COMMON NAMES: Bakana, Bakanoa, Bulrush
Scirpus atrovirens is a perrenial sedge grass with erect stems that are jointed, slender or stout. Leaves are grass-like, the principle blades up to 18mm wide. Inflorescence are a terminal panicle with multiple rays branched once or twice, densely crowned. The fruit is a nut which is smooth and very pale to white. Scirpus atrovirens is native to North America and prefers damp soils in light woodland (Hofmann et al. 1992, 56).
TRADITIONAL USES: The various species of the Scirpus genus are known as ‘bakana’ and are a respected shamanic plant of the Tarahumara of Mexico. The root tubers, known as bolitas, are ingested by shamans to induce deep sleep-like trance states and to communicate with spirits and ancestors. Some shamans also carry bakana to relieve pain (Ratsch 1998, 581).
The Tarahumara say that Scirpus atrovirens is a protector plant that can cure the mentally ill and insane, yet those who cultivate it are said to go insane due to the sounds the plant makes. Therefore, the Tarahumara buy it from mestizos, who cultivate it, or travel to where the plant is growing naturally to collect it (Ratsch 1998, 581).
Ethnobotanist Robert Bye says that bakana is the most important entheogen of the central and western Tarahumara, even more important than peyote. It is especially venerated by the elderly, to whom it is said to impart vigor. The plant is generally harvested in the western Sierra Tarahumara. The circle in which the offering is made to the root also faces west. In many cases it seems that bakana is not ingested, but is simply honored in ritual. According to one Tarahumaran shaman, “If god onoruame, the goddess maria mechaka, or the dead or the sacred plants hikuri and bakanowa go hungry, humans will become ill” (Deimel 1996, 12).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: The Tarahumara treat bakana with great fear and care. They sing to the roots and offer them food before eating them or rubbing them on the body. If the plant is mistreated in any way it is said the person responsible will become sick and die (Ratsch 1998, 581).
MEDICINAL USES: The plant is said to be capable of curing those who are insane and mentally ill, and is also a potent analgesic. The Cherokee use the related Scirpus validus (great bullrush) as an emetic. Scirpus articulatus root is used in India as a mild purgative, while the root of Scirpus grossus is combined with milk to make a remedy for individuals suffering from digestive troubles. This root can also be chewed to prevent nausea and to mask the taste of unpleasant medicines. In China, the rhizomes of Scirpus maritimus as an astringent and diuretic (Voogelbreinder 2009, 304).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: The Tarahumara say that the consumption of bakana produces a deep trance state in which the shaman experiences brilliant visions, travels great distances to other realms, and can speak to the dead. It is also said that this plant can make one ‘jump into fires’, so great care must be taken in its use (Deimel 1996).
Beta-carboline alkaloids have been detected in one unidentified species of Scirpus, but the species used by the Tarahumara has not been chemically analysed at this time. It is possible that these are ergot alkaloids. Scirpus maritimus has also been reported to contain some alkaloids. The seeds contain stilbenes and e-viniferin. Scirpusins have also been found in the rhizomes of Scirpus fluviatilis (Ratsch 1998, 581).
Deimel, Claus. 1996. Hikuri ba – Peyoteriten der Tarhumara. Anishcten der Ethnologie 1. Hannover: Niedersachsisches Landessmuseum.
Hofmann, A., Ratsch, C., Schultes, R., Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1992.
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