Flashback Friday: Psychedelic Cacti

You can eat 'em, smoke 'em, drink 'em, but don't sit on 'em.

High Times
Peyote/ Mel Brown

For this edition of Flashback Friday, we’ve got Robert Lemmo’s concise primer on the varieties of mind-altering succulents from the June, 1977 issue of High Times.

Which cacti will get you high? That depends on your definition of “high,” your metabolism, your culture and mind set and a thousand other factors. An Oto Indian peyotist told Weston La Barre, author of The Peyote Cult, in all sincerity, that peyote doesn’t work outside of prayer meetings—he had tried it.

Most knowledge of psychoactive cacti comes from Mexican and American Indians, especially the native shamans and curanderos (“healers”) who use the plants in religious and visionary contexts. Science has just not gotten on the stick in research into psychoactive cacti. Although use by Indians strongly suggests that many of the alkaloids found in cacti are hallucinogenic, only mescaline, macromerine and gigantine are officially recognized as such. Many alkaloids remain unidentified, and the vast majority of plants go unanalyzed.

Still, existing research, coupled with Indian knowledge of cactus use, enables us to identify about 50 species of cactus that will get you off, in one way or another. However, not every ritual hallucinogen used by Indians makes for a nice recreational high.

By far the best known and loved hallucinogenic cactus is peyote. This is often confused with mescal beans, mescal buttons and mescaline.

The mescal bean, or red bean, is the seed of a small shrubby evergreen, Sophora secundiflora, found in drier parts of the American Southwest and Mexico. The seeds are found in a beanlike pod and contain cytisine, a highly poisonous alkaloid of the nicotine group. Besides inducing visions, these seeds, called frijillitos in Mexico, commonly bring about nausea, convulsions and, if taken in large amounts, death from respiratory failure. Use of mescal beans goes back at least 1,000 years in Mexico and has diminished somewhat since the spread of safer and more pleasant peyotism. But to this day the “Road Man,” the peyote leader of certain Plains tribes such as the Kiowa and Commanche, wears mescal beans as part of his ceremonial dress. Other Plains tribes have been reported to mix peyote and S. secundiflora in a drink—a concoction as cataclysmically potent as Al Capp’s legendary Kickapoo joy juice.

The word mescal properly refers to Agave americana or other Agave species and to the spirits distilled from the beer of the plant, which is called pulque. The genus has over 300 species; some of the common names include century plant and Indian cabbage.

An important point must be made here; Mescal does not contain mescaline. The confusion over these two very distinct psychoactives arose when Arthur Heffter isolated the chief psychoactive agent in peyote in 1896 and called it mescaline. Make no mistake, the powerful drink made from the agave plant and the hallucinogenic peyote brew have very different effects. Unfortunately, the confusion that surrounds them was exacerbated by the name of the Mescalero Apaches, who were peyote users in Heffter’s time, but whose name derived from the agave plant.

Left: Agave americana var. mediopicta fa. alba. Right: Agave americana/ From Pocket Encyclopedia of Cacti by Edgar and Brian Lamb © 1969 The Blandford Press


When peyote cactus, Lophophora williamsii, is dried, the outer edge of the plant curls around the top, giving a buttonlike appearance. Peyote grows on both banks of the lower reaches of the Rio Grande and for quite a distance southward into Mexico. Brewster, Zapata, Jim Hogg, Presidio, Starr and Webb counties in Texas are the most prolific in peyote; the plants are usually found in limestone-desert and desert-scrub areas. The name of the sacred cactus in Nehuatl, the language of the ancient Aztecs, was peyotl, meaning something like white, wooly and/or caterpillar, referring to the plant’s white tufts of hair. This is the term adopted by many of the Plains tribes and later Anglicized to peyote. When early European pioneers of the Southwest and Mexico discovered mescal, they “alcophilically” dubbed it dry whiskey. Carl Lumholtz. a Norwegian explorer-anthropologist-naturalist whose 1902 classic Unknown Mexico remains the most comprehensive account of Mexican cactus use, reported that even straight-shooting Texas Rangers developed a taste for this “dry whiskey.” Taken prisoner in the Civil War and deprived of all manner of booze, the illustrious imbibers soaked peyote (which they called white mule) in water and swilled the tea to transcend the mere physical boundaries of their POW camp. Sounds better than “Hogan’s Heroes.”

