COMMON NAMES: Cowhage, Akushi (Bengali), Chiikan (Mayan), Demar Pirkok (Cuna), Huacawuru (Shipibo), Itchweed, Jeukboontje (Dutch), Kiwach (Hindi, ‘bad to rub’), Ojo de Vaca (Spanish, ‘eye of the cow’), Ojo de Venado (Spanish, ‘eye of the deer’), Shabun Baranti (Shipibo), Velvet Bean, Wich Yuk (Lacandon, ‘deer eye’)
Mucuna pruriens is a leguminous climbing plant, with long, slender branches, and alternate lanceolate leaves on hairy petioles that are 6 to 12 inches long, with large, white flowers growing in clusters of two or three, with a bluish-purple, butterfly-shaped corolla. The pods or legumes are hairy, thick, and leathery, average 4 inches in length, are shaped like violin sound-holes, and contain four to six seeds. These seeds are of a rich dark brown colour, thickly covered with stiff hairs, and about 1/10 inch long (Hofmann et al. 1992, 50).
Travelers in the tropics know the plants well on account of their annoying seed-pods, covered with stinging hairs that cause great irritation when they come in to contact with the skin. Mucuna pruriens is found in Asia, America, Africa, and the Pacific Islands, cultivated in some parts for the sake of its golden-brown velvety legumes, which are cooked and eaten as a vegetable when young (Voogelbreinder 2009, 237).
TRADITIONAL USES: In parts of India, M. pruriens seeds are ground and mixed with cow’s milk to produce an aphrodisiac. It has been suggested by some scholars that the seeds have even been used as part of Tantric sex rituals in a manner similar to Alstonia scholaris seeds. Certain Indian folk medicine texts also name M. pruriens “brother of the great soma“, suggesting greater depth to the ritual usage of this plant than we are presently aware of (Ratsch 1998, 369).
Mature mucuna seeds are made into amulets in every region the plants are found, including India, Ghana, the Caribbean, Mexico, and Guatemala. They are often found as the centerpiece in necklaces or pendants (Madsen 1965).
Since M. pruriens seeds contain DMT, they are sometimes used in Ayahuasca analogs. The seeds are also used in some Haitian zombie potions, perhaps due to the irritating hairs that cover the seeds. The seeds are used as aphrodisiacs in Panama and Brazil in the form of water or alcohol extracts, doubling as a nerve tonic (Voogelbreinder 2009, 237).
In 1989 an outbreak of “acute toxic psychosis” occurred in Mozambique during a period of famine which resulted in locals surviving primarily on poorly cooked Mucuna pruriens seeds. This diet lead to very strange behaviors and psychological breaks with default reality. The seeds are generally used in Mozambique as an aphrodisiac in a milk decoction of 120g of seed material to 1 liter of milk (Voogelbreinder 2009, 237).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: In Ayurveda, the seeds are prescribed in the form of powder in doses of 20 to 40 grams in cases of excessive vaginal or ejaculatory discharge and in cases requiring an aphrodisiac. A compound powder made from these seeds, and of the fruits of Tribulus terrestris taken in equal parts is recommended in doses of 1 drachm mixed with sugar and tepid milk, as an aphrodisiac. Another Ayurvedic preparation (known as Vanari Vatika Boluses), recommended in the Bhava-prakash medical text, is made by boiling 32 grams of the seeds in 4 seers of cow’s milk till the milk becomes thick; the seeds are then shelled and pounded, and then fried in ghee and made into a confection with double their weight in sugar. The mass is then divided into balls which are stored steeped in honey. The dose is about a gram. This is reported to be one of the best aphrodisiacs in the Indian pharmacopeia (MDidea.com n.d.).
MEDICINAL USES: Mucuna root is useful in treating diseases of the nervous system, such as facial paralysis, hemiplegia, and so forth. A strong infusion of the root sweetened with honey is given in cases of cholera morbus. The root is also useful for delirium in fevers and, when powdered and made into a paste, is applied for dropsy, along with a piece of the whole root being attached to the wrist and ankle. The root is also made into an ointment which is used for elephantiasis. The seed is said to absorb scorpion poison when applied to the site of the sting (Voogelbreinder 2009, 237).
The root is used as diuretic, tonic and stimulant. It is recommended for the nervous system, facial paralysis, hemiplegia, delirium in fevers, and dropsy, in decoction. The infusion of the pods is also good for dropsy. The hairs of the pods are used for threadworms. The seeds are considered astringent, aphrodisiac, tonic, nervine and nutritive. They are given in powder or in decoction in cases of leukorrhea, spermatorrhea, and menstrual disorders (Voogelbreinder 2009, 237).
Following are some other traditional Ayurvedic recipes that utilize M. pruriens:
1. Take three M. pruriens seeds, five Tribulus terrestris seeds, four Poppy capsules, three Hygrophila spinosa, three Bombax malabaricum, two Ochrocarpus longifolius, two each of Curculigo orchioides and Asparagus adscendens, and two parts sugar. Mix and make a powder. The dose is fifteen grams in milk for seminal weakness.
2. Take equal parts M. pruriens, Mace, Camphor, Argyreia speciosa, Acorus calamus, and sugar. Mix and make a powder. The dose is ten grams in cases of general debility.
3. Take M. pruriens, white Plumbago zeylanica, dried ginger, long pepper, long pepper root, mastiche, Cinnamomum cassia and cloves. Mix and make a pill mass. Use for colic, dyspepsia, worms, and so forth (Bahadur 1896).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: Mucuna pruriens contains tryptamine alkaloids, specifically 5-Meo-DMT, dimethyltryptamine and related alkaloids, in all parts of the plant. The seeds are also reported to contain L-dopa, a dopamine precursor utilized in Parkinson’s disease treatments (Hofmann et al. 1992, 50).
Experiments on rats have shown that a seed extract of M. pruriens likely has hallucinogenic effects. There are few reports of any psychoactive effects on humans, but one report states that after smoking a cigarette made up of the leaves general CNS stimulation and a tryptamine-like high was experienced. The consumption of Peganum harmala along with two Mucuna pruriens leaf cigarettes lead to a pounding headache and colorful geometric visuals. The individual describes the experience as “very delicate and detached” (Ratsch 1998, 370).
In human studies, an extract of dried whole Mucuna pruriens increased sperm count and motility. Seeds that contained high levels of L-dopa taken orally at 15-40g had anti-Parkinson effects (Voogelbreinder 2009, 237).
Bahadur, R. The Indigenous Drugs of India. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink Ant. Co., 1896.
Hofmann, A., Ratsch, C., Schultes, R., Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1992.
Madsen, C. A Study of Change in Mexican Folk Medicine. New Orleans: Middle American Research Institute, 1965.
“Mucuna Pruriens Historical Use and Additional Remarks.” MDidea, 2010. http://www.mdidea.com/products/proper/proper05007.html.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Voogelbreinder, Snu. The Garden of Eden. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.