental images, fantasies and hallucinations on which the above stated divinations are based. In these latter are plainly perceived the suggestion and intervention of the Devil.”10 Prohibited by the Catholic Church, the so-called raíz diabólica was excluded from the spiritual and medical practices of those indigenous people living under Spanish supervision.11

Among some Mexican indigenous groups that escaped conversion by missionaries and led lives apart from Spanish administration, peyote use persisted into the modern era, offering ethnographers the opportunity to observe customs that may preserve aspects of a pre-Columbian tradition. For example, for the Tarahumara and Huichol of northwestern and west-central Mexico, peyote plays an important role in cosmology and health beliefs.12 In the late nineteenth century, a Danish anthropologist observed Tarahumara practices closely resembling some of peyote’s uses as recorded by the Spanish three centuries earlier: “[Peyote is] applied externally for snake-bites, burns, wounds, and rheumatism; for these purposes it is chewed, or merely moistened in the mouth, and applied to the afflicted part.” To the Tarahumara, peyote’s remarkable medicinal strength served as both treatment of poor health and prophylactic: “Not only does it cure disease, causing it to run off, but it also so strengthens the body that it can resist illness, and is therefore much used in warding off sickness.” The power of peyote is “to give health and long life and to purify body and soul.” Among this group, peyote is thought to protect the good fortune of those who consume it, provide luck, and keep enemies at bay. Peyote has a virtuous spirit, according to the Tarahumara, and sits next to Father Sun. Therefore, it must be handled gently and saluted when encountered.13


A rich account of the role of peyote among indigenous Mexicans appears in the work of the anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff (1935–1985) with the Huichol.14 Having spent many months over a period of several years living with them, she was in a good position to observe their practices, learn about their beliefs, and participate in their ritual activities. As Myerhoff relayed, to the Huichol, three living, godlike beings—maize, peyote, and the deer—form a sacred union on which life depends. “They are one, they are unity, they are ourselves,” the Huichol say.15 These three entities represent the totality of Huichol history and social life, connecting the people spiritually to their homeland and way of life, and they are thus interdependent aspects of a revered whole. The deer symbolizes the ancient way among the Huichol, which their tradition relays as a life of hunting in a faraway ancestral land. The maize represents the agricultural lives they now lead, cultivating grain, dependent on unpredictable rainfall, in which men, women, and children toil tending the fields. Peyote mediates the Huichol’s past and present realities, allows them to perform religious rites, and guides their individual spiritual experiences.16


FIGURE 7.2   The Huichol shaman (mara’akame) Juan Hernández González from San Sebastian, collecting peyote during his annual pilgrimage to the sacred land of Wirikuta. (Photograph by Heriberto Rodriguez)

According to oral accounts, the Huichol eat peyote to relieve pain; they apply it, ground into a paste, on wounds.17 They take it for endurance, courage, and energy. As a Huichol mara’akame (spiritual leader) explained, “One eats it like medicine or for whatever purpose one wants to eat it. If one feels weak, if one feels tired, if one feels ill, if one needs strength, then one eats it.”18 To the Huichol, peyote can “read one’s thoughts” and cast judgment on a person’s moral righteousness. A person who has been evil, who has not lived harmoniously in society, is punished. The path to redemption requires a confessional visit to the mara’akame, who can cleanse the transgressor’s soul and put him on good terms with peyote.19 Thus peyote has a profound role in the Huichol sense of physical, spiritual, and community health.