People with proper respect for peyote will cut the head off the plant at an angle when collecting it. This way, the root and the bit of plant left in the ground can regrow. A stump decapitated in this way will sprout several new heads on the single rootstock. These clones are considered primo. It is said that the Santo Domingo Indians guarding the Northern Arizona peyote fields will damage people who don’t show this respect. The belief that the woolly tufts of hair on peyote contain strychnine is a fallacy. The hairs act as a terrible irritant to the digestive tract, and eating buttons without first pulling them causes massive internal itch.

There are as many ways to eat peyote as there are to eat chocolate; it’s up to you. You can make tea and drink it, boil it down and stuff it into capsules, mix it with tutti-frutti, wash it down with O.J. or just get into it and chew it up real well, which will leave a strong taste in your mouth but is probably the best way to get off. Descriptions of the raw taste of peyote range from intensely repugnant to mildly disgusting to nice and tasty—this last judgment not uncommon among long-time users.

Speaking of long-time users, evidence of peyote use can be found on west Mexican burial art dating back to the year one, or thereabouts. Use by the Huichol-Cora Indians of the Sierra Madre Occidental may date back further, and it is generally held that the Huichol peyote ceremonies remain closest to pre-Columbian rituals.

The Indian use of peyote is so ancient and complex that it defies anything less than book-length description, offered by La Barre in The Peyote Cult and Artaud in The Peyote Dance, but here’s a spotty glimpse at the plant’s use through history.

How did humans first come to eat the strange-looking button?

According to one of the Indian tribes, in ancient times, a pregnant woman, unable to keep pace with her band of companions, gave birth all alone in the desert. Weak and milkless, without food, she lay under a leafy bush watching the circling vultures, when a voice came to her: “Eat the plant that is growing beside you. That is life and blessing for you and all your people.” She pulled up some of the spongy cacti and ate them. A short time later she revived with enough milk to feed her child and the strength to overtake her companions the same evening. She showed the cacti to her uncle, a curandero, who pronounced the wondrous plant beneficial “for everyone.”

Maybe it was so for that tribe, but according to the four surviving Aztec books of religion, peyote was taken only by high priests.

However, every year, a group of Huichol Indians travels 300 rugged miles northeast of their homes “to find their life” in a reconstruction of the first peyote hunt undertaken by the ancient gods. The first time the gods convened, according to myth, each found he was somehow ill or physically distressed. Tatewari, deity and first of the Huichol shamans, informed them that they were unwell because they had not traveled to the land of Wirikuta (San Luis Potosi), the place to the east, where the sun was born. They were to prepare themselves for a long and difficult journey to the land of peyote and eat neither salt nor chili. Not all the gods made it—Hummingbird Person and Rabbit Person had to abandon the arduous trek. However, the principal gods followed Tatewari to the sacred mountains at the end of the world, where peyote revealed itself to them.

In preparing for the hunt, Huichols undergo a session of purification in which they must publicly announce the name of every lover they have had, the presence of spouses or present lovers notwithstanding. Only the very old are allowed to abbreviate; anyone else whose memory fails is reminded and chided into revealing all adventures. No Huichol would knowingly omit a romance; to go on the hunt in an impure state would subject not only the individual but the whole party to severe spiritual and physical dangers.

Peyote is a relatively new sacrament to the Indians of North America, except in southern Texas, where the cult is at least hundreds of years old. In about 1870 the rest of the Southwest had its psychedelic revolution, which involved the famed Mescalero Apaches. The Kiowa and Commanche were in the vanguard of peyotism among the Plains Indians, who in general look to peyote like Wimpy to hamburgers.

Many see this boom as a reaction against the corrupting influence of the white man. The peyote rituals renewed the Indians’ contact with the earth, their gods and their ancestors; the drug was considered a cure for alcoholism, tuberculosis and venereal disease—ailments unknown in America prior to the Europeans’ arrival.

