Psychotria is distributed in the warm and tropical regions of both hemispheres. They are low to tall shrubs or small trees, sometimes epiphytic. Approximately 1,200 species are described, of which about 800 are valid taxa. Classification of Psychotria species is very difficult, even for trained botanists. Skilled shamans often recognize “kinds” of chacruna which are indistinguishable to botanists.
Principal active biochemicals: the tryptamine alkaloid N, N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and beta-carbolines are present in the leaves of P. viridis, P. carthaginensis and possibly other species. These species are a fundamental component of the Ayahuasca medicine in most of western Amazonia. Phytosterols are also present. A complex alkaloid, psychotrine, has been isolated from P. beccaroides.
In Perú, Ecuador, Colombia, and parts of Brazil, the leaves of Psychotria viridis and P. carthaginensis are commonly prepared with ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) to make the ceremonial visionary healing medicine Ayahuasca. Research is under way in the Peruvian Amazon to better understand the specific biochemistry and effects of other species of Psychotria.
In some areas and practices, oco yajé, also known as chaliponga or chagraponga (Diplopterys cabrerana = B. rusbyana) or other plants are used in addition to or instead of chacruna.
Dimethyltryptamines (including 5-methoxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine) are present in the leaves of D. cabrerana but not in Psychotria. Diplopterys is favored by shamans in some parts of Ecuador and Colombia, but is less often used in the Peruvian Amazon where chacruna is by far the preferred companion plant.
Diplopterys leaves are 5-10 times more potent than an equivalent amount of Psychotria, so fewer leaves are used.
The leaves of either plant are not psychoactive if eaten or smoked due to the relatively low alkaloid content and rapid breakdown of alkaloids by monoamine oxidase, a natural human enzyme. In the Ayahuasca preparation, beta-carbolines present in the harmala alkaloids temporarily inhibit monoamine oxidase function, rendering the tryptamine alkaloids orally active.
Not all species of Psychotria possess psychotropic alkaloids. Some are poisonous and others are used for a variety of medicinal purposes.
Among these varied uses are:
P. alboviridula – a leaf concoction is prepared by the Tikunas to rub on the bites of fire ants.
P. brachiata – An infusion of the leaves is consumed to treat breathing problems by the Makuna tribe, who warn it must be used with care since it is toxic in excess.
P. brachybotrys – Leaves crushed in water are applied to the eyes as drops by the Andokes people to obtain “clear vision”, who say it helps see animals in the hunt and allows one to “see with understanding”.
P. capitata – A decoction of the leaves is consumed hot by the Karapanás to relieve congestion from severe colds.
P. cuspidata – Natives of southern Colombia consider the fruits and seeds to be poisonous.
P. egensis – The Yukuna people value the leaves for their emetic properties.
P. erecta – The Karapanás say the fruit is extremely toxic. They use it in preparation of one of their forms of curare, as do the Witotos.
P. involucrata – the leaves are used as a fish poison in southern Colombia.
Psychotria poeppigiana – In the borderlands between Perú and Colombia, the root is used as a treatment for pulmonary ailments. A hot drink is consumed and also rubbed on the chest.
P. racemosa – In the borderlands between Perú and Colombia, the fruits are used to kill rats.
P. rufescens – In Mocoa, the root is said to cure dysentery.
P. uliginosa – the leaves are a source of a dark blue or black dye used for ceremonial body painting by Indians in the Río Miritiparaná region.
Botanically undescribed taxa of Psychotria distinguished by various Amazonian indigenous tribes.
“usija-buhñu ” (Witoto); man’-na-ree-tê-pê (Kabuyarí); cresta de gallo – a leave infusion is used to treat respiratory ailments and, among the Kabuyarí, given to women before copulation, perhaps as a contraceptive.
“kau-ma-no” (Karijona) – used in making curare.
“kua-ra-chi-rri” (Karijona) – also used in making curare.
“oo-roo-cha-va-see’-kê” (Tikuna) – The Tikunas say the bark is caustic to the skin.
“batsikawa” (Sharanahua); ” rami-appane” (Kulina) – The Sharanahua of the Peruvian Amazon add leