FAMILY: Lamiaceae (Mint)
COMMON NAMES: Diviner’s Sage, Hierba de la Pastora (Herb of the Shepherdess), Hierba de la Virgen (Herb of the Virgin), Hierba Maria (Mary’s Herb), Hoja de la Pastora (Leaves of the Shepherdess), Lady Salvia, Magic Mint, Pipiltzintzintli, Sage, Salvia, Seer’s Sage, Ska Maria Pastora (Leaves of Mary the Shepherdess), Ska Pastora (Leaves of the Shepherdess), Yerba Maria (Mary’s Herb)
Salvia divinorum is a herbaceous perennial that grows well over 3 feet (1 meter) tall. The plant’s leaves grow in a symmetrical, uniform pattern, and have equally distributed nodes along a singular stem. The leaves vary in color from light green to dark forest green and grow about 8 inches (20 cm) long and 4 inches (10 cm) wide. The plant’s hollow stem can grow to 1/2 an inch (2 cm) in diameter and may exhibit a unique four-sided, square shape. Although flowers are rarely seen, under the proper conditions, the plant will produce flowers that are dark purple with white inner petals (Ratsch 1998, 463).
S. divinorum originated in a small mountainous region in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. This plant grows natively in the cloud forests and tropical forests of the Sierra Madre Mazateca region at an altitude of between 1000–6000 feet (400–1800 meters) (Reisfield 1993).
Currently, there is a debate as to whether or not Salvia divinorum is a true cultigen, a plant that has no wild, uncultivated counterpart. As recently as 1979, a Mazatecan curandero (shaman) by the name Don Alejandro Vicente claimed to have found naturally growing plants in the Cerro Rabon and Cerro Quemado mountain regions. However, due to the extreme terrain, and the relative inaccessibility of this mountainous region, which exceeds elevations of over 6800 feet (2100 meters), ethnobotanists have yet to confirm any wildly occurring specimens (Boire et al. 2002).
TRADITIONAL USES: In September and October of 1962, Gordon Wasson and Albert Hofmann went in search of this little known plant. After their extensive expedition through the Sierra Madre Mazateca region, they remarked: “We were on the watch for S. divinorum as we criss-crossed the Sierra Mazateca on horseback…but never once did we see it.…whether it occurs in a wild state…we do not know.” Because the plant has been propagated by the local curanderos and planted in lower altitude areas near villages, this controversy may never come to a satisfactory conclusion (Wasson 1962).
During the expedition Wasson and Hofmann found cultivated plants growing in special gardens maintained by local curanderos; they collected specimens and brought them back to the University of California to be identified by Carl Epling and Carlos Jativa. Epling and Javita were credited as being the first European botanists to catalog and describe the species. Gordon Wasson was later credited with being the first person to report on the hallucinogenic effects of the plant, which he had personally experienced during a ritual healing ceremony lead by Mazatec curandera (Wasson 1962).
There is virtually no concrete evidence of Salvia divinorum’s role in pre-Spanish Inquisition Mexico. Some scholars have postulated that the Aztec word Pipiltzintzintli was used to refer to S. divinorum. However, recent research has suggested that Pipiltzintzintli was most likely Cannabis sativa. The problem with this hypothesis is that the Cannabis plant was not introduced to the Americas until the Spanish invaded Mexico in the 16th century. It is possible that Pipiltzintzintli may have referred to Ololiuhqui (Rivea corymbosa) or Toloache (Datura innoxia). However there is still a lot of mystery surrounding Salvia’s history, and very little evidence to support any definitive translation of this word (Celbsch 2008).
Records of the ritual use of S. divinorum only date back to 1938, when Jean Johnson described an anthropological expedition to a village called Huautla, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, where he observed the Mazatec curanderos “use certain narcotic plants in order to find lost objects…called Hierba María.” In a subsequent article Johnson wrote “others use ‘Hierba Maria’…The use of various magical plants to find lost objects is not restricted to the Mazatec alone…The leaf is beaten well, and a tea is made thereof. It is probable that the Chinantec use it, since it is well known to those who live in the vicinity of Ojitlan.” Although, Johnson was not able to botanically identify this plant, it is generally conceded that he observed the Mazatec’s ritual use of S. divinorum (Johnson 1939).