Peyote has always been recognized as strong medicine. When collecting the cactus, the Huichols touch it to the forehead, heart, eyes and throat for its benign influences. Both Indian healers and early U.S. Army medics used it as a painkiller, and fresh buttons are used today to make poultices for fractures and snake, insect and animal bites. A woman of the Native American Church told me of a friend who put a split green button on a black-widow spider bite immediately after the little creep struck. Two hours later the victim had no fever or pain, and the wound was no more inflamed than a wasp’s sting. She also told me that many people like to consume peyote as a tonic, one a day.

In 1933, a Swiss pharmacy launched an extensive advertising campaign for their new tonic , Peyotl, which claimed to “restore the individual’s balance and calm and promote full expansion of his faculties.” But in 1939 the League of Nations convinced the Swiss to sell the drug only on prescription—another tragic blow to the short but sweet run of dynamic drugstore tonics. One of the most effective advocates of peyotism was Quanah Parker, a half-breed Commanche leader from south Oklahoma who was taken deathly ill with an unknown ailment and given up as doomed. He was cured by a local curandero with peyote. Soon anthropologists observed many apparently successful treatments of rheumatism, fevers and a whole array of vexations, and “modern science” decided to take a look at the bountiful button. University of Arizona researchers have separated a water-soluble, crystalline substance from an ethanol extract of peyote that they report exhibits antibiotic activity against a whole spectrum of bacteria. The name peyocactin has been given to the principal antimicrobial component; of particular interest is its inhibitory action against 18 strains of penicillin-resistant Staphylococcus.

Peyote is quite beneficial to mental health when taken in the context of peyote meetings—group therapy sessions where life anxieties are worked out with the support of friends, the shaman, a rich religious tradition, positive power objects and illuminating mescaline. Meetings, which are usually held once or twice a month on Saturday nights and last through the night, concentrate on healing, prayer, the promotion of rain, the celebration of an event or anniversary or simply partying, but always with a respectful attitude. As Quanah Parker said, “The white man goes into his church and talks about Jesus; the Indian goes into his teepee and talks to God.”

Trichocereus macrogonus/ From Pocket Encyclopedia of Cacti by Edgar and Brian Lamb © 1969 The Blandford Press


Saint Peter is the most popular hallucinogenic cactus after Father Peyote. San Pedro is the name given a number of the species of Trichocereus that contain mescaline. Most commonly, it refers to T. pachanoi, a tall, columnar cactus that branches from the base and reaches heights of 20 feet. It has a varying number of prominent ribs (most commonly, seven). The rarer, four-ribbed plants are considered more powerful, and thinner branches are preferred to thick ones.

T. pachanoi contains about 1.2 grams of mescaline per kilo, as well as high concentrations of the powerful alkaloids hordenine, candicine and anhalonine—all found in peyote. Other mescaline-containing species of Trichocereus are T. macrogonus (short brown spines). T. werdermannianus, T. bridgesii (long yellow spines) and T. terschekii (a species from Argentina that reaches heights of 40 feet). Names are very often mislabeled in commercial cactus stores, but species without mescaline include T. camarguensis, T. candicans, T. chiloensis, T. lamprochlorus, T. Peruvianus, T. schickendantzii and T. spachianus. You can get off on these mescalineless Trichs, but it’s not as much fun. People who have tripped on San Pedro describe it as very pleasant and mellow, with all the trippiness of peyote but none of the nausea or body distress.

San Pedro is usually cut into six-inch slices and boiled in four or five gallons of water for at least seven hours before consuming. After it has boiled for several hours the skin can be removed, but this is best not done too soon, since the highest concentration of mescaline is just under the skin. The method of ingestion is optional: you can swill down the soupy liquid or boil it to a gum and stuff it into capsules. No doubt you can eat it raw, but unless you’re prepared to eat the stubs of spines, too, you’ll lose that high quantity of alkaloid right under the skin. Smoking is probably one of the least effective ways to utilize a psychedelic cactus. Boiling is the best: it maximizes the enjoyable and minimizes the disagreeable effects.

