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15 Sacred Plants From Cultures Around the World

by Cathy Brown Jul 28, 2014

For thousands of years, people around the world have enlisted the help of native plants to induce altered states of consciousness, psychological or physiological, to “generate the Divine within.” More than just an exotic way to get high while traveling, these plants can offer what to some is seen as a direct link to the universe, to a more conscious state.

How these plants are traditionally used can tell a lot about the values and aspirations of a culture, and if experimented with, should be treated with much awareness and respect. Some in this list are not exactly do-it-yourself undertakings — they require intricate, knowledgeable preparation on the part of a well-practiced shaman. Some doses, if fucked up, can be toxic. You can’t say we didn’t warn you.

1. Cannabis

Starting with the basics, but let’s not screw around here…let’s get directly to hash. Hash, as you very well may know, is the resin collected from the flowers of the cannabis plant. The primary active substance is THC — same stuff that’s in marijuana. Believed to have originated in Morocco, there’s also evidence of hash from Taiwan thousands of years ago; some of the earliest human use occurred in Central Asia.

Usually smoked in pipes, bongs, joints, and hookahs, it can also be straight-up eaten. Negative effects can include impaired short-term memory, anxiety, and occasional panic attacks. But the most common effects are much better — a profound sense of well-being and connectedness with others, relaxation, the rapid flow of creative ideas, greatly increased appreciation of art, music, and food, heightened senses, drowsiness, and relief from pain and nausea.

2. African dream root

Silene undulata, meaning “white ways/paths” is a plant native to South Africa, long used by the Xhosa people as a sacred plant. Its fragrant flowers open at night (interesting considering it’s used to open up the dreamland) and close in the day, but it’s the root that’s used; it can be harvested after the second year, dried, and taken as a tea.

African dream root is traditionally used to induce prophetic lucid dreams during the initiation process of shamans. If you have no intention of being initiated as a shaman, you can by all means still take the plant to try to enjoy more frequent, intense, sometimes lucid dreams, with increased ability to recall intricate details of your dreams.

3. Peyote

Peyote, from the Nahuatl word peyōtl, meaning “glistening,” is a small, spineless cactus with psychoactive alkaloids, particularly mescaline. It’s been used by Native Americans for spiritual purposes for at least 5,500 years. Native to southwestern Texas and Mexico, it’s found primarily in the Chihuahuan Desert and in the states of Coahuila, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, and San Luis Potosí. When used for its psychoactive properties, an average dose of roughly 10 to 20g of dried peyote buttons is usually ingested, and intense effects can last about 10 to 12 hours.

Peyote triggers states of deep introspection and insight, often of a metaphysical or spiritual nature. At times, these can be accompanied by rich visual or auditory effects. Think of that scene with Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison in the desert in The Doors (including the initial nausea he felt upon taking it). And realize Ken Kesey wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest while on peyote. You now get the picture.

4. San Pedro

San Pedro is a fast-growing cactus native to the Andes Mountains at 6,600–9,800ft in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru. It has a long history of being used in Andean traditional medicine — archeological studies have found evidence of the Moche culture using it over 2,000 years ago. Although Roman Catholic Church authorities attempted to suppress its use, they failed, and ironically, a Christian element remains in its common name. San Pedro means Saint Peter — reflecting the belief that just as St. Peter holds the keys to heaven, the effects of the cactus allow users to reach heaven while still on Earth. You in yet?

The highest concentration of active substances is found in a layer of green tissue just beneath the thick skin, and the cactus is boiled down to create a liquid that contains extracted mescaline — like what’s in peyote. Approximately one to two hours after consuming this liquid, effects can come on and last eight to 15 hours. You might have extreme sensitivity to light — being able to see and feel every ray of light and see people and things “radiate.” Awww. Pretty. Forgotten memories can return; you can hear and see sounds and voices from far away. Emotions will surface, and you may uninhibitedly laugh, cry, scream, feeling love for everything and everyone.

While often compared to peyote because of its mescaline content, San Pedro can be more gentle and kind. The initial nausea of peyote is less likely to present, and the psychedelic experience in general can be less overwhelming, more chilled out.

5. Henbane

We’re talking straight-up witch stuff here. Hyoscyamus niger (commonly known as henbane), was originally used in continental Europe, Asia, and the Arab world, and spread to England in the Middle Ages. It was used to yield oracles by the priestesses of Apollo.

