COMMON NAMES: Yohimbe, Liebesbaum, Pau de Cabinda (Portuguese), Yohambine (Arabic), Yohimbehe (French), Pausinystalia yohimbe
The Pausinystalia yohimbe plant is an evergreen which can grow to a height of almost one hundred feet. It bears a slight resemblance to the oak tree.It has oval attenuated leaves with bushy inflorescences that produce winged seeds. The light or gray-brown bark is about a third of an inch thick with horizontal and vertical fissures and is usually overgrown with lichens. It is the bark of this tree that is the source of the prized psychoactive yohimbine alkaloids. The tree is native to the tropical forests of Nigeria and Cameroon, and the jungles of the Congo (Ratsch 1998, 422-423).
TRADITIONAL USES: Since ancient times the bark of the yohimbe tree has been employed in Africa as an aphrodisiac, especially among the Bantu people. It is probable that the ancient Egyptians were aware of, and even imported, the bark of the yohimbe tree through trade channels with West Africa. The yohimbe tree has long been held in high regard as an aphrodisiac and stimulant in Cameroon where the bark of the yohimbe tree is used in folk medicine to treat impotence resulting from black magic and witchcraft (Dalziel 1937).
It is likely that yohimbe was once used in western Africa as an initiatory drink in fetish and ancestor spirituality, as well as for initiations into secret societies. An initiation ritual was described by an explorer in West Africa who traveled to the region in the late 19th century. Black magic sorcerers gave followers a yohimbe drink to prepare them for a great initiation. After imbibing the potion, the subject’s nerves would tense up in an extreme manner and an epileptic-type fit would overcome them. During this fit, the subjects would begin to unconsciously utter words that, when heard by the initiated, held prophetic meaning and demonstrated that the spirits were successfully dwelling within the initiate (Rouhier 1927 cited in Ratsch 1998, 423).
The Masai of East Africa call their warrior ritual drug otoriki or simply ol motori, meaning “the soup.” It is cooked from the bark of the yohimbe tree together with the roots of Acokanthera – a substance that the Masai also use as a poison for arrow heads. Since most archaic drug rituals almost always include an animal sacrifice, the Masai kill a bull when they prepare for the warrior ritual. They collect its blood in a vessel, and then mix it into the finished brew of yohimbe bark and root pieces (Leippe 1997 cited in Ratsch 1998, 424).
The motoriki drink produces an epilepsy-like tetanus in which the Morani – the young Masai warriors enduring the initiation – are visited by horrible visions in which they fight with demons and wild, savage animals. The terrible hallucinations are so strong that they must be watched over and held onto so that they will not injure themselves or others. There are numerous deaths reported due to Morani running amok while under the influence, or due to respiratory failure. However, it is said those that survive this ritual will no longer have any fear (Leippe 1997 cited in Ratsch 1998, 424).
The use of yohimbe bark is well established in Nigeria, Gabon and Cameroon. It is used as a stimulant and aphrodisiac, but is said to disturb one’s sanity when taken in high doses. It is also used by the Bantu of West Africa in fertility rituals that can last up to 15 days, with the bark being consumed continuously over that period. Some tribes are also said to consume it along with Tabernanthe iboga as an initiation rite. The plant is also fed to hunting dogs along with meat as a stimulant, and is used as a fish poison in Gabon. Similarly, in the Ivory Coast region the bark is used as an ingredient in arrow poisons (Voogelbreinder 2009, 140).
In the early 20th century, yohimbe bark and yohimbine enjoyed great popularity in Germany as a psychoactive aphrodisiac. Today, yohimbe is used chiefly in North America but also throughout Europe for sexual magic rituals that borrow from the Indian Tantras and the techniques of various occultists such as Aleister Crowley. Yohimbe is also known to be used as a sacrament in pagan wedding ceremonies (Ratsch 1998, 423).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATIONS: The German chemist Spiegel isolated the alkaloid yohimbine from the bark of the yohimbe tree in the late 19th century. The psychoactive properties of the yohimbe tree are derived from the bark. The alkaloids can only be extracted from the bark after it has dried. The dried bark can be prepared as an extract in alcohol as a tincture, or brewed as a tea. To make tea, six teaspoons of dried yohimbe bark may be boiled with water and 500 mg of vitamin C per person, then sipped slowly. A recipe that can be used to decoct a tea which will produce a firm erection indicates one tablespoon of dried yohimbe bark, one teaspoon of crushed dita seeds (Alstonia scholaris), one tablespoon of broken up cola nuts and one tablespoon of sasparilla. All ingredients are boiled together for ten minutes, then sipped slowly. The vitamin C increases the absorption of yohimbine and other alkaloids in the bark and also reduces nausea (Ratsch 1998, 423).