The state flower of Arizona grows on a scientifically recognized hallucinogenic plant—the unmistakable, majestic saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), a fat stick-figure with a number of upraised arms, familiar to every horse-opera fan.

The saguaro has been having a rough time of it lately, its high mortality and low birth rates being variously ascribed to its slow growth in combination with rodents, radiation, moths or changing climate. Those who would damage one of these living leviathans just to get high are liable to be damaged themselves by a cactus lover observing them. However, a little strolling in the desert will soon reveal an age-or wind-fallen specimen large enough to satisfy the psychic needs of an army.

Commonly called organ-pipe cactus, Cereus jamacaru contains the active alkaloids hordenine and tyramine—both present in peyote. Big specimens of the variety, which is native to Brazil, are 30 feet tall and bear eight-inch spines. These tough plants can survive a winter low temperature of 45 degrees Fahrenheit.

Young branches of Pachycereus pectenaboriginum (Indian’s comb) are crushed by the Tarahumari to extract the juice, which they drink with water to produce “dizziness and visions.” It and Pachycereus marginatis contain the alkaloid pilocereine.

Two species of Echinocereus — E. eyriesii and E. merkeri—have been reported to contain hordenine, but virtually no research or analysis has gone into verifying this claim. It will be very fortunate if they are indeed potent, since E. eyriesii, the Easter Lily cactus, is one of the commonest and most easily grown of all cacti and is found in almost any windowsill collection.

Say, have you seen glad hands of hemp upraised
to you in welcome? Have you been amazed
to smell sweet hemped pollen on the air?
Have you felt the bright peyote’s tiny breast
or kissed it? Heroes and poets suckle there,
the alpha and omega of their quest.
Have you heard the morning-glories trumpeting
happy fanfares for the sun ’s rebirth
or tasted the merry mushroom’s mirth
in cool primeval shadows of your mind?
Bush or cactus, fungus or vine, one thing
dwells in each—various, but of a kind—
and it lives in you if you will eat thereof:
a natural grace like the memory of love.
—J.F. Burke

Ariocarpus fissuratus/ From Pocket Encyclopedia of Cacti by Edgar and Brian Lamb © 1969 The Blandford Press


Echinocactus is the subtribe to which peyote belongs. The Tarahumari Indians respect the psychedelic power of almost all plants now called echinocacti.

Psychoactive echinocacti include those of the genera Ariocarpus, Obregonia, Aztekium, Strombocactus and Gymnocalycium. Ariocarpus retusus and A. fissuratus are known to the Huichol as tsuwiri, or “false peyote.” The plant does not actually look much like peyote, but the Huichols maintain that the cactus can manifest itself as true peyote to those who have not properly purified themselves for the peyote hunt. The Huichol thus shun the intake of Ariocarpus, which they say causes terrible visions, horrible sicknesses of the body, madness and death—the prototypical bummer. Legal-high entrepreneurs sell ariocarpi as “peyote cimarron.” Although ariocarpi contain no mescaline, they are probably not as bad as the Huichol make them out to be. The principal alkaloids are tyramine, hordenine and anhalonine, all in peyote.

Ariocarpi are true mimics, “living rock” cacti that will match exactly the color of the soil or rocks in which they are growing. In their native habitat of limestone-desert-scrub areas in Brewster, Cameron, Maverick and Pecos counties in Texas and Chihuahua and Coahuila states in Mexico, the plants are easily overlooked as weathered limestone. As with peyote, the root of the cactus shrinks in the summer, pulling the head of the plant down into the ground. In cactus collections, these babies aren’t easy to cultivate.

Another “living rock” cactus, which the Nahuatl language refers to as peyotl, is Obregonia denegrii, a plant much like an artichoke, found in northeast Mexico, especially in the state of Tamaulipas. It should be remembered that peyotl means white or wooly in Nahautl, and it may be that the plant is so called simply because it has tufts of white hairs similar to those of peyote, but you can count on just about any echinocactus to contain the powerful alkaloids tyramine and hordenine.

