Salvia Divinorum - A New Psychotropic Drug From the Mint Family by Gordon Wasson
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One of the first publications on Salvia divinorum
A New Psychotropic Drug
from the Mint Family
by R. Gordon Wasson
(Submitted for publication October
(Scanned from Botanical Museum Leaflets - Harvard University)
For a number of years we have been
exploring the high-
lands of southern Mexico in a study of the role played
by hallucinogenic mushrooms in the religious life of the
Indians. We began by visiting the Sierra Mazateca in
1953, in the northernmost part of the state of Oaxaca,
returning there in 1955 and every year thereafter through
1962. At an early date we learned of of a psychtropic plant
that the Mazatecs consume when mushrooms are not
available. But as we and our collaborator Roger Heim
were concentrating on the difficult task of locating and
identifying the various species of hallucinogenic mush-
rooms, we had to neglect forr some time this plant that
the Indians employ as a less desirable substitute. In 1960
and 1951, we brought back specimens and submitted
them for determination to Schultes and to Epling. All
of the specimens available proved to be unsatisfactory
for specific identification. Finally in September and
October of 1962, satisfactory herbarium material reached
us. when we were in San Jose Tenango, on which Dr.
Epling could base his specific description. Tenango, at
about 1200 meters altitude, is close to and above the tierra
caliente of Vera Cruz.
We now identify a species of Salvia new to botanists, S.
Divinorum Epling & Jativa, as a psychotropic drug used
traditionally by the Mazatec Indians of Oaxaca, Mexico,
in their divination rites. To the ever growing family
of Mexican phantastica a new member is thus added, and for
the first time a species of the Labiatae joins this
The plant is familiar to virtually all Mazatecs. In
Huautla de Jimenez (1800 meters) we saw two or three plants
growing, and a specimen taken to Mexico City is still alive
there in the open air; but these plants do not flower. We
have never seen the seeds, and no Indian has been able to
tell us about them. The plant is reproduced vegetatively
from a shoot stuck into the ground. It requires black soil,
rather than clay, and for the plant to prosper moisture must
be steady. Many, prehaps, most, Mazatec families possess a
private supply of the plants, but almost invariably they are
not near the home nor near trails where the passers-by might
see them. We were on the watch for Salvia divinorum as we
criss-crossed the Sierra Mazateca on horseback in September
and October of 1962, but never once did we see it. The
Indians choose some remote ravine for the planting of it
and they are loath to reveal the spots. No Indian in San
Jose Tenango was willing to take us to the plants whence the
brought back specimens to us. Salvia divinorum seems to be
a cultigen; whether it occurs in a wild state (except for
plants that have been abandoned or have escaped) we do not
In former times the proprietors of land paid no
attention to growths of hallucinogenic mushrooms and Salvia
divinourm; but in the last four or five years the market for
the mushrooms and the possibility of a market for the Salvia
have made them conscious of a potential value here. Several
episodes have recently taken place in the vicinity of Huautla
in which the owner has enforced his right to the plants.
The Mazatecs who speak Spanish refer to Salvia Divinorum
as hojas de la Pastora, or hojas de Maria Pastora ("leaves
of the Shepherdess" or "leaves of Mary the Shepherdess"),
and this is also the translation of the name in Mazatec : ska Pastora.
The Mazatec name is curious. In Christian tradition
the Virgin Mary is not thought of as a shepherdess. Is the
"Pastora" concept a survival of the pre-Christian dueno de los
animales, "the Lord of the animals," that figures large in the
folk tradition of the Middle American Indians? A pagan
association would thus be sanctified by the addition of the
Salvia divinorum is, in the minds of the Mazatecs, only
the most important of several plants, all Labiatae, that they
regard as members of the same "family." Salvia divinorum is
known as la hembra, "the female." El macho, or "the male"
Coleus pumila, of European origin. Then there is el nene, "the
child," and el ahijado, "the godson," which are both forms of
Coleus Blumei. Some Indians insist that these others are
likewise psychotropic, but we have not tried them; others say
these are merely medicinal.
