3 Types of Mescaline Cactus

San Pedro, Peruvian torch, and peyote – what do they have in common? They are all mescaline-containing psychedelic cacti. Here we explore the history and significance of each.

When you think of a cactus, you may think of a small, cute desk or windowsill plant. Perhaps you picture a desert with a bull’s skull and a tall, prickly cactus. Whatever the case may be, mescaline-containing cacti have served as important medicines and spiritual tools for indigenous cultures for thousands of years. 

The peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii), for example, is a small, round, spineless button of a specimen. It produces a beautiful flower and small, sweet, pink fruit. It is cute, and it is most certainly understandable that people would try to eat it.

Peruvian torch (Echinopsis peruviana) and San Pedro (Echinopsis pachanoi), on the other hand, can grow to be large beasts of cacti, reaching between 3-6 meters (10-20 feet), and are riddled with honey-colored spines. One might want to avoid getting any part of their body too close to one, let alone taking a bite of one. But, alas, the desire for altered states of consciousness prevails.

What ties these three cacti together is that they all contain the psychoactive alkaloid mescaline.

What is Mescaline?

Mescaline was the first psychedelic to be studied scientifically. The German pharmacologist Arthur Heffter first isolated mescaline from peyote in 1897, before conducting a series of self-experiments from which he concluded that mescaline was indeed the alkaloid responsible for peyote's distinctive dreamlike psychedelic effects. 

Like other classical psychedelics, mescaline has a strong affinity for the 5-HT2A receptor and produces cross-tolerance with psilocybin and LSD. Common doses, which typically range between 200-400 mg, induce a 12-hour experience characterized by bodily euphoria, stimulation, sensory enhancement, and perceptual distortions

The celebrated author of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, wrote a book based on his experiences with mescaline entitled The Doors of Perception.

Mescaline and other psychedelic drugs would continue to play an important role in the life of the man who, inspired by his mescaline journey, introduced the world to the concept of Mind at Large which proposed that psychedelics disable the human mind’s filtering of reality’s infinite stream. Some of Huxley’s psychedelic-induced learnings would also influence his final novel, Island. He even asked his wife to administer 100 micrograms of LSD intramuscularly as he lay on his deathbed, which she duly obliged. 

Mescaline also played a pivotal role in the pioneering work of Dr. Alexander Shulgin, it being the foundational compound to which he made minor chemical modifications to create many new psychedelic substances.


Peyote is a small, green, globular-shaped mescaline cactus native to Mexico and Southwestern Texas, where it has been used in religious rituals for millennia. Archaeological evidence from the Shumla caves in Texas demonstrates ritual use of peyote before 3500 BC. There exist a variety of origin stories of this mescaline cactus across many different indigenous tribes. 

Anthropologist and filmmaker Dr. Stacy B. Schafer’s meticulous work on peyote reveals that in the myth of the Huichol of the Sierra Madre, peyote was discovered by a pair of Goddesses who ate the divine cactus and discovered its mind-manifesting powers. One of these Goddesses, who later became known as the Mother of Peyote, remained at the place of discovery, while the other, the Earth Goddess, brought the peyote back to help the Huichol people.

The Native American Church, a syncretic and cross-tribal faith in North America, has its own origin story in which a lost woman was saved by peyote. Exhausted and hungry, the woman fell asleep and began to dream of peyote. When she awoke, she spotted and devoured the charming plant, which reportedly revealed to her how she could reconnect with her family and go on to organize ritual peyote ceremonies. 

Colonizing Spanish conquistadors that traveled to Mexico in the 16th century believed peyote visions to be the work of the devil and tried desperately to quash its use. In the following couple of centuries, fierce attempts were also made in the USA to ban and criminalize the use of peyote. However, members of the Native American Church engaged in a long, laborious legal fight to defend their right to continue using peyote in bona fide religious contexts, a freedom that exists to this day.

The mescaline content of peyote ranges from 0.01 to 5.5% of dry weight.

In conversation with trailblazing chemist and documentarian, Hamilton Morris, Martin Terry, Ph.D., and President of the Cactus Conservation Institute, explained that peyote does not require spines to discourage predatory herbivores from eating it, because its bitter-tasting alkaloids provide adequate protection. 

San Pedro

San Pedro, also called huachuma, is another mescaline-producing cactus that differs from peyote in several important ways. For instance, San Pedro is a columnar cactus native to the Andean mountains of South America that grows upwards of 12 inches (30 centimeters) per year, particularly if the climate is friendly. Also, it typically has spines and more closely resembles the quintessential desert-dwelling cactus.

The Moche culture in Peru has used San Pedro for about 2000 years. Botanist Rainer Bussmann’s paper on traditional medicinal plant use in Peru suggests that, like peyote, San Pedro use was cynically suppressed by the church. The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants, on the other hand, states that this mescaline-containing cactus somehow flew below the radar of church authorities and its use may not have been persecuted by the Inquisition.

San Pedro was traditionally used in shamanic rituals for divination and healing. Though there are other mescaline-containing cacti in the Andes, San Pedro was likely selected for its higher mescaline content of up to 5% dry weight.

An artistic rendition of San Pedro cactus with its iconic white flowers.

Peruvian Torch

Peruvian torch is a lesser-known mescaline-containing cactus native to the Western slopes of the Peruvian Andes. Peruvian torch also has a history of entheogenic use, though its mescaline content is lower than peyote and San Pedro, at 0.24 to 0.81% of dry weight. Like San Pedro, Peruvian torch is a fast-growing, bluish-green cactus with frosted stems and white flowers. 

According to The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants, the first botanical descriptions of the Peruvian torch cactus were recorded in 1937 by botanists Nathaniel Lord Britton and Joseph Nelson Rose.

Peruvian torch is believed to have been used by the indigenous people of Peru in shamanic rituals since prehistory, but all in all, precious little is known about this succulent plant’s history. Some believe the use of Peruvian torch to be depicted on pre-Columbian ceramics, however, this is not clear.

Mescaline is found in a handful of other cacti of the Echinopsis genus, but generally in lower concentrations than the more popular psychedelic cacti peyote and San Pedro. Furthermore, there are other many more mescaline-like alkaloid constituents present in these cacti, though the extent of their psychoactivity is unclear. 

The legality of these plants varies by jurisdiction. Mescaline is illegal across the board, but in some jurisdictions, mescaline-containing cacti are legal to possess so long as they are not intended for human consumption. Also, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994 (AIRFA) protects the sacramental use of Peyote for members of the Native American Church and members of federally recognized indigenous American communities. 

Though mescaline cacti have demonstrated some promise in treating addiction, their long duration of action and the expense of medical supervision that would be required for mescaline-assisted treatments means that their therapeutic potential is unlikely to be explored in clinical trials any time soon, especially if shorter-acting psychedelics can achieve the similar results. However, these sacred cacti are likely to continue to be a crucially important medicine for the indigenous peoples of the Americas, as they have been for thousands of years. 

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