Unveiling the rich history and profound effects of mescaline-containing cacti, including peyote, San Pedro, and Peruvian torch.
Overview: Mescaline-containing cacti like peyote, San Pedro, and Peruvian torch have been valued by indigenous cultures for their medicinal and spiritual properties. Mescaline, the psychoactive alkaloid found in these cacti, was the first psychedelic studied scientifically. Peyote holds significant historical and religious importance, while San Pedro has a long history in Peruvian culture. Peruvian torch is lesser-known but also contains mescaline. The legality of these cacti varies by jurisdiction, and they continue to be crucial to indigenous peoples' traditions and practices.
Mescaline-containing cacti have been valued as significant medicinal and spiritual resources by indigenous cultures for centuries. Three notable cacti in this category are peyote (Lophophora williamsii), Peruvian torch (Echinopsis peruviana), and San Pedro (Echinopsis pachanoi).
What connects these cacti is their shared composition of the psychoactive alkaloid mescaline, which has been of great interest to those seeking its unique effects.
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 the compound responsible for the cactus’ distinctive dreamlike psychedelic effects.
Mescaline, like other psychedelic substances, interacts with the brain's 5-HT2A receptors, producing effects that are similar to drugs like psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms) and LSD. When taken in common doses ranging from 200 to 400 mg, mescaline typically induces a 12-hour experience characterized by feelings of euphoria, heightened senses, increased stimulation, and distorted perceptions of reality.
One famous individual who explored the effects of mescaline was Aldous Huxley, the renowned author of Brave New World. He wrote a book called The Doors of Perception based on his experiences with the substance.
Mescaline played a significant role in Huxley's life, inspiring his concept of "Mind at Large," which suggests that psychedelics disable the mind's normal filtering of the environment, allowing a greater perception of reality. Huxley's experiences with mescaline also influenced his final novel, Island.
Mescaline was also pivotal in the groundbreaking work of Alexander Shulgin, a prominent chemist in the field of psychedelics. Shulgin used mescaline as the foundational compound and made minor chemical modifications to create numerous new psychedelic substances, contributing significantly to the field of psychedelic research.
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. The mescaline content of peyote ranges from 0.01 to 5.5% of dry weight.
There exist a variety of origin stories of this mescaline cactus across many different indigenous tribes.
Anthropologist and filmmaker Dr. Stacy B. Schafer’s research 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.
According to Martin Terry, Ph.D., president of the Cactus Conservation Institute, peyote does not require spines to discourage predatory herbivores from eating it, because its bitter-tasting alkaloids provide adequate protection.
San Pedro, also called “huachuma,” is another mescaline-producing cactus that differs from peyote in several important ways.
For example, 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, the ritual consumption of San Pedro was suppressed by colonizing Christians. However, the Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants 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.
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. Peruvian torch can grow to be very tall, reaching between 3-6 meters (10-20 feet), and is covered in honey-colored spines.
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.
While the San Pedro cactus enjoys widespread recognition for its role in traditional medicine, Peruvian Torch often remains overlooked in therapeutic practices. The reason behind this discrepancy lies in the contrasting ease of collection and manipulation between the two cacti.
San Pedro, being a cultivated species, lends itself to convenient harvesting and handling. On the other hand, Peruvian Torch is a wild, non-cultivated species characterized by its long, thick spines that resemble needles, making its collection and handling more challenging.
Within the Echinopsis genus, mescaline can be found in several cacti; however, its concentration generally remains lower compared to the more widely recognized psychedelic cacti, such as peyote and San Pedro. Additionally, these cacti contain numerous other alkaloid constituents with mescaline-like properties, although the extent of their psychoactivity is yet to be fully understood.
The legality surrounding these plants varies across jurisdictions. In certain regions, it is permissible to possess mescaline-containing cacti as long as they are not intended for human consumption. Moreover, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994 (AIRFA) provide protection for the sacramental use of Peyote by members of the Native American Church and federally recognized indigenous American communities.
For thousands of years, these sacred cacti have played a vital role as medicines within the indigenous communities of the Americas. Given their historical significance, it is likely that these plants will continue to hold immense cultural and medicinal value for indigenous peoples for years to come.
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