A significant manifestation of the Huichol worldview is the annual peyote hunt, in which, under the guidance of the mara’akame, participants make a long pilgrimage to their ancestral sacred land, called Wirikuta (figure 7.2).20 When there, the mara’akame follows a set of deer tracks to their origin, the peyote-deer, which he symbolically slays with his bow and arrow before digging the crown, slicing it into pieces, and distributing portions to all participants. In Wirikuta, people revisit the paradise of their creation, become deities, and attain a state of biological, social, and spiritual oneness. As Myerhoff describes it, “when the peyote is eaten in the Sacred land of Wirikuta, distinctions are overcome between plant and animal, between man and animals, and between the natural world, the human world, and the supernatural world.”21

Participants consume peyote frequently during their ritual hunt, and in small amounts it produces exhilaration and a sense of well-being, no doubt intensified by the religious significance of the event. In the evenings, the pilgrims consume larger amounts of peyote, after which “people see beautiful lights, lovely vivid shooting colors, little animals and funny creatures.” The visions of the mara’akame are especially significant because he or she alone can communicate with the protector deity Grandfather Fire to learn the lessons of the other worlds to share with the other Huichol.22 On the hunt, the participants harvest enough peyote for the year, including some to sell to tribes that do not travel to collect it. While fraught with danger—Huichol who are not spiritually prepared for the journey risk losing their souls in Wirikuta—under the guidance of an experienced mara’akame and with the aid of the peyote, deer, and maize, the pilgrimage serves a most important role in health. In the words of a mara’akame, “We find our life over there.”23


While peyote’s natural range extends into modern-day Texas, there is little evidence that it was in use among the indigenous tribes of today’s United States and Canada when Europeans first arrived in the New World.24 As American Manifest Destiny became more aggressive during the nineteenth century and increasing numbers of Native people were constrained to reservations, they found themselves uprooted from ancestral lands, their spiritual beliefs persecuted, and their social order threatened. By the late nineteenth century, the “civilizing” activities of the U.S. government and Christian missionaries had made headway in replacing old Indian notions of faith and nature with their own. In such an environment, the tribes set aside traditional alliances and antipathies and instead began to band together in common cause, sharing a newfound identity as indigenous people whose ways were distinct from those of the whites.

Previously hostile groups began to send emissaries to one another’s lands, and intermarriages also resulted in an increased exchange of ideas, goods, and people between tribes. A form of peyote religion was practiced among the Carrizo of northeastern Mexico as early as the eighteenth century, characterized by all-night ceremonies and ritual drumming and singing in a circle. During the 1870s, a Lipan Apache (from the borderlands crossing Texas and Mexico) brought peyote to the Kiowa Apache living in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) and introduced it in a spiritual-medical ritual.25 By about 1880, peyote had spread to other nearby groups, such as the Kiowa, and by the mid-1880s to the Comanche.26 Among the Plains Indians, peyote probably suited the needs of shamans, who might have found it an effective supplement to their traditional healing and prognosticating rites. It also served in the individualistic vision quests of American Indian spirituality, allowing people to communicate more readily with the supernatural.27 The ceremonial consumption of peyote developed into a religion that quickly spread from community to community, replete with a set of roles for participants during worship, ritual paraphernalia, and, eventually, corporate organization (figure 7.3).


FIGURE 7.3   A peyote ceremony among Kiowa, 1892. Such gatherings are held to cure diseases, celebrate important life events, and perform other forms of worship. (Photograph by James Mooney; Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, NAA INV 06275300)

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the peyote religion extended to tribes in the American Southwest, across the Great Plains and into the Midwest, and across the Canadian border to indigenous groups living there.28 The peyote religion spread in part at the hands of charismatic prophets, to whom the plant revealed its spiritual virtues.29 Ultimately, the peyote religion diversified into numerous forms, when individual leaders chose to modify, adapt, and invent new ceremonial flourishes to the rites they conducted, and congregations harmonized peyote worship with their ancestral beliefs and those they learned from white Americans.

American Indian adherents believed peyote to be imbued with the Great Spirit, a manifestation of a supreme deity or god, and that this entity has unique curative power.30 Indeed, the spiritual and health-related aspects of peyote cannot be easily separated. For example, a scholar studying the Menominee of Wisconsin wrote that “the advantages of Peyote are two-fold: it is a ‘medicine for the soul’ … and it is a catholicon, a universal remedy which cures all diseases.”31 Among the Kiowa, peyote was said to treat “tooth-ache, hemorrhages, head-ache, consumption, fever, breast pains, skin disease, hiccough, rheumatism, childbirth, diabetes, colds and pulmonary diseases in general.”32 A Prairie Potawatomi woman showed a visitor a small vial of ground peyote and explained that she used it “just like aspirin.”33 While peyote served as medicine in daily life, ground up and applied externally, taken by mouth as a dried button, or brewed into an herbal tea, it was thought to be particularly effective when incorporated into a worship service.