The pharmaceutical industry uses yohimbe extracts to manufacture aphrodisiacs and medicines to treat impotence. These extracts are usually combined with atropine, Tunera diffusa, Strychnos nux-vomica, Stychnos, Lirisoma ovata or other substances. The bark is also used in aphrodisiac smoking blends, mixed with other soothing and stimulating herbs. Most preparations of the bark produce mild, subtle euphoric effects (Brown & Malone 1978). Since it is often difficult to obtain high quality bark material, it is important to start dosing at a low dose to ensure that no negative effects are experienced.
MEDICINAL USES: Preparations containing yohimbe are used in modern phytotherapy and in Western medicine to treat low sex drive and impotence. Yohimbe is also used in veterinary medicine. In homeopathic medicine, it is said to arouse the sexual organs, affect the central nervous and respiratory systems and to help with congestive conditions of the sexual organs, including hyperemia of the mammary glands, as it stimulates milk production (Ratsch 1998, 423).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: The bark of the trunks of trees that are older than fifteen to twenty years contain two to fifteen percent indole alkaloids consisting of yohimbine, coryine, quebrachine, corynanthidine, isoyohimbine, mesoyohimbine, rauwolscine, amsonine, yohimbinine, corynanthine, corynanthein, dihydrocorynanthein, alloyohimbine, pseudoyohimbine, tetrahydromethylcorynanthein and ajmalcine (Oliver 1982).
In addition to its sexual stimulant and aphrodisiac qualities, the bark of the yohimbe tree has been reported hallucinogenic when smoked. These psychoactive effects are due primarily to the main active constituent yohimbine. Yohimbine has sympatholytic and local anesthetic effects much like those of cocaine. It also has vasodilating effects, especially on the sex organs. Yohimbine stimulates the release of noradrenaline at the nerve endings. This makes noradrenaline available in the corpus cavernosum, resulting in sexual stimulation and ultimately in an erection in men (Oliver-Bever 1982).
The bark is available without restriction, while the pure alkaloids require a prescription. Ten drops of a pure 1% solution of yohimbe extract is said to stimulate the sexual organs of both men and women. Both sexes report feelings of mild euphoria and, when taken in high concentrations, yohimbe extract has been reported to produce hallucinations and other-worldly experiences (Voogelbreinder 2009, 140).
Potential Dangers of Yohimbe/Yohimbine
There are widely varied reports about the dangers of Yohimbine, partly because, we suspect, it has been used as a hallucinogen by African tribes throughout history. The governments of Canada, Australia, Norway, Finland & United Kingdom have banned the trade of Yohimbe because of its potential to be life threatening, and the FDA in the United States is looking into ways of banning it, just like Ephedra, but it is presently still legal.
Yohimbe is gaining in popularity, likely due to its ability to reportedly provide both hallucinogenic and highly stimulating experiences when taken in dosages of 50-100 mg. The herb can be quite dangerous when taken in doses over 50mg and mixed with other substances like ephedrine. Yohimbe is also used in tantric rituals and, when taken in excess, can be dangerous and unpleasant, causing many side effects such as severe nausea, intense irritability, and stomach and colon reactions. In some cases Yohimbe can cause dangerously altered blood pressure. A drug that can both dilate or collapse veins, thus preventing blood flow, can be quite dangerous for people with blood pressure or heart issues.
Yohimbe is a mild MAO inhibitor, meaning that it inhibits the Monoamine oxidase enzyme which destroys amines that might be toxic to the body. Therefore, in order to avoid physical repercussions, one may want to avoid certain foods before working with yohimbe, such as cheese, fermented foods and drinks, chocolate, and bananas, as well as certain other visionary plants, such as mescaline-containing cacti. It should not be taken with amphetamines or by anyone with kidney, liver, or heart problems, or by hypoglycemics or diabetics. Yohimbe may also be dangerous in combination with tricyclic antidepressant medications and SSRI antidepressant medications.
So, when working with any herbal product or unfamiliar entheogen, start off at a low dose, and pay close attention to any reactions. It is better to feel nothing, than to find yourself in an unpleasant, or worse, dangerous situation.
Brown, J.K., and M.H. Malone. “‘Legal Highs’ – Constituents, Activity, Toxicology, and Herbal Folklore.” Clinical Toxicology 12, no. 1 (1978): 1–31.
Dalziel, J.M. The Useful Plants of West Tropical Africa. London: Crown Agents, 1937.
Oliver-Bever, B. “Medicinal Plants in Tropical West Africa.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 5, no. 1 (1982): 1–71.
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.