Astrophytum capricorne var. senile/ From Pocket Encyclopedia of Cacti by Edgar and Brian Lamb © 1969 The Blandford Press

Aztekium is a monotypic genus; that is, it comprises only one species: A. ritteri. Its multiple grooves and ridges give it the appearance of an Aztec sculpture. In addition to hordenine and tyramine, A. ritteri contains a good dose of caffeine.

The “chin” cactus group includes the genus Gymnocalycium, which comprises a number of mescaline-producing species, including G. gibbosum, G. multiflorum and G. platense. No published researchers have looked for mescaline in the other 30 or so species of Gynmocalycium, but it seems a worthy task for any space/time cadet with high goals. However, it should be mentioned that there is a major risk in such exploration. Another alkaloid common to the gymnocalycii is anhalonine, the strychninelike chemical in peyote. Any mammal ingesting a cactus superrich in anhalonine (if there is such a cactus) would find itself seriously lacking in its favorite gas: oxygen. Someone had to eat that first mushroom, right?

Gymnocalycii are called “chin” cacti because of the cleft and protrusion under each tubercle of the plant. Cactus dealers commonly sell similar-looking plants as “gymnos.” The one clue to a true gymno occurs only when the plant is in bud, early spring to July: the flower tubes and stems have a scaly appearance but are smooth to the touch. Edgar and Brian Lamb’s Pocket Encyclopedia of Cacti (Macmillan, 1969) has color photographs of 11 species of Gymnocalycium.

Other cacti of interest in subtribe Echinocactus are the four species of Astrophytum, which contain hordenine and tyramine: A. asterias, A. capricorne, A. myriostigma and A. ornatum.

Pelecyphora valdeziana/ From Pocket Encyclopedia of Cacti by Edgar and Brian Lamb © 1969 The Blandford Press


Members of genus Coryphantha, commonly called pincushion cacti, have two mescaline-related alkaloids not found in any other cacti. Coryphantha macromeris and C. runyonii contain macromerine and N-methyl-3, 4,-dimethoxy-phenethylamine, both recognized by science as hallucinogens, as well as the old standbys tyramine and hordenine, shown to be hallucinogens by years of practical application. Although specific research hasn’t been done, the similarity of the various species of Coryphantha suggest that others are worth looking into: C. echinus, C. muehlenofordtii and G. vivipara. These are found throughout Arizona. New Mexico and Texas and in northern Mexico.

The genus Mammillaria is often mentioned in accounts of Indian use of cacti, simply because until recently just about any cactus of a certain size and shape was labeled Mammillaria. Today, many of these psychoactive cacti are classified in separate genera, but more than 300 species are still considered members of the genus. They grow throughout the southwestern U.S., Mexico and northern South America. Although we may rightly suspect many of these little pincushions to be psychedelic—they are all respected by shamans—science can only tell us that M. Heyderi contains that N-methyl-3,4 monster and hordenine.

Another hordenine-loaded genus in the group is Dolichothele, which is found throughout the U.S. Southwest and Mexico. Of particular interest to heads are D. sphaerica and D. longimammi, the last name meaning long-nippled.

Three species of Pelecyphora are also known to contain hordenine and the peyote alkaloid anhalidine: P. pseudospectinata, P. aselliformis and P. valdeziana. All three go by the name peyotl in the South and are used as medicine, physical and spiritual.

There you have it: some history, some information, some indications. Keep a stout heart while exploring the realms of cosmic cacti; if ever your courage should wane, remember the faith of the young Commanche button-eater embroiled in the once intense tribal strife between peyotists and antipeyotists. Confident in the supernatural protection of the cacti, he suggested that his group line up across from the nonusers and “shoot it out.”

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  • peyote cactus is well known for its hallucinogenic effects; the plant contains at least 28 alkaloids, the principal one of which is mescaline. Peyote figures prominently in the traditional religious rituals of certain North American Indian peoples as well as in the current rituals (many adapted from traditional rituals) of the Native American Church. The sale, use, or possession of dried mescal buttons or live plants is prohibited by law in many places, although a number of areas also provide exemptions for use in formal religious rites. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act (1978) is the primary legislation governing the religious uses of peyote in the United States.

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