COMMON NAMES: American Coral Tree, Bolita Grande, Cehst (Mixe), Demti (Otomi), Hutukuu’ (Huastec), Iquemite, Jiquimiti, K’ante’ (Mayan, ‘yellow tree’), Lakatila (Totonac), Madre Alcaparra, Ma-ja-nu (Chinantec), Palo de Coral, Quemite, Shompantle, Te’batai (Otomi), Uhkum, Xoyo’ (Mayan), Zompantli
Erythrina americana is a stunning tree that grows 20 to 25 feet in height. It has large, wide leaves which grow in clusters of three. The flowers are bright crimson and grow up to 4 inches in length in upright clusters. The tree loses its leaves in winter, and the flowers begin to grow while the tree is bare of leaves, from January to March. The pods, containing bright red bean-shaped seeds, ripen as the leaves begin to grow (Ratsch 1998, 235).
E. americana thrives from northern Mexico down to Guatemala, and is primarily found in central Mexico. It thrives in a dry and warm climate. Cultivation is done by planted germinated seeds in soil. The seeds enjoy a decent amount of water, but must not be overwatered. The tree makes an excellent living fence, and has been used as such in Mexico for hundreds of years (Krukoff 1939, 210).
TRADITIONAL USES: The seeds of the E. americana tree have been found in prehistoric dig sites. Images of the tree and hieroglyphs which appear to represent it may be found in Mayan manuscripts. Aztec writings of the colonial period also discuss the plant. To this day, the flowers are cooked and eaten as a vegetable in Veracruz, and are prized for their aphrodisiac effect (Ott 1993).
To the Maya, the E. americana tree was associated with the energy of the south and the color yellow, perhaps because the root of the tree may be used to produce a vibrant yellow dye. The tree was invoked in magical spells for the treatment of spirit possession. It has been suggested that the modern Yucatec Maya shamans utilize the seeds in healing and divination ritual, but little concrete evidence of this is available at present (Krukoff 1939, 210).
The Huastec of Mexico carve ritual masks from the wood of E. americana. In Guatemala, the Kanjobal use the seeds to count the days of the year as part of their traditional divinatory calendar, which is used to resolve personal and social troubles (Hinz 1984).
Although we have no evidence that the Aztecs used E. americana for internal consumption, we do know that the plant was strongly linked to human sacrifice rituals. Sacrificial victims would have their heads removed and placed on vertical poles that were then speared one on top of the other to create a skull frame, or tzompantli. This frame was kept near the main temple. The Aztec referred to the E. americana tree as a tzompantli tree, indicating some connection between the tree and the practice. However, the wood of the E. americana tree is quite soft and would not be sufficient to bear the weight of so many heads. Therefore, some ethnobotanists have hypothesized that the seeds were given to sacrificial victims to keep them sedated, in a similar manner to Datura innoxia (Ratsch 1998, 235).
In Guatemala, it is believed that the folk saint Maximón (who represents the link between the underworld and the heart of heaven, and who appears to be a blend of ancient Maya gods and modern Christian influences) arose from a coral tree when it was struck by lightning. According to the tale, the tree was growing in the middle of many Amanita muscaria mushrooms which, after the miraculous events, would restore youth to those who ate them. This story suggests that perhaps E. americana trees grow in mycorrhizal association with Amanita muscaria mushrooms (Lowy 1980).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: It is likely that the Maya ground E. americana seeds and consumed them for their soporific and psychoactive properties. Effective dosage is likely one quarter to no more than one half of a seed, as the alkaloids contained in the plant are very potent indeed. Very little information regarding the effects and potential toxicity of E. americana is available, and until more is known, it is essential that we not attempt to work with this plant through ingestion (Ratsch 1998, 236).
MEDICINAL USE: The Huastec of Mexico use E. americana leaves for insomnia and anxiety, and women consume the bark as a contraceptive. In Mexican folk medicine, a weak tea of E. americana flowers is consumed to treat chest pain, the stem juice is applied to scorpion stings, and a tea of the bark is taken as a diuretic and purgative (Krukoff 1939). In Veracruz, E. americana leaves are used to treat ulcers, skin abscesses, and insect stings, and fruit extracts are also used externally to sooth skin inflammation. In the Guerrero province, the plant is thought to have anti-malarial properties (García-Mateos, Soto-Hernández, & Vibrans 2001).
Research into the alkaloids contained in E. americana suggest that certain alkaloids contained in the plant are powerfully paralytic and anti-convulsant. These effects can be medically beneficial in certain cases. However, science has not yet determined how to most effectively utilize these qualities of the plant (Lehman 1936).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: The seeds and, to a lesser extent, the flowers of E. americana contain a variety of erythrina alkaloids. Many of these alkaloids are CNS-depressants and produce convulsions in animals. Alkaloid extracts from E. americana diminish aggressive behavior in rats, perhaps due to interaction with the acetylcholine and GABA neurotransmitter system (Garin-Aguilara et al. 2000). This genus often contains Hypaphorine, which is a convulsive poison in frogs and a precursor to tryptamines such as DMT.
There are several accounts of women consuming E. americana seeds and entering intense ecstatic and erotic states of consciousness. One tale from 1719 describes a group of women who consume the seeds by accident. They are observed to laugh and talk in nonsense words, becoming more and more intoxicated and finally falling into a deep sleep. In another tale, a woman consumes the seeds and loses her mind, develops a strong fever, and finally passes out of her body for good. From these accounts, we can hypothesize that the effects of consuming E. americana seeds begin with ecstasy followed by confusion, intense sexual arousal and intoxication, and concluding with a deep sleep from which many do not awaken (Ratsch 1998, 236).
Modern reports suggest that consuming 1/4-1/2 of an E. americana seed creates deep sedation. It is generally thought that the seeds are poisonous, although one report does mention that six seeds, ground up and eaten, created only sedation and intense nausea. However, it is important to keep in mind that different individual body chemistries produce different effects, and that most people seem to experience much heavier toxicity than this (Voogelbreinder 2009, 169).
Garin-Aguilara, M.E. et. al., “Effect of crude extracts of Erythina americana Mill. on aggressive behavior in rats.” J. Ethnopharm, 2002, 69(2): 189-196.
Hinz, E. “Kanjobal Maya Divination: An Outline of a Native Psycho-sociotherapy.” Sociologus 34, no. 2 (1984): 162–184.
Krukoff, B.A. “The American Species of Erythrina.” Brittonia 3, no. 2 (1939): 205–337.
Lowy, B. “Ethnomycological Inferences from Mushroom Stones, Maya Codices, and Tzutuhil Legend.” Revista/Review Interamericana 10, no. 1 (1980): 94–103.
Ott, J., Pharmacotheon – Entheogenic Drugs, their plant sources and history. Washington: Natural Products Co, 1993.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.