COMMON NAMES: Azee (Navajo), Bad Seed, Beyo (Otomi), Biisung (Delaware), Camaba (Tepehuano), Chiee (Cora), Devil’s Root, Diabolic Root, Divine Herb, Dry Whiskey, Dumpling Cactus, Hikuli (Tarahumara), Ho (Mescalero), Huatari (Cora), Hunka (Winnebago), Indian Dope, Jicule (Huichol), Makan (Omaha), Medicine of God, Mescalito, Mezcal Buttons, Moon, Nezats (Wichita), Pee-yot (Kickapoo), Pejori (Opata), Pejuta (Dakota, ‘medicine’), Peyote Cactus, Peyotl (Aztec, ‘root that excites’), Raiz Diabolica (‘devil’s root), Seni (Kiowa), Tuna de Tierra (‘earth cactus’), Walena (Taos), Wokowi (Comanche)
Lophophora williamsii is a thornless cactus that can grow up to 20 cm high. It usually appears as a single head, but may also have numerous ribs, which are covered in clusters of fine hairs. The root is carrot shaped and grows up to 11 cm in length. The flowers are light pink and develop from the middle of the head, growing to a diameter of 2.2 cm. Peyote flowers from March to September. The fruit is a pink berry that contains black seeds which are 1 to 1.5 mm in length. The peyote cactus is found in deserts from Texas to central Mexico. It often grows naturally under mesquite trees (Ratsch 1998, 328).
Peyote may be cultivated through its seeds. They should be pressed into cactus soil and moistened a little bit every day. Germination can take a few weeks. Watering the plants too heavily can cause the seeds to be washed away. They must be kept in the sun and watered moderately but never kept moist. Peyote is one of the slowest growing of all cacti, and it will take about five years before the plant is ready to be harvested for use. Grafting peyote onto the limb of a Trichocerus pachanoi or other Tichocerus cactus will speed up the growing process (DeKorne 1994).
TRADITIONAL USES: In Texas, peyote buttons have been found in areas that contain archaeological artifacts that are up to six thousand years old. In northern Mexico, remains of peyote have been found that have been dated to about 2500 to 3000 B.P. A cave burial area from 810-1070 C.E. contained peyote samples that still contained active alkaloids. This indicates that peyote was likely being used in Mexico and Texas during the prehistoric era. Although the native peoples were persecuted for the use of peyote by Christian missionaries, several peyote cults such as the Huichol managed to thrive and their rituals have been studied extensively (Schaefer & Furst 1996).
It appears that the ritual use of peyote spread into North America with the Apache and Lipan peoples. By the time the Civil War began, peyote use was well established among many tribes in the Plains region. Evidence of ritual use of peyote is now found in almost every North American native tribe, though it is most prevalent in the southwest of the United States (Opler 1938).
There is significant evidence that the Aztec people were also very familiar with peyote and used it ritually. The Huichol people, one of the strongest surviving peyote cults, probably has its roots in the nomadic tribes that lived north of the Aztecs. Even now, the Huichol shamans, known as mara’akame, travel to a desert known as wirikuta, which the Aztects called the “realm of the dead”, once every year. They go there to seek out peyote, which to them is the origin and center of the universe. They gather a great deal of peyote at this time, which they use in rituals, festivals, and to treat the sick. At the great peyote festival everyone in the tribe, including young children, ingest the cactus (Benítez 1975).
The Native American Church, a syncretic church which preserves elements of Native American traditions, also uses peyote in rituals on a regular basis. They usually hold their ceremonies in a tepee at night. The participants sit around a fire and an altar is built. Participants usually determine their own dosage. They do not speak to each other or leave the circle until the next day, unless given permission by the leader of the circle (Brave Bird 1993).
Unfortunately, due to increasing popularity of peyote, it has been over-gathered and is now endangered in the wild. Therefore, it must only be gathered from cultivated specimens.
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: Peyote buttons are the head of the cactus, cut off from the root. The buttons can be consumed fresh, dried, or decocted in water. The flavor of the cactus is extremely bitter. A dose of between four and thirty buttons may be ingested, depending on the individual and the ritual, but strong psychedelic effects only come on at amounts of 200 to 500mg of mescaline. Mescaline content varies from plant to plant, but 27g of dried plant material seems to correspond to 300mg of mescaline. Dried peyote may also be smoked, and peyote powder is sometimes added to alcoholic beverages (DeKorne 1994).
MEDICINAL USES: For native tribes that use Peyote, it is an all-purpose medicine for body and spirit. Its use as medicine dates back to the Aztecs, who used it to treat fever. The Kickapoo of Mexico use fresh peyote slices to treat headaches, applying the cactus directly to the head with cloth. They also consume decoctions of peyote to treat arthritis. Peyote may also be used to treat Datura innoxia overdose.
The Native American Church has successfully used peyote to treat alcoholism. It is used in homeopathy to treat depression and other disorders of the brain and nervous system (Ratsch 1998, 333).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: More than fifty alkaloids have been found in the peyote cactus. A fresh cactus that has enough water will have a total alkaloids content of about 0.4%. Dried specimens can have up to 3.7% total content. Along with mescaline, peyote contains B-phenethylamines tyramine, N-methyltyramine, hordenine, candicine, anhalamine, lophophorine, pellotine, O-methyl-pellotine, N,N-dimethyl-3-methoxytyramine, dopamine, epinine, 3-methoxytyramine, N-methyl-mescaline, N-formylmescaline, N-acetylmescaline, N-formylanhalamine, N-acetylanahalamine, isoanhalamine, anhalinine, anhalidine, anhalotine, isoanhaladine, anhalonidine, and derivities. Mescaline is the only one of these that has definite psychoactive effects. The cactus does not contain any strychnine, despite rumours to the contrary (Ratsch 1998, 334).
Peyote can have healing, aphrodisiac, and psychedelic effects, depending on dosage. The effects generally begin 45 to 120 minutes after consumption. Nausea and vomiting often occur prior to the onset of psychoactive effects. The effects last from six to nine hours. Individuals often feel they are able to learn things from the plant which will allow them to find direction in their lives (Ratsch 1998, 337).
The Soux medicine man Leonard Crow Dog described the peyote ceremony and its effects as follows:
“Grandfather Peyote unites us all in love, but first he must separate us, cut us off from the outer world in order to bring us to look into ourselves….A new understanding dawns within you – joyful and hot like the fire, or bitter like the peyote…You will see people that bend themselves into a ball as if they were still in the belly of their mother, remember things that happened before you were born. Time and space grow and shrink in an inexplicable manner – an entire lifetime of being, learning, understanding, compressed into a few seconds of insight, or time stands still, does not move at all, a minute becomes an entire lifetime” (Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes 1979 cited in Ratsch 1998, 331).
Peyote is illegal in America and much of the world, but in 1995 it was made legal for ritual use by members of the Native American Church.
Benítez, F. In the Magic Land of Peyote. Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1975.
Brave Bird, M. Ohitika Woman. New York: Grove Press, 1993.
DeKorne, J. Psychedelic Shamanism. Port Townsend, Washington: Loompanics Unlimited, 1994.
Opler, M.E. “The Use of Peyote by the Carrizo and LIpan Apache Tribes.” American Antrhopologist, no. 40 (1938): 271–285.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Schaefer, S., and P.T. Furst, eds. People of the Peyote: Huichol Indian History, Religion, and Survival. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.