Extreme caution should be used with this one. Documentation back in the 1700s records some of the effects felt by people who ate the roots. They all suffered convulsions and contortions of the limbs and face, and those who were not rendered speechless could only howl. All eventually recovered, but for two to three days after they reported everything appeared to be scarlet in color. Another old case reported people who made a broth with the leaves. They all suffered delirium and hallucinations, which led them to think everything around them was in danger of falling. Many temporarily lost the ability to recognize their friends.

This one is not for the faint of heart; keep in mind the effects (both negative and positive) can last days, so when you commit, you commit. The plant is so powerful (poisonous?) that just the smell of the flowers is enough to produce giddiness.

6. Mushrooms

Often referred to as “shrooms,” specific mushrooms used for spiritual use contain psilocybin and psilocin. Depending on who you ask, it’s estimated that there are around 140 species just within the genus Psilocybe. The majority of these species are found in Mexico (53), with the remainder distributed in the US and Canada (22), Europe (16), Asia (15), Africa (4), and Australia and nearby islands (19).

Mushrooms have been used since prehistoric times in religious rites. Several mesolithic rock paintings from Tassili n’Ajjer, a prehistoric North African site of the Capsian culture, depicted the shamanic use of mushrooms. Mushroom motifs have been found in Mayan temple ruins in Guatemala, and there’s a long history of use among the native peoples of Mesoamerica for religious communion, divination, and healing. Shrooms were known to the Aztecs as teonanácatl (“divine mushroom” — from teó, “god, sacred,” and nanácatl, “mushroom” in Náhuatl).

After ingesting mushrooms by eating them or drinking a tea infused with them, the mind-altering effects typically last from three to eight hours depending on dosage, preparation method, and your metabolism. However, don’t forget that psilocybin has the ability to alter time perception — so the effects might feel like they last longer. Shifts in perception visually can include the enhancement and contrast of colors; strange light phenomena (think auras or “halos” around light sources); surfaces that appear to ripple, shimmer, or breathe; objects that morph; a sense of melting into the environment and becoming one with everything; and trails that seem to follow moving objects. Sounds seem to be heard with increased clarity, and some users even experience synesthesia, wherein they mesh senses — for example, hearing a particular sound could trigger the visualization of a certain color. Good times.

7. Salvia

Nowhere near the same sage you cook with, Salvia divinorum is a pretty badass psychoactive plant that can induce “visions” and other hallucinatory experiences. Miley Cyrus made it famous a few years back when she was caught on video smoking it, but don’t let that give you the impression it’s something tame for the masses. Whoah no. Its intensity can hit hard and fast, like a punch to the face, leaving users questioning everything they ever thought they knew about time or space.

Its native habitat is in cloud forest in the isolated Sierra Mazateca of Oaxaca, Mexico. Mazatec shamans have a long and continuous tradition of religious use of Salvia divinorum, using it to facilitate visionary states of consciousness during spiritual healing sessions. Mazatec belief is that the plant is an incarnation of the Virgin Mary.

There are a few ways to consume Salvia divinorum. In traditional Mazatec ritual, shamans crush 20-80 fresh leaves to extract leaf juices, which they mix with water to create a tea. Oral consumption of the leaf makes the effects come on slowly, over a period of 10-20 minutes, and can last from about 30 minutes up to one and a half hours. Dry leaves can be smoked in a pipe or a bong, but the temperature required to release the salvinorin is quite high (about 240°C), so a more intense flame, like that of a torch lighter, is necessary. If salvia is smoked, the main effects are experienced rather quickly, shall we say. The most intense “peak” can be reached in less than a minute and can last for one to five minutes, followed by a gentle tapering off. Everything should be fairly back to normal, assuming you still have a concept of what “normal” is, after about 20 minutes.

Effects one might experience include uncontrollable laughter, revisiting past places and memories, strong sensations of being pulled or twisted by forces, merging with or becoming objects, overlapping realities such as the perception of being in several locations, dimensions, or time frames at once, and synesthetic experiences. Speaking in tongues has also occurred in some users. So yeah, have fun with that. And it’s definitely recommended that you try it only with someone responsible there specifically to watch over you — for a few minutes, it’s possible you will have NO idea what you’re doing and will not have much control over your bodily movements.

Read about 8 more sacred plants on page 2 >>

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