COMMON NAMES: Cumala Tree, Parika, Yakohana
Most, if not all, species of Virola have a copious red “resin” in the inner bark. The resin of a number of species is prepared as an hallucinogenic snuff or formed into small pellets. The most widely used species is thought to be Virola theiodora, a slender tree, 25-75 ft (7.5-23 m) in height, native to the forests of the western Amazon basin. The cylindrical trunk, 11/2 ft (46cm) in diameter, has a characteristic smooth bark which is brown mottled with gray patches. The leaves (which have a tea-like fragrance when dried) are oblong or broadly ovate, 31/2-13 in. (9-33 cm) long, 11/2-41/2 in. (4-11 cm) wide. The male inflorescences are many-flowered, usually brown or gold, shorter than the leaves. The very small flowers, borne singly or in clusters of 2 to 10, are extremely pungent. The fruit is subglobose, 3/8-3/4 in. (1-2 cm) by 1/4-5/8 in. (1/2-11/2 cm); the seed is covered for half its length by a membranaceous orange-red aril (Hofmann et al. 1992, 60).
Members of this genus are mostly found in Amazonia and adjacent areas. Some species also occur in Central America. One species, Virola guatemalensis, may be found in southern Mexico and Guatemala (Ratsch 1998, 529).
TRADITIONAL USES: According to the Tukano, Viho, the Virola snuff was first acquired when the Sun God had incestuous relations with his daughter. She scratched his penis and received the Viho. Thus the Tukano received this sacred snuff from the sun’s semen. Since it is sacred, it is kept in containers called muhipu-nuri, or “penis of the sun”. Viho enables the Tukano to consult the spirit world, particularly a deity known as Viho-mahse, the “snuff-person,” who lives in the Milky Way. When a shaman wants to contact the spirits, she must first contact Viho-mahse (Hofmann et al. 1992, 176).
This snuff is one of the most important tools of the Paye, or medicine worker. It is only in the western Amazon and adjacent parts of the Orinoco basin that this genus has been used as an entheogen, despite the fact that there are numerous species all over South America. V. theiodora is the most frequently used, although there are a number of other species that are also effective (Hofmann et al. 1992, 176)
Certain tribes ingest the red “bark-resin” of B. elongata directly, with no preparation. Other tribes swallow pellets made from the paste of the “resin”. Shamans in Venezuela may smoke the bark of V. sebifera “at dances when curing fevers”, or they may boil the bark and drink the liquor “to drive away evil spirits.” Although the mythological significance and magico-religious use of this snuff indicates that it has been used since antiquity, the substance only recently began to receive attention from researchers (Hofmann et al. 1992, 176).
In northwestern Brazil, this snuff and other entheogenic snuffs are usually called Parica. Unlike the Colombian Indians, among whom the use of the snuff is usually restricted to shamans, these peoples use the substance in daily life. All male members of a tribe who are above the age of thirteen or fourteen participate. The substance is often used in frighteningly excessive amounts and, in at least one annual ceremony, is consumed constantly over a two-or three-day period (Hofmann et al. 1992, 178).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: Among the Columbians, the bark is stripped from the trees in the early morning and the soft, inner layers are scraped. The shavings are kneaded in cold water for twenty minutes. The brownish liquid is then filtered and boiled down to a thick syrup which, when dried, is pulverized and mixed with the ashes of the bark of a wild cacao tree (Schultes 1954).
The various groups of the Waika tribe have several other methods of preparation. Those living in the Orinoco shave the inner layer of the bark and trunk and gently dry the shavings over a fire so that they may be stored for future use. When a supply of the snuff is needed, the shavings are wetted and boiled for half an hour or more, the resulting liquid being reduced to a syrup, which, after drying, is ground to a powder and finely sifted. This dust is then mixed with equal amounts of a powder prepared from the dried, aromatic leaves of a small plant, Justicia pectoralis var. stenophylla, which is cultivated just for this purpose. Then, the ashes of the bark of an Ama or Amasita (Elizabetha princeps) tree are cut into small pieces and placed into burning embers until they become ash (Schultes and Holmstedt 1968 cited in Ratsch 1998, 531).
In more eastern areas of Waika in Brazil, the preparation of the snuff takes place mainly in the forest. Trees are felled and long strips of bark are peeled from the trunk. A copious flow of liquid which rapidly turns blood-red accumulates on the inner surface of the bark. After gently heating the strips, the shaman gathers the “resin” into an earthenware pot which is set on a fire. When the pot of red liquid is reduced to a thick syrup, it is sun-dried, crystallizing into a beautiful amber-red solid that is meticulously ground to an extremely fine dust-like consistency. This powder – Nyakwana snuff – may be employed directly, but usually the pulverized leaves of Justicia are added “to make it smell better” (Hofmann et al. 1992, 178).
The Desana of Colombia combine the inner bark of Virola calophylla and V. theiodora with powdered tabacco (Nicotiana tabacum), powdered coca leaves, Cecropia leaf ash, powdered B. caapi vine, or lime scrapped from stalactites (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1979).
MEDICINAL USES: The resin of Virola plays an important role in tribal medicine, particularly as an antifungal. The resin is spread over infected areas of the skin to cure ringworm and similar dermatological problems of fungal origin which common in the humid tropical rain forests. Only certain species are chosen for this therapeutic use, and the choice seems not to have any relationship to the psychoactive properties of the species (Hofmann et al. 1992, 180).
The bark of various species is smoked to reduce fevers and boiled to dispel evil spirits. One species is even said to be an effective contraceptive. Many species are used to stimulant the mind and improve memory and intelligence (Plotkin & Schultes 1990).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: The psychoactive effects of Virola snuff are thought to be a result of an exceptionally high concentration of tryptamine alkaloids present in the resin. Snuff prepared from Virola theiodora can have up to eight percent tryptamine alkaloids, including N,N-DMT and 5-MeO-DMT. Two other alkaloids found in the resin act as MAO inhibitors, which allow the resin to have a psychoactive effect when consumed orally (Ratsch 1998, 532).
The effects of Virola snuff are noticeable within minutes of initial use. One first experiences increased excitability, followed by numbing of the limbs, an uncontrollable twitching of the face, a lack of muscle control, nausea, and often vomiting. Macropsia – seeing objects in the visual field greatly enlarged – is characteristic of Virola snuff use, and this may contribute to the Waika beliefs about the gigantic hekulas, the spirits who dwell in the Virola trees and who meddle in the affairs of men. Shamans under the influence of the snuff often gesture and vocalize wildly, as they are in combat with these massive beings (Schultes 1976).
Schultes reported that the effects of the snuff were very intense and not at all pleasant. Shamans are reported to enter a dreamlike trance phase. It has even been reported that a shaman died when under the influence of the snuff, possibly due to the very high amounts that are reported necessary to consume as snuff in order to achieve a state of trance. Sublingual consumption of the bark resin results in relaxation and mild enhancement of the senses lasting several hours. This is possibly due to the potential for 5-MeO-DMT to be absorbed sublingually at low levels (Schultes 1976).
Hofmann, A., Ratsch, C., Schultes, R., Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1992.
Plotkin, M.J., and R.E. Schultes. “Virola: A Promising Genus for Ethnopharmacological Investigation.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 22 (1990): 356–361.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Reichel-Dolmatoff, G. “Some Source Materials on Desana Shamanistic Initiation.” Antropologia 51 (1979): 27–61.
Schultes, R.E. “A New Narcotic Snuff from the Northwest Amazon.” Botanical Museum Leaflets 16, no. 9 (1954): 241–260.
Schultes, R.E., The Golden Guide Hallucinogenic Plants. Houston: Golden Press, 1976.