The Mazatec use three sacred plants in their healing, divination and diagnosis ceremonies, they believe Lady Salvia to be the weakest entheogen of this trinity; followed by Ololiuhqui, the seeds of the Morning Glory vine (Turbina Corymbosa); and the most powerful of this sacred trinity was Teonanacatl (psilocybe mexicana). The elder curanderos use Salvia to introduce and train new curanderos in the spirit world and the “way to heaven.” The apprentice is given progressively higher doses until they become familiar and comfortable with its effects; they are then introduced to the ‘seeds of the Virgin’ (Semilla de la Virgen) / Ololiuhqui; finally, when the apprentice has become familiar with the effects Ololiuhqui, they are introduce to the most powerful sacrament, they are given the “Flesh of God”, Teonanacatl.
The Mazatec consider Salvia to be a holy sacrament, hence all of its names in some way reference spiritual divination and the Virgin Mary. When a curandero sets out to gather the leaves of this sacred plant they will take extra precaution not to accidentally step on any of the surrounding plants, they will kneel down and offer a prayer to the plant before and after they harvest its leaves. After the leaves have been used, the curandero will go out of their way to discard the plant remains in a secure place, where it will not be trampled on by other people or be disturbed by foraging animals.
For centuries the Mazatec have used S. divinorum, which they call Ska Maria Pastora in ceremonies to diagnose illnesses, aid in healing, see into the future, find lost objects, and identify robbers. If a precious object was lost in the forest, the Mazatec would call on a curandero to perform a sacred ritual. The curandero waits until dusk, places the person who lost the object in a very dark, quite place and offers a prayer to the plant. A potion is then made from the leaves of S. divinorum and administered to the person. While the person is experiencing the effects of the potion the curandero carefully listens to everything the person has to say. The following morning the curandero uses that information to assist in finding the lost object.
To this day, modern curanderos like Don Alejandro Vicente and Maria Sabina use the magical herb for the same divination and healing purposes, paying close attention to past traditions and performing these rituals in the same manner as their Mazatec ancestors. They follow the same harvesting dogma and prepare the potion in the same ritual manner.
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: The Mazatec curanderos prepared Salvia leaves in two ways depending on the purpose, either as a quid to be chewed or as an infused tea to be drunk. Recent research has shown that oral ingestion is not nearly as effective as quid chewing, because the salvinorin compounds are not water soluble, but they are easily absorbed sublingually through the mucous membrane (Ratsch 1998, 463).
Traditionally the curandero prepares an infused tea by gathering up to 80 freshly picked leaves, and crushing and squeezing them over a bowl of water until the green juices are released. The curandero then filters the concoction through a fine sieve to remove all of the plant material. A little more water is then added to the potion; the tea is finally poured into a glass and covered to prevent the vital forces from escaping. The remaining plant material is set aside to be discarded in an appropriate place. Depending on the type of ceremony both the curandero and the patient consume the tea, or just the patient take the tea while the curandero guides the patient through the experience. A potion made from 20 leaves was given to beginners with no experience, while a potion made from 50 to 80 leaves was given to the more experienced participants. The potion was only viable for one day and was generally consumed immediately after preparation (Valdes 1983).
When consumed as a quid, the curandero counts out between 8 and 26 freshly harvested leaves, always counting out an even number of leaves. The leaves are laid out and rolled tightly to make a quid. The quid is placed between the cheek and teeth, or under the tongue and slowly chewed. The plant juices are kept in the mouth for as long as possible but never swallowed (Valdes 1983).
MEDICINAL USES: The curanderos use S. divinorum leaves to cure many common ailments among the Mazatec people. In lower doses it is used as a cure-all to relieve headaches, arthritis, anemia, digestive problems, and constipation, as well as diarrhea. At higher doses the curanderos use the leaves to treat alcoholism and to revitalize patients that are deathly ill. It is also used to help treat mysterious diseases that are caused by evil witchcraft. The curanderos call these diseases Panzon de barrego, or swollen lamb’s belly (Valdes et al. 1987).
There are also modern reports of Salvia being used to successfully treat depression in patients that were unable to find relief from standard treatments and antidepressant drugs. In one case an individual who had been suffering from chronic depression that was resistant to treatments began to chew quids of 2-3 leaves of Salvia divinorum three times a week. She experienced complete remission of the depression (Hanes 2001).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: In 1982 Alferdo Ortega et al. were the first to isolate the main psychoactive compound present in Salvia, naming it Salvinorin, although they made no mention of the compound’s possible bioactivity. Simultaneously, another team of scientists lead by Leander Valdes isolated the same compound in addition to another closely related compound from the leaves of S. divinorum, naming the compounds divinorin A and divinorin B. However, because Ortega et al. had their work published first, Valdes et al. conceded the naming rights, and called the compounds salvinorin A and salvinorin B. As of today, researchers have isolated 6 different psychoactive compounds present in the plant: Salvinorin A, B, C, D, E, and F; with Salvinorin A being the most potent of the group. Salvinorin A is the most potent naturally occurring psychoactive compound known to man. When vaporized, its effects can be felt with as little as 150 micrograms (Valdes et al. 1983).
