FAMILY: Leguminosae (Pea Family)
COMMON NAMES: Bois Sappan, Bonduc, Caesalpinia Septaria, Caesalpinia Decapetala, Cats Claw, Cumaseba, Kraaldoring, Liane Croc Chien, Liane Sappan, Mauritius Thorn, Mauritiusdoring, Mysore Thorn, Popoki, Pua kelekino, Sappan, Shoofly, Somalata, Ubobo-encane, Ufenisi, Ulozisi, Wait-a-bit, Yun-Shih
Caesalpinia sepiaria is a hardy perennial climbing vine that often resembles a shrub; it grows up to 13 feet (4 meters) tall as a shrub with individual vines growing up to 33 feet high (10 meters). It has red stems that are covered in tiny golden colored hairs and produce many small sharp thorns. The leaves are dark green on top and a lighter shade of green underneath, and can grow up 1 foot (30 cm) in length. The leaves are made up of many small paired leaflets; each leaflet is about 1 inch long (26 mm) by half an inch (13 mm) wide. Yun-Shih flowers appear only on the upper part of the stem, they are pale yellow and grow in dense elongated clusters that range from 4 to 16 inches (10 – 40 cm) in length. The plant’s seeds grow in brown pods very similar to the shape of snow pea pods, with 6 to 9 seed per pod (Zheng et al. 2004).
This tropical plant first originated in India and quickly migrated to Asia where it thrived and spread throughout the continent. Today Yun-Shih can be found growing wildly all over the world in tropical zones from Hawaii, Fiji, Thailand and Vietnam to Australia, South Africa, Puerto Rico and China. In many areas it is considered an invasive species because of its ability to quickly proliferate, spread and choke out other plant life. This plant has become popular as an ornamental and security hedge for private property because of its hardiness, ability to quickly take root, dense growth, and its many sharp thorny vines (Global Invasive Species Database 2006).
TRADITIONAL USE: For centuries this plant has been rumored to possess magical properties. In China, Yun-Shih has been used as a medicine to treat many different ailments. It was also written about in ancient Chinese herbal medicine books that claimed that the flowers “contain occult powers” and that they allowed “one to see spirits but make one idiotic if consumed in excess.” The medicinal books also claimed that the flowers “produce levitation of the body and promote communication with the spirits” (Li 1978 cited in Ratsch 1998, 551).
The historical evidence detailing this plant’s usage is scant, although there are several sources that allude to its psychoactive properties. Research conducted by renowned Chinese Botanist Hui-Lin Li in the 1970’s has shown a strong probability that Yun-Shih was used throughout antiquity for its psychoactive and hallucinogenic effects. Recent research into this plant’s psychoactive properties has shown that there are compounds produced in the flowers, stems and roots that should be considered for further in-depth phytochemical analysis (Li 1978).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: Very little is known about the traditional preparation of this magical plant. The few records that still exist mention two distinct preparation methods. The first method employed by the ancient Chinese is to dry, crush, and powder the seeds of Yun-Shih and combined them with the seeds of Lang-Tang (Hyoscyamus Niger) to make an incense that possesses psychoactive properties when burned. The second method explains that the flowers are added to water to make a tea that can be used to communicate with the spirits and dispel evil forces. There are only anecdotal accounts of modern preparations, and there still needs to be a lot more research conducted on this little known plant (Voogelbreinder 2009, 110).
In Nepal, the seeds of the similar C. decapetala are used by shamans for shamanic travel, or are taken in small doses with pickles and curries as a spice. The flowers are used as an offering to Shiva, and the plant is considered very protective and cleansing for the entire human body (Voogelbreinder 2009, 110).
MEDICINAL USES: Chinese herbal medicine books list several uses for this plant. The most common was to use the flowers to make a tea that would be consumed to treat intestinal worms. There are also accounts of this plant being used to treat malaria and skin infections. In Chinese medicine, the seeds are considered “astringent, anthelmintic, antipyretic, and antimalarial” and the root is used as a purgative and emmenagogue to “assist removal of a bone in the throat” (Voogelbreinder 2009, 110).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: There are no firsthand accounts of Yun-Shih’s effects, although there are historical and modern accounts of alleged effects. The ancient Chinese medical/herbal books describe the effects of consuming large quantities as levitation, lunacy, visual hallucinations, communication with spirits, and staggering madness (Ratsch 1998, 551).
Global Invasive Species Database. 2006. Caesalpinia Decapetala. www.issg.org
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Starr, Forest; Starr, Kim. 2006. Plants of Hawaii: Caesalpinia Decapetala (photo credit). www.hear.org.
USDA. 2009. Caesalpinia Decapetala. www.plants.usda.gov.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.
Zheng, Hao; Wu, Yun; Ding, Jianqing; et al. 2004. Invasive Plants of Asian Origin Established in the US and Their Natural Enemies. www.invasive.org