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Ethnobotany: the study of people, plants, and culture.

Ayahuasca: Vine of the Soul

Don Antonio Montero Pisco, an ayahuascero and shaman from Northern Peru, has taught me nearly all I (Steve) know of the medicinal and spiritual plant ayahuasca. I first came to know Don Antonio in 1995, when we worked together to design and implement the first ethnobotanical gardens in the Amazon basin. Over the years, he has served as the spiritual guide for individuals participating in visionary ayahuasca journeys, helping them prepare themselves physically and spiritually for the plant ceremony. Five days before the ceremony, participants reduce their consumption of certain foods, such as fats, refined sugar, and alcohol, and abstain from sex. On the day of the ceremony, participants drink the ayahuasca, a mixture of seven strong hallucinogens discussed in detail below.


Ayahuasca is blend of three essential plants, including Banisteriopsis caapi, or ayahuasca; Psychotria viridis, or yage; and Brugmansia aurea, or toe. Other plants are added to the mixture depending on the tribal customs and region, including chiricsanango, or Brunfelsia grandifolia; sacha ajo, or Mansoa alliacea; limon, or Citrus limon, and others.


When discussing the process of making ayahuasca, Dennis McKenna recognizes, "There is a virtual pharmacopoeia of admixtures depending on the magical, ritual, or medical purposes for which the drug is being made and consumed. Many of these admixtures have not been identified, much less characterized."


When harvesting the ayahuasca vine, songs are offered out of respect for the plants that are taken. The vine is then cut into foot-long sections; pounded down; and placed into a newly made clay pot, which is destroyed at the end of the ceremony. The mixture contains harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine, alkaloids that are also MAO inhibitors. Participants prepare by eliminating fats, alcohol, and sugars, while increasing their consumption of seroton in-rich foods (such as bananas and fish), because this diet enhances the hallucinogenic effects of these MAO inhibitors. As this demonstrates, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon have understood the intricacies of these herbs for more than 500 years.


The leaves of yage, which contain the alkaloid N, N-dimethyltryptamine (activated in the presence of harmine and harmaline), are gathered at the edges of the forest. Psychotria, another key component of the mixture, grows abundantly in the Amazon, and can be identified easily by the bright red cone of trumpet flowers adorning its terminal growth. However, ayahuasca has become scarce in recent years due to deforestation in the Amazon basin as civilization expands into previously unoccupied lands (see our column in last month's issue of Townsend Letter).


Finally, the toe leaves are gathered and added to the ayahuasca blend, creating a synergy of plant hallucinogens. Only two or three leaves of the toe are used, because their alkaloids, atropine and scopolamine, are highly potent. This plant, which is easily identified by its 6-inch-long trumpetlike flowers, is potentially dangerous and has been responsible for cases of insanity or death when dosed improperly.

The Ceremony and Journey

The ceremony bears some similarities to a traditional sweat lodge, as both involve prior dietary restrictions, total darkness, and maintaining an attitude of humility and respect for nature and life. The ayahuasca simmers for eight hours at the tambo (a rustic shelter in the forest) before the ceremony, while Don Antonio chants and tends the fire. As the participants prepare, he washes our hair with a lemon water rinse and burns dry cecropia leaves to relax us in the sweet-scented smoke. In the distance a small bird calls loudly, a piha welcoming us to its forest sanctuary.

Don Antonio lights black tobacco and, with shacapa (Pariana species) in hand, begins to chant and rhythmically drum the shacapa on our bodies while blowing the smoke around us, awakening our energies. At this point, he can visually identify healthy and weak systems in our bodies, and by blowing more smoke at different energy centers he heals diseased and unhealthy processes.

In pitch-dark night of the forest, the only visible light comes from the embers of the cooking fire. Don Antonio portions out a small cup of the ayahuasca, an orange-brown liquid that tastes very bitter. After twenty minutes the healing begins with violent nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, lasting for quite a long time. As the time passes, vibrant lavender, blue, and green hues come visiting in our minds, bodies, and hearts, dancing in the space around us like the aurora borealis. The chanting continues and in a real way is felt to move the medicine into the different worlds of plants, trees, birds, and animals, bringing our minds along with it.

To this day, I am still influenced by my journey into the realm of "Yoshi," or the spirit or animal essence. For me, the ceremony represented the possibility for a shared experience with nonhuman, allowing the participant to view the world through the "eyes" of a close ally. For Don Antonio, ayahuasca allows him to "see" the cause and cures of disease, which he then utilizes through dance, chanting, tobacco, and medicinal plants in his treatment of patients. Once, in 1997, a doctor friend was suffering from a deep loss and subsequent depression (what Rosita Arvigo calls susto). After taking ayahuasca, he washed her whole body with an infusion of aromatic flowers and tobacco and chanted over her for hours. The next morning she awoke feeling as if a great weight had been lifted from her.

Although these plant hallucinogens have tremendous healing powers, they can also be dangerous when consumed by a novice. On one of our very first visits the Amazon, a prominent naturopathic physician became very ill following an ayahuasca ceremony. As this shows, one should embark on a visionary plant journey with intention and prayer, led by a learned guide, in hopes of discerning inspiration and vision.
... O most powerful spirit of the bush
With fragrant leaves
We are here again to seek wisdom
give us tranquility and guidance
To understand the mysteries of the forest
And the knowledge of our ancestors ...

--Manuel Cordorva Rios

In Wizard of the Upper Amazon, Bruce Lamb reflects, "Perhaps on some unknown unconscious level the genetic encoder DNA provides a bridge to biological memories of all living things, an aura of unbounded awareness manifesting itself in the activated mind."






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(2.) Davis W. One River. New York: Simon & Schuster; 1996.

(3.) Davis W. The Lost Amazon: The Photographic Journey of Richard Evans Schulte. San Francisco: Chronicle Books; 2004.

(4.) Duke J, Vasquez R. Amazon Ethnobotanical Dictionary. Boca Raton, FL: CBC Press; 1994.

(5.) Eliade M. Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Princeton, NJ; Princeton University Press; 1964.

(6.) Lamb B. Wizard of the Upper Amazon. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books; 1971.

(7.) McKenna T. Food of the Cods. New York: Bantam Books; 1992.

(8.) Narby J. The Cosmic Serpent. Putnam, NY: Tarcher; 1998.

(9.) Ratsch C. The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press; 1957.

(10.) Schultes RE et al. Medicines from the Earth. Toronto: Gage Publishing; 1978.

(11.) Schultes RE, Hoffman A, Ratsch C. Plants of the Cods. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press; 1992.

(12.) Schultes RE, Raffauf R. The Healing Forest. Portland, OR: Dioscorides Press; 1990.

(13.) Schultes RE. Vine of the Soul. Oracle, AZ: Synergetic Press; 1992.

(14.) Schultes RE, Hofmann A. The Botany and Chemistry of Hallucinogens. Springfield, IL: Charles Thomas; 1980.

(15.) Weil A et al. Visionary Plant Consciousness. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press; 2007.

by Shawn, Aaron, and Steve E. Morris
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Author:Aaron, Shawn,; Morris, Steve E.
Publication:Townsend Letter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2009
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