Peyote ceremonies take numerous forms, at times scheduled regularly on Saturday evenings, at times on Christian and secular holidays, and at times in response to a particular community need, such as the curing of an illness. Although variations abound, a typical setting for such a rite is in a tipi specially raised for the purpose. Inside the structure, a ridge of soil in the shape of a crescent serves as a type of altar, on it inscribed a line representing the “peyote road,” the correct way to live. In the center of the crescent is placed a large peyote button, dubbed the Peyote Chief, through which prayers to the supernatural world are channeled. (Many people keep their own Peyote Chiefs outside of such ceremonies, and they are thought to have the power “to ward off evil and bring good luck.”)34 Participants are expected to follow certain ceremonial protocols, alternately singing and praying, taking peyote buttons, and engaging the spirit world through an overnight service.

In a typical peyote ceremony, participants might consume between four and twelve dried buttons, moistening them in their mouths, chewing, and swallowing.35 A detailed firsthand anthropological account describes the taste as “bitter,” like “dried pieces of orange peel.”36 About an hour after taking four peyote buttons, sensory alterations ensue, including modified visual and auditory perception and a feeling of bodily transcendence “with no distinction between internal and external aspects of experience.” Some people become nauseated and vomit after ingesting peyote, an effect that American Indians can explain in medical terms. “After eating Peyote,” a Menominee man explained, “a sick person usually vomits, and the sickness may be vomited up along with the Peyote, this cleansing the body.” After vomiting, the patient “should eat more Peyote in order to gain strengthening power.”37

In some communities, the peyote ritual took on some of the symbolism and theology of Christianity. In a fusion of Christian and indigenous religious practices, ceremonial leaders frequently place the Bible next to the Peyote Chief and invoke Jesus as well as animal spirits in their prayers.38 While missionaries and the U.S. government were generally hostile to the peyote religion during the early part of the twentieth century, adherents from many tribes argued that the ceremony was in fact a form of Christian worship. They pointed to certain shared theology and symbols as evidence: the “peyote road” reflects fundamental Christian values of brotherly love and temperance, the tipi poles represent Jesus and his disciples, and ceremony leaders make the sign of the cross, for example (figure 7.4).39

To legitimize their beliefs and protect them against harassment from American authorities, communities of peyote faithful registered themselves formally as religious organizations. In 1915, a group of Omaha from Nebraska formed the Omaha Indian Peyote Society. A few years later, in 1921, they organized the Peyote Church of Christ, whose charter declared: “We recognize all people who worship God and follow Christ as members of the one true church.”40 The most influential of the peyote organizations was the Native American Church, chartered in 1918 by representatives of American Indian tribes from Oklahoma (figure 7.5).41


FIGURE 7.4   An artist’s depiction of a peyote ceremony with motifs of indigenous spirituality (feathers, rattle, drums) and Christianity (cross), twentieth century. (Painting by Stephen Mopope [Kiowa]; Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives, NAA INV 08799100)

By the 1940s, the Native American Church had established branch chapters in various states, and it became the Native American Church of the United States in 1944. In 1954, the Native American Church of Canada was formed.42 Membership in the Native American Church stood at 13,300 in 1922, 225,000 in 1960, and 300,000 in the early 2000s.43 Peyote and its active principle, mescaline, remain listed as controlled substances under schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, which allowed an exception for the religious use of peyote by American Indians. However, states differed in their enactment and enforcement of peyote-related laws. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which asserted the rights of indigenous Americans to exercise their faiths, was amended in 1994 to strengthen protections for the sacramental use of peyote.44


FIGURE 7.5   A ceremonial peyote plate used in rites of the Native American Church. (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service)


White Americans and Europeans generally took little interest in peyote as a potential pharmaceutical, and, not distributed beyond its native range until the late nineteenth century, the cactus remained of botanical, rather than medical, relevance. During the Civil War (1861–1865), a story goes, members of a Confederate volunteer force known as the Texas Rangers were taken prisoner. With no recourse to alcohol, the soldiers inebriated themselves on what they called “white mule”: peyote buttons soaked in water.45 Despite their experiment born of necessity, the veterans apparently had no inclination to enter the “white mule” business, and peyote remained largely uninvestigated.