We have found no reference to the use of the leaves of
Salvia divinorum in the 16th and 17th Century writers. We have
found only two passages that may refer to them in modern writers.
Dr. Blas Pablo Reko, a pioneer in Mexican ethnobotanical field
work, discussing the hallucinogenic mushrooms, adds (Mitobotanica
zapoteca, Mexico, 1945, p.17) a sentence that, translated, says:
We cannot fail to mention here another
magic plant whose
leaves produce visions and which the Cuicatecs and Mazatecs (in the
disctricts of Cuicatlan and Teotitlan) call "divination leaf." The
loose leaves that I have received do not premit their scientific
This refers probably to the Salvia
divinorum of the Mazatecs.
There is a longer reference in a paper by Ing. Robert J. Weitlaner
("Curaciones Mazatecas" in An. Inst. Nac. Anthrop. Hist.
4, No. 32
(2952, 283). While Weitlaner was in Ojitlan, a Chinantec village, he
encountered a native of Jalapa de Diaz, a neighboring Mazatec town,
who told him of the use among his fellow townsmen of a plant known
as Yerba de Maria. This informant's account, in a shortened
paraphrased translation, follows:
Yerba Maria resembles somewhat the
yerba mora, but it has slightly
wider leaves. Only the leaves are used, putting them in water.
First the leaves are rubbed together in the hands, the water
in not boilded, and they are used for very specific purposes.
When the curandero goes to the forest in search of this plant,
before cutting it he must kneel and pray to it. They are not
witch-doctors; but the leaves cut only when they are needed after
For example, if someone is suffering
from a sickness, and the
doctors do not know what is the matter, then with this plant they
divine the disease. The curandero who brings the leaves first
asks the sick person if he is addicted to taking alcohol, because,
when a man does not take alcohol, fifty leaves are prescribed;
when he takes alcohol, then 100 leaves are prescribed. The sick
person drinks the water in which the leaves have been rubbed.
At midnight, the curandero goes with him and another person to
a place where there is no noice, as for example an isolated house,
where the patient takes the potion. They wait 15 minutes for
the drug to take effect, and the patient himself begins to state
the kind of sickness from which he suffers. The patient finds
himself in a semi-delirious state, he speaks as in a trance, and
the others listen attentively to what he says. He shakes his
clothes, as though with the aid of the plant he would free himself
from the little beasties [presumed cause, in the Indian mind,
of the illness]. At dawn the curandero bathes the patient with
the water of which he has drunk, and thereupon the patient is
cured. People say that with this bath goes away the
drunken state produced by the plant that the patient has taken.
When is it a question of theft, or a thing lost, the curandero
listens to what is said by the man who has taken the plant, and
thus the facts are disclosed.
There is in Jalapa de Diaz an individual named Felipe Miranda,
who every three or six months goes to the mountains to gather
the plant. He makes wonderful cures and finds himself in good
economic situation. They say he cultivates and tends to the plant,
but he does not reveal the kind of plant that it is.
The identification of Salvia divinorum
is long overdue. The
plant is present the whole year round, and the Mazatecs do not
hesitate to discuss it, since they are much less inhibited with
respect to this plant that they used to be when talking about
the sacred mushrooms. In recent years Huautla has changed greatly,
the highway having reached there in 1958-9 and the new-born traffic
in the psychotropic mushrooms having its focus there. Among the
visitors to Huautla there have been a number of botanists and
mycologists. In Mexico City the hojas de la Pastora are a frequent
theme of discussion in botanical circles. It is hard to understand
how the plant has avoided classification until now.
So far as our information goes, the
area of diffusion of the
hojas de la Pastora is confined to the Mazatec country and possibly
the immediately contiguous Cuicatec and Chinantec areas. But
it may well be known and used elsewhere. We shall await with
curiousity the reports of informants from other regions following
the publication of this article. Ololiuqui (Rivea corymbosa (L.)
Hallier filius) is known among the Mazatecs, but they seem to
prefer for divination the hojas de la Pastora to the semilla de
la Flor de la Virgen, "Seed of the Flower of the Virgen,"
as the Mazatecs call ololiuqui.
