An overview of the most well-known plants of wisdom. To give you an idea what this blog is about. There are many more elaborate sources of information on these and other psychoactive plants. At the end of the article I’ll give some directions for further reading.
Amanita muscaria – The fly agaric
Everyone knows this mushroom – red with white dots – and it plays many a role in fairy tales and folklore. Mistakenly known as ‘poisonous’. In this case it actually means ‘hallucinogenic’.
Ingested in the proper context Amanita muscaria offers a serene and healing trip. Though she’s not always predictable and may as well cause amnesia and disorientation, especially with large doses.
Never eat this mushroom fresh: the nausea inducing components disappear with preparation!
Ayahuasca – The vine of the soul
A concoction of two plants: traditionally the ayahuasca vine Banisteriopsis caapi and the leaves of either chacruna (Psychotria viridis) or chaliponga (Diplopterys cabrerana).
Ayahuasca plays a central role in Amazonian shamanism. At the start of the 20th century new rituals developed around the brew. Nowadays the ‘vine of the soul’ found her way in a wide variety of ceremonies all over the world.
Modern psychonauts even developed the concept of ‘ayahuasca analogues’: they prepare mixtures from different plants with similar effects. The most well-known analogue being the combination of Syrian rue (Peganum harmala) with Jurema (Mimosa tenuiflora).
Brugmansia – Mesmerising but dangerous
The brugmansia species are a group of well-known shamanistic plants. Their beautiful bell-shaped flowers in different colours look appealing, but it’s not what it seems. When applied in the wrong way the plant can seriously harm and even kill people. Under its influence a person may experience (temporary) insanity and strong hallucinations which often go together with amnesia. Therefore the plant has been associated with black magic.
Brugmansia intoxication is part of initiation rituals of different indigenous groups in Latin America. A well-trained shaman knows how to apply the plant for healing and divination. In lower doses the brugmansia species are sometimes used as an admixture to ayahuasca and other brews. Its main alkaloid scopolamine also occurs in the European witches’ herbs.
Bufo alvarius (Incilius alvarius) – Sonoran desert toad
A toad, to complete the witches’ cabinet. The venom of this toad, native to the Sonoran desert in the southwestern United States and Northern Mexico, contains bufotenine (5-OH-DMT) and the very potent 5-MeO-DMT.
The toad excretes venom from its parotid glands. In order to collect it one can gently ‘milk’ these glands and collect the liquid on a plate of glass. When it dries you scrape it off and collect the flakes. Oral ingestion is toxic, but when smoked it provides a short but very intense trip, which most psychonauts describe as pleasant.
For a long time the toad was known as Bufo alvarius, only recently it got re-categorised and currently bears the official name Incilius alvarius.
DMT – The spirit molecule
DMT is the ‘main’ active alkaloid in ayahuasca. For oral use it needs to be potentiated by adding a MAO-inhibiting component. When smoked, DMT immediately reaches the blood-brain barrier and gives a very intense, short trip. This was already known 4500 years ago by indigenous people from Latin America, who smoked or sniffed the powders of virola rootbark, yopo or cebil seeds in order to travel into other dimensions.
Modern psychonauts experiment with synthetic DMT and find qualitative differences in effect with DMT from natural sources. Natural DMT is found in large amounts in chakruna, chalipogna, different Accacia species, virola, reed canary grass and Mimosa hostilis. N,N-DMT is the most commonly occurring variety; 5-MeO DMT is mainly found in chalipogna, Bufo alvarius and yopo. Bufotenine (5-OH-DMT) is found in the Bufo alvarius toad and in cebil.
DMT actually appears naturally in many organisms, including human beings. It was coined ‘the spirit molecule’ by scientist Rick Strassman, as many users experience spiritual revelations under its influence. Strassman was the first to do human experiments with the substance.
The story of smoking DMT recently got a new chapter with the invention of ‘changa’: a smoking mixture in which a DMT extract is combined with at least one MAO-inhibiting plant.
Iboga – Dance with the ancestors
As far as we currently know the most potent psychedelic substance from the African continent. The Bwiti from Gabon regard iboga as a conscious spiritual entity, that guides them and that facilitates their communication with ancestors’ spirits.
During an intense initiation ritual which lasts for days, they eat large amounts of the powdered rootbark. For other purposes smaller amounts of the powder are ingested.
Interestingly, iboga has shown astonishing results in curing addiction of all kinds, even from substances like cocaine and heroin.
LSA and LSD – Lysergic acid
LSD is not a plant but a synthetic substance, created in 1938 by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann. Later he discovered that LSD has a very similar structure to LSA, a naturally occurring component in Morning Glory, Ololiuqui and Hawaiian Baby Woodrose. Morning glory and Ololiqui have a long history of ritual use in Mexico.
The mysterious drink kykeon, that played a central role in the initation rites of the Eleusinian mysteries, probably contained lysergic acid – the precursor for LSD and LSA.
Lysergic acid is produced by the ergot fungus that grows on rye. This is actually the same fungus that Hofmann was researching in the first place.
Magic mushrooms – Psilocybe species (and more)
Magic mushrooms have been found all over the world, but remarkably, westerners only (re?)discovered their use when Gordon Wasson published his story about an indigenous mushroom cult he found in Mexico in the 50s.
