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15 Sacred Plants From Cultures Around the World

by Cathy Brown Jul 28, 2014

Did you miss part 1? Click here.
8. Tobacco

Huron Indian myth says that in ancient times, when the land was barren and the people were starving, the Great Spirit sent forth a woman to save humanity. As she traveled over the world, everywhere her right hand touched the soil, there grew potatoes. Everywhere her left hand touched the soil grew corn. And when the world was rich and fertile, she sat down and rested. When she arose, there grew tobacco…

Now, pretty sure nobody today considers your Marlboro Reds sacred, regardless of their cultural traditions. The Native Americans use the dry plant, no chemical additives. The reason tobacco is considered so important is that it’s thought to connect the worlds — the plant’s roots go deep into the earth, and its smoke rises high into the heavens. In Native-American tradition, the pipe is a link between earth and sky, and the pipe can be seen as prayer in physical form. Smoke becomes words, touches everything, pervades all. The fire in the pipe is the same fire in the sun — the source of life.

Smoking tobacco with others is a way to seal bargains or agreements between leaders of different groups, and even to end hostilities. Usually smoked, tobacco can also be used as an offering to the earth or the spirits, a way to give thanks or ask for help or protection. It’s also left at graves as an offering to the departed spirit.

9. Blue lily

Nymphaea caerulea, aka blue Egyptian water lily or sacred blue lily, was originally found along the Nile and other locations in East Africa. It has since spread to other places, such as the Indian subcontinent and Thailand.

Its flower is the symbol of the Egyptian deity Nefertem, so is very often depicted in Egyptian art, including in carvings and paintings in the famous temple of Karnak. It’s frequently associated with dancing or in significant spiritual / magical rites such as the rite of passage into the afterlife. This flower has mild psychoactive properties, and eating or smoking it can act as a mild sedative. It takes ingesting three to six flowers before feeling anything. The nicely sedating effects make it a possible candidate (among several) for the true identity of the lotus plant eaten by the mythical Lotophagi in Homer’s Odyssey.

The main effects of blue lily are a pleasant feeling of warmth around the head, mixed with a very comfortable dreamy feeling. Some people compare the effects to MDMA or ecstasy (because it’s been known to sexually arouse users), but some will say it’s more along the lines of cannabis or codeine. It has a much more hypnotic effect than a hallucinatory effect. Part of its “magic” is said to come from its aroma. It’s said to have a “divine” essence, bringing increased awareness and tranquility to any who work with the flower.

10. Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca, also called yagé, is a psychedelic brew of various plant infusions prepared along with the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, fast-growing in international popularity. It’s either mixed with the leaves of DMT-containing species of shrubs from the genus Psychotria or with the leaves of the Justicia pectoralis plant (which does not contain DMT). How indigenous peoples discovered the synergistic properties of the plants remains unclear — many indigenous Amazonian people claim they received the instructions directly from the plant spirits, and who the hell are we to say they didn’t? Tripping on ayahuasca now seems to be the “hip” thing to do for many travelers meandering through the Amazon — for a lot of them, it’s the main reason they go.

People who have experimented with ayahuasca report having spiritual revelations regarding their purpose on Earth, the true nature of the universe, and profound insight into how to grow, evolve, and better themselves. This awakening is often described as a rebirth. It’s also reported that some individuals feel they gain access to higher spiritual dimensions; they make contact with various spiritual beings or animal spirits who can act as guides or healers. Vomiting often accompanies ayahuasca ingestion; this purging is considered by many to be a critical part of the experience, as it represents the release of negative energy and emotions accumulated over the course of one’s life.

In the 16th century, Christian missionaries from Spain and Portugal first encountered indigenous South Americans using ayahuasca and did not hesitate to describe it as the work of the devil. So you know the natives were onto something good.

11. Syrian rue

Peganum harmala, if you want to get all technical. It has a long history of medicinal use in North Africa and the Middle East, from Persia to India. It’s one of the plants speculated to be the “soma” of ancient Persia. It’s been used to ward off the evil eye, in case you happen to need that sort of thing.

It’s the seeds that are ingested (and they contain uterotonic alkaloids, so should definitely be avoided at all costs by pregnant women). In Western culture, the seeds are sometimes used as an MAOI in combination with other psychoactive substances, and less commonly as a psychoactive in their own right. For use as an MAOI, 3-5g of seeds is sufficient to activate oral DMT; dosages from 3 to 28g are taken to produce psychoactive effects.

The effects have been described as “sedative, narcotic, mildly to moderately visual,” and depending on the dosage some other common effects are nausea, dizziness, ringing in the ears, hypertension, visual trails, and closed-eye visuals. Effects usually begin within 30-60 minutes and last for a few hours. It’s not exactly the most outwardly enjoyable or powerful plant on this list, but hey, it’s an option.