On Wednesday, July 12, 1961, I ate
the hojas de la Pastora"
and experienced their effects. I was in Ayautla, stopping in
the home of Dona Donata Sosa de Garcia. She introduced me to
a number of curanderas: Augustina Borja, Clementia Unda, Maria
Sevastiana Carrera, and Sara Unda de la Hoz.
On the evening of that day, the first
two came to the house shortly
before 11 o'clock, and Augustina Borja performed the ceremony
in a large space room. Those present were Irmgard Weirlaner Jouhnson,
my daughter Mary X. Britten ('Masha'), Dona Donata, and her daughter
Augustina Borja was the daughter
of a curandero who had died about
ten years before. Her own daughters often accompany her on her
healing visits and are themselves budding curanderas. On the
evening that we spent with her, she came along with Clementina
Unda. They were careful to orient themselves to the east as they
set the stage for the ceremony. In the Mazatec country rites
are always so orientated or as near as possible in that direction;
never to the west, which is considered sinister. Augustina was
performing - she took the mushrooms, rather than the hojas; these
I had requested especially as I had never taken them. Both
mushrooms and leaves are counted in pairs. The leaves are paired
off, care being exercised to assemble leaves that are flawless,
without parasitic growths. In preparation for the ceremony, the leaves
are placed on top of each other, each pair being face to face. It is
customary for the Indians to consume the leaves by nibbling at the
dose with their incisor teeth. This proved to be impossible for me,
owing to the taste; and I was treated as a toothless person.
There being no metate (stone grinding board) handy, Augustina
squeezed the leaves with her hands and collected the juice in
a glass. This was certainly an inefficient method. Some water
was added. I drank the dark fluid, about half a glass full, the
result of squeezing 34 pairs or 68 leaves in all. I was told
Indians vomit on eating the leaves, which is easy to believe. It was
impossible for me, however to retain the fluid.
After having eaten her mushrooms,
without more ado our curandera
launched into singing, intoning in Mazatec with vigor. She kept
this up for two hours, in a rather monotonous voice. I tape-recorded
her singing but have yet to find someone who will give a rendering
in English or Spanish.
The effect of the leaves came sooner
than would have been the
case with the mushrooms, was less sweeping, and lasted a shorter
time. There was not the slightest doubt about the effect, but
it did not go beyond the initial effect of the mushrooms - dancing
colors in elaborate, three-dimensional designs. Whether a larger
dose would have produced a greater effect, I do not know.
A day or two before the evnts that
I have narrated, the curandera
Maria Sebastiana Carrera had supplied us with many details about
the use of the leaves and had even chanted the words of the ceremony
after her usage. She had declined to admit us to an actual ceremony
because her neighbors (and doubtless she herself) would have considered
the performance before outsiders a desecration and scandalous.
Even as it was, when her session with us was drawing to a close,
she burst into uncontrollable tears, fell on her knees, and begged
forgiveness for what she had done. She had also given us valuable
cosmological legends that are still beleived in among the villagers,
which I hop to publish elsewhere.
On October 9, 1962, our party was
in San Jose Tenango. This
time it consisted of Dr. Albert Hofmann, his wife Anita, Irmgard
Weitlaner Johnson, Herlinda Martinez Cid (who served as Mazatec
interpreter), and me. Through the good offices of Roberto Carrera,
the sone of Aurelio Carrera of Huauntla, we were introduced to
Consuelo Garcia, about 85 years old, a vigorous, good-looking
curandera, who that night performed for us a divinatory rite.
She used only the leaves, not mushrooms. She ground them on
her metate, after passing them through the smoke of copal, and
she did a thorough job of it. Water is added to the mass that
comes off the metate, the whole is put through a strainer, and
then we drank the liquor. I took the juice of five pair and Mrs.
Hofmann of three pair. We both felt the effects, which were as
I described them in the ceremony
in Ayautla the year before.
It would seem, in summary, that we
are on the threshold of the
discovery of a complex of psychotropic plants in the Labiatae
of Mint Family. We know that Salvia divinorum is so employed
in the Sierra Mazateca, and Coleus pumila and two "forms"
of C. Blumei are said by some of the Indians to be similiarly