By the 1890s, some chemists in the United States and Germany had obtained samples of peyote and began describing its properties. For example, the Parke-Davis drug company of Detroit conducted an analysis of a water extract of peyote and found it to be “an intensely poisonous substance,” lethal when injected into frogs, pigeons, and rabbits. Despite the convulsions and rapid death witnessed in such animals, the company pressed ahead with a trial of peyote extract in a human patient, albeit at a much lower dose. From a one-day test, the chemist conducting the study gathered that “uncombined and alone I believe it to be the best concentrated cardiac tonic we possess.”46 Although Parke-Davis scientists made no note of peyote’s effects on the mind, The Dispensatory of the United States of America described its “psychical symptoms” as “not only overestimation of time, sense of dual existence, and delirium, but also pronounced visual hallucinations with undulatory motion of light … and a regular kaleidoscopic play of colors.”47

These psychoactive properties sparked the interest of German pharmacologists, who were among the first to experiment with peyote and prepare purified extracts.48 Ultimately, it was the German chemist Arthur Heffter (1859–1925) who first isolated the active principle of peyote, mescaline, in 1896 (figure 7.6). Mescaline is responsible for peyote-induced hallucinations and accumulates to between approximately 1 and 4 percent by weight in peyote buttons.49 Mescaline is also present in the South American San Pedro cactus (Echinopsis pachanoi [figure 7.7]) and other cacti. Although chemically extracted and tested for physiological activity, the translucent white crystals of mescaline roused little pharmaceutical interest. As the Dispensatory concluded in 1907, “the value of mescal buttons as a remedial agent is doubtful.”50Curiosity returned in the 1950s, however, when writers began experimenting with the drug as a tool to understand human consciousness.


FIGURE 7.6   Mescaline.


The English-born author Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) was fascinated by the power of certain types of intense religious experience to transcend the bounds of the ordinary and draw the worshipper into a more expansive, knowing reality, a phenomenon he saw most dramatically expressed by mystics. Artistic genius, the true meaning of things: these were aspects of an insight inaccessible to most people. Hoping to glimpse the world beyond his everyday senses, Huxley took some mescaline in pill form and wrote the short book The Doors of Perception (1954) about his experience. Huxley argued that mescaline revealed the “naked existence” of the world around, unfiltered by the normal barriers constraining the senses of all but the few whose minds allow them to take in more. “The other world to which mescalin admitted me was not the world of visions,” he wrote. “It existed out there, in what I could see with my eyes open. The great change was in the realm of objective fact. What had happened to my subjective universe was relatively unimportant.”51


FIGURE 7.7   San Pedro cactus, native to Andean South America and for sale at an herb market in Peru. It contains mescaline and is employed in divination and healing rituals by indigenous people.


The essential oil of the seeds of the Southeast Asian nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans) contains, among other components, a significant concentration of the potentially psychoactive chemical myristicin, structurally similar to mescaline. The seeds are ground for use as a flavoring and used medicinally (figure B.1). In small amounts (0.3–1 gram), the powdered seeds are employed in traditional Southeast Asian medicine to improve digestion, treat coughs, and as a sedative, among other uses. In slightly higher doses, headaches result. At a dose above 5 grams (for example, one or two teaspoons mixed into water as an herbal tea), nutmeg induces severe vomiting, tremors, heart palpitations, and, occasionally, hallucinations.1 Despite anecdotal reports that nutmeg can be consumed as a recreational mood-altering, vision-inducing agent, myristicin has not been demonstrated to be responsible for these effects. If nutmeg causes changes in perception, it occurs only very close to the toxic dose and may be a result of the activities of multiple components in nutmeg or its essential oil.