12. Jurema

This one’s interesting because it’s the only known plant that can be used for an orally ingested brew that, without the aid of another plant, induces visionary experiences along the lines of ayahuasca. Jurema is also a very common source for people who make anahuasca, which is any brew with close psychopharmacology (an MAO-inhibiting plant + a DMT source) to ayahuasca, albeit more gentle in intensity.

A psychoactive liquid can also be made from jurema alone. Between 10 and 35g of the powdered root bark can infuse in 125 to 175ml of cold water for an hour; squeeze and stir the powder a few times. Strain and keep the liquid, and use the remaining powder for a second run, repeating the process. The two liquid batches are combined and can be taken on an empty stomach.

To make anahuasca, M. hostilis is used primarily in combination with jurema. The effects can best be described as a physical and mental purge, combined with a few hours’ connection with the otherwise imperceptible. The purging is typically not as strong as with ayahuasca. Intensity is difficult to predict — when the effects are weak, most drinkers compare the experience to a low dose of psilocybin mushrooms or LSD, combined with stomach cramps in the first two hours, sometimes including diarrhea or vomiting.

In the case of strong effects, most people experience a drastic change in the interpretation of reality or even some kind of transport of all the senses to another dimension. When jurema is taken by itself and not combined with other plants, the effects are similar but of shorter duration (up to three hours), and there’s usually less nausea.

13. Jimson weed

Part of the nightshade family, its common name is “datura.” This plant has its roots in ancient India, where it’s considered particularly sacred — believed to be a favorite of the Hindu god Shiva Nataraja.

It’s also been used among Native Americans (Algonquian, Cherokee, and Luiseño), and the Táltos of the Magyar (Hungary). In Ethiopia, some students and debtrawoch (lay priests) use jimson weed to “open the mind,” to be more receptive to learning and creative, imaginative thinking. It’s a powerful hallucinogen and deliriant, used spiritually for the profound and vivid visions it produces. However, the tropane alkaloids responsible for its hallucinogenic properties are fatally toxic in only slightly higher amounts than the medicinal dosage, and careless use often results in hospitalizations and deaths (consider yourself warned).

14. Kava

Kava, or kava-kava (Piper methysticum), grows in and is consumed throughout the Pacific Ocean cultures of Polynesia, including Hawaii, Vanuatu, Melanesia, and some parts of Micronesia. The roots of the plant are used to produce a drink with strong sedative and anesthetic properties. Traditionally, it’s prepared by chewing, grinding (with a block of dead coral), or pounding (with a stone against a log) the roots of the kava plant. The ground root is combined with only a bit of water, as the fresh root releases a lot of its own moisture. The product is then added to cold water and consumed as quickly as possible.

The effects of the drink vary widely with the particular plant used and the amount ingested. Low-dose kava will probably just chill you out a little or make your face numb, but high-quality, high-dose kava has the ability to fully suspend a person’s perpetual “mental chatter” for a long period of time, giving the mind a true rest, while relieving all held tension in the body. High doses can cause the drinker to sleep profoundly, creating a state of great rest and rejuvenation, and sleepiness can last throughout the following day. Besides being relaxing and stress-reducing, kava is also a euphoric. Traditionally, it’s been used for acquiring inner knowledge and wisdom — in other words, the ability to “know oneself.”

Drinking kava is kind of like the Polynesian version of a peace pipe. It’s reported that you can’t feel hate after drinking kava, so it’s been used to help settle quarrels or begin treaty negotiations, political meetings, and business dealings. Fijian spiritual healers (called dauvagunu, “the expert in drinking kava”) got their power by strategically using kava to gain access to the Vu (spirit force). They credit kava for their greater powers of perception and insight.

15. Yopo

Anadenanthera peregrina, aka yopo, jopo, cohoba, parica, or calcium tree, is a perennial tree native to the Caribbean and South America. Archaeological evidence shows that beans from the tree have been used as hallucinogens for over 4,000 years. The oldest clear evidence of use comes from smoking pipes made of puma bone found with the beans (which are ground up to make a powder that’s blown into the nose or snorted) in a cave in Jujuy Province, Argentina. The pipes were found to contain the hallucinogen DMT, one of the compounds in the beans.

Some indigenous peoples in Colombia, Venezuela, and the southern part of the Brazilian Amazon still make use of yopo snuff for spiritual healing. The snuff is usually blown into the user’s nostrils by another person through bamboo tubes or sometimes by the user via bird bone tubes (totally National Geographic-worthy, but said to be not that pleasant of a feeling). Blowing is more effective than snuffing, as it allows more powder to enter the nose and is said to be less irritating. Some tribes use yopo along with Banisteriopsis caapi to increase and prolong the visionary effects, creating an experience similar to that of ayahuasca.

Inhaling yopo can cause considerable pain in the nostrils. However, this pain usually subsides within minutes. Physical effects include tingling and numbness throughout the body and an increased heart rate. Hallucinatory effects should follow; colors can become more vivid and shapes can appear to shift and alter. The effects of yopo intensify quickly but gradually taper off and are then replaced by nausea and general unease. It’s all fun and games until you have to come down. 

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