In July 1961 Gordon Wasson participated in a healing ceremony lead by a Mazatec curandera. A tea was prepared for Wasson made from 68 freshly harvested leaves. He later described this experience as coming on much quicker, but being very similar to his previous experience under the influence of Psilocybe mushrooms. Wasson explained that during this experience he saw “dancing colors in elaborate, three-dimensional designs”. One year later, Wasson brought Albert Hofmann and Mrs. Hofmann to Oaxaca, Mexico to experience the sacred Mazatec healing ceremony. Albert Hofmann was given a tea prepared from 10 leaves, while his wife was given a tea prepared from six leaves. Mrs. Hofmann said she “saw striking, brightly bordered images”, while Mr. Hofmann described his experience as being “a state of mental sensitivity, and intense experience” (Wasson 1963).
Other people who have participated in the sacred Mazatec healing ceremony have described their experience as seeing “a series of complex and slowly changing visual patterns that occurred only in complete quite with closed eyes.” These visual hallucinations were frequently accompanied by feelings of relaxation, physical lightness and tingling tactile sensations; feelings like they are floating and soaring through the sky. At higher doses the experience creates vivid open eye hallucinations, described as producing colorful kaleidoscopic and smoky visions of nature, flowers, leaves, and the wilderness. The experience engenders a greater sense of self-confidence, personal insight, increased feelings of intuition, wisdom, and a profound connection with nature.
When the leaves were chewed as a quid the effects were reported to begin taking effect in as little as 5 minutes, peaking after 30 minutes and tapering off over the next hour. When prepared and drunk as a tea the effects can begin in as little as 20 minutes and climax after one hour, with the effects tapering off over the next 4 hours. Today many natives smoke the dried leaves, holding the smoke in their lungs for 30 seconds; they report that the effects begin almost immediately, climaxing in 15 minutes and gradually subsiding over the next 45 minutes.
MORE SALVIA ARTICLES
Boire, Richard; Russo, Ethan; Fish, Adam; et al. 2002. Salvia Divinorum – Information Concerning the Plant and its Active Principle. The Salvia Divinorum Defense Fund. Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics.
Clebsch, Betsy. 2008. The New Book of Salvias: Sages for Every Garden; 2nd Edition. Portland, OR; Timber Press: 106 – 108.
Hanes, Karl R. 2001. Antidepressant Effects of the Herb Salvia Divinorum: A Case Report. Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology 21 (6): 634 – 635.
Imanshahidi, Moshen; Hosseinzadeh, Hossein. 2006. The Pharmacological Effects of Salvia Species on the Central Nervous System. Phytotherapy Research 20: 427 – 437.
Johnson, J.B. “Some Notes on the Mazatec.” Revista Mexicana De Estudios Antropológicos 3 (1939): 142–156.
Ott, Jonathan. 1996. Psychoactive Card IV. Salvia Divinorum Epling et Jativa: Leaves of the Shepherdess. Eleusis 4 (April): 31 – 39.
Riesfield, Aaron S. 1993. The Botany of Salvia Divinorum (Labiatae). SIDA, Contributions to Botany 15 (3): 349 – 366.
Siebert, Daniel. 1994. Salvia Divinorum and Salvinorin A: New Pharmacological Findings. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 43 (1): 53 – 56. (PDF)
Valdes, Leander. 1994. Salvia Divinorum and the Unique Diterpene Hallucinogen, Salvinorin (Divinorin) A. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 26 (3): 277 – 283.
Valdes, Leander. 2001. The Early History of Salvia Divinorum. The Entheogen Review X (1): 73 – 75.
Valdes, Leander; Hatfield, G.M; Koreeda, M; Paul, A.G. 1987. Studies of Salvia Divinorum (Lamiaceae), an Hallucinogenic Mint from the Sierra Mazateca in Oaxaca, Central Mexico. Economic Botany 41 (2): 283 – 291.
Valdes, Leander; Diaz, Jose L; Paul, Ara G. 1983. Ethnopharmacology of ska Maria Pastora (Salvia Divinorum, Epling and Jativa-M). Journal of Ethnopharmacology 7 (3): 287 – 312.
Wasson, R.G. “A New Mexican Psychotropic Drug from the Mint Family.” Botanical Museum Leaflets 20, no. 3 (1962): 77–84.
Wasson, R. Gordon. 1963. Notes on the Present Status of Ololiuhqui and Other Hallucinogens of Mexico. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University 20 (6): 161 – 212.