FIGURE B.1   Nutmeg.

1. Ben-Erik Van Wyk and Michael Wink, Medicinal Plants of the World (Portland, Ore.: Timber Press, 2004), 210; Christian Rätsch, The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications (Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Press, 2005), 371–375. See also the interesting discussion of nutmeg in Michael J. Balick and Paul Alan Cox, Plants, People, and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany (New York: Scientific American, 1996), 132–141.


Visual and auditory hallucinations


Altered sense of time


Increase in blood pressure

Increase in heart rate


Around the same time, the poet Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997) experimented with the inspirational qualities of peyote, taking it to accent his strolls through the 1950s urban landscapes of San Francisco and New York City.52 The transformed world around him gave rise to descriptions both beautiful and bizarre. For example, Ginsberg’s encounter with the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco, the “Drake Monster,” as his mescaline-influenced mind saw it, evoked prose rich in color and meaning, as in a letter about the experience written to his friend the writer Jack Kerouac (1922–1969). “We wandered on peyote all downtown,” Ginsberg recalled in 1955. “Saw Moloch Moloch smoking building in red glare downtown … with robot upstairs eyes and skullface, in smoke, again.”53 Ginsberg’s revolutionary poem “Howl” (1956) took the art in a new direction, both criticized and lauded for its gritty language and evocative imagery. By breaking through boundaries of theme and form, Ginsberg helped shape an influential generation of Beat writers whose contributions to American literature rank among the most important.


Mescaline is water soluble and can be taken by mouth in fresh or dried peyote, steeped in a peyote herbal tea, consumed orally as purified mescaline, inhaled by smoking, or injected into the bloodstream. A typical dose of peyote eaten in a religious context is perhaps four to twelve buttons, although some people take very few and others many more, following their experience and intended effects. Because of the inherent variability of mescaline concentration and the size of the buttons, the actual dose received is rather unpredictable. In general, a dose of about 350 milligrams of mescaline might approximate an average peyote session.54

When ingested, the active principle is taken up rapidly by the stomach and small intestine. Mescaline bears a striking structural resemblance to the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, but, interestingly, its hallucinogenic properties arise from its partial agonist activity at serotonin receptors, resulting in a marked increase in activity in the serotonin neuron–rich frontal region of the cerebral cortex.55 While much of mescaline’s activity remains to be explained, its structural aspects and neurotransmitter receptor binding pattern probably account for the active principle’s diverse effects: it causes an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, pupil dilation, and anxiety within an hour, followed by an eight- to ten-hour period of euphoria, psychological insight, breakdown of spiritual-natural barriers, and intense hallucination of colors, geometric designs, animals, and acoustic phenomena.56 Mescaline itself probably does not induce nausea, but this effect and the associated urge to vomit may be caused by other chemicals in peyote.

While very little clinical research has investigated the effects of mescaline on human subjects, its chemical analogs have proved to be useful probes in various laboratory studies of the serotonin receptor’s involvement in sensation and perception. It is speculated that mescaline may activate some of the same pathways affected in the human psychiatric conditions of psychosis and schizophrenia.57 Future work will undoubtedly reveal much about the delicate circuitry of the brain by examining how mescaline brings about such a profound alteration of the senses.

The peyote cactus probably has been a part of American Indian religious practice for millennia. Indigenous peoples consume the plant in the form of peyote buttons to treat all manner of illnesses and to maintain contact with a spiritual world. During the twentieth century, writers experimented with the hallucinogenic effects of the active principle, mescaline, and produced an influential genre of mold-breaking work. Today, peyote continues to serve a spiritual community that communes with god through a sacred cactus, and the neurological pathways it has helped uncover may soon shed new light on the brain’s sensory apparatus. Through peyote religion, pharmacologically inspired art, and the neurobiological laboratory, mescaline is helping people learn what it is to be human.

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