Nowadays information on how to cultivate mushrooms at home or find them in the wild is widely available. A wide variety of psilocybin containing mushrooms has been discovered so far, most of them belonging to the Psilocybe or the Panaeolus genus. The trip is relatively ‘predictable’ and therefore magic mushrooms are a good choice to start a path of entheogenic explorations.
Marihuana – Santa maria, ganja, weed
Probably the best known wisdom plant of this list. Used by human beings for ten thousand years and spread all over the earth. While it’s often ingested for recreational purposes, marihuana also has an evident history of ritual use. The Rastafari’s smoke ganja to get closer to Jah. The Shiva venerating sadhus from India do the same.
‘Santa Maria’ is also considered a sacrament in several ayahuasca traditions and in certain indigenous Mexican cults. Within Tantric (Tibetan) Buddhism cannabis is used to facilitate deep meditation and to heighten awareness. As the plant is very well known and widely available, it’s often consumed in combination with other plants of wisdom, which may cause interesting synergistic effects.
MDMA – Ecstasy
The ‘love drug’ actually doesn’t fit neatly into this list of ‘wisdom plants’. First, it’s not a plant but a synthetic substance. Second, it’s not a psychedelic, or at least: not entirely. MDMA rarely evokes perceptual distortions, but definitely brings the user in a different state. An experience that’s often described as ‘heart opening’.
Therefore MDMA is very suitable for therapeutic use. Under its influence people have an increased capacity to share about emotional processes or look into trauma’s from the past without being blocked by pain or fear. It feels like being wrapped in warm cocoon.
The substance became very popular as a party drug in the 80s and still is used as such, mainly in the electronic dance music scene. MDMA is the name of the active substance, which can be consumed in their pure form (crystals). The name ‘ecstasy’ is mostly utilised for pills containing MDMA, often in combination with other substances like speed or filling materials.
Mescaline – Cactus energy
The active substance in both peyote and the san pedro cacti, and as such ritually used for ages.
The mescaline molecule was already isolated at the end of the 19th century. The notorious magician Aleister Crowley experimented with it in his practice of ritual magic. It was also mescaline which ‘cleansed the doors of perception’ for Aldous Huxley. His account of the experience became a classic with far reaching impact on the psychedelic subculture.
Next to psilocybin and LSD, mescaline was one of the substances that was the focus of the early psychedelic (mainly psychiatric) research, before the War on Drugs went into effect.
Peyote – Cactus hunt
This mescaline containing cactus, found in desert areas from Texas to Mexico, appears in the shape of buttons with extraordinary beautiful flowers.
The Huichol conduct an annual pilgrimage to collect the sacred cactus in ‘Wirikuta’, the place of the ancestor-gods. The tribe is known for their colourful, mesmerising art, depicting peyote visions.
In the United States the Native American Church was established to provide a legal way of consumption for the indigenous population.
Salvia divinorum – Diviner’s sage
Like peyote, magic mushrooms and morning glory this sacred plant is native to Mexico. It’s a very exceptional plant that barely produces seeds. It’s cultivated from seedlings, which means that all salvia plants nowadays distributed over the world actually derive from two mother plants.
Traditionally the leaves were chewed upon, mainly as a replacement of magic mushrooms when those were not available. Modern psychonauts often smoke an extract of Salvia divinorum. But beware: the effect can be very intense and is often experienced as disorientating and alienating.
San pedro – Cactus of the Andes
‘Huachuma’ it’s called by Andean shamans. The cactus comes in different varieties: Triocherus Pacchanoi and T. Peruvianus are most well-known. Sometimes it has 4 ribs, sometimes 6, 9 or more. All varieties contain mescaline.
San pedro has been consumed ritually for thousands of years. It’s unclear when the connection with St. Peter was made, as the first Spanish missionaries interpreted the visions produced by the cactus as coming from the devil. Nowadays shamanistic rituals often are syncretic: combining elements from all kinds of traditions.
Tobacco – is sacred too
Not a psychedelic, but definitely considered a plant of wisdom in many shamanistic traditions. When used in the proper way, tobacco has a grounding effect. It further cleanses and opens the mind and reinforces prayer and the setting of intentions.
Amazonian shamans blow tobacco smoke over the patient’s body to heal it from illness. Besides smoking, tobacco can be consumed as a snuff (rapé), or by sniffing tobacco juice.
A group of psychedelic plants from European soil. Mandrake, Henbane, Thornapple (Datura stramonium) and Belladonna have a notorious reputation: more often they take the psychonaut into the realms of hell than of heaven. High dosages may produce lasting insanity and can even be lethal.
These plants have a rich legacy in folklore: they were used as medicine, aphrodisiac and in flying ointments. As such they’re often associated with witchcraft. Their main alkaloids are the same as those in that other tricky shamanistic plant: the Brugmansia species.
Want to know more?
If you want to know anything about psychoactive plants, The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants by Christian Rätsch is generally considered ‘the bible’.
In Plants of the Gods Richard Schultes, Albert Hofmann and Christian Rätsch focus on the traditional ritual use of psychoactive plants. But they certainly don’t forget the scientific and modern perspective. Not as elaborate as the Encyclopedia, but with a nice overview of the main psychoactive plants.
Erowid is a widely accessible treasure vault: an online, beautifully categorised and ever-growing collection of information on all kinds of mind-altering substances.
For Dutch language speakers I recommend Uit je bol by Hans Plomp and Gerben Hellinga. It’s one of the first guides (first edition 1994) on psychoactive substances. With humour, clearly written and practically useful, completely updated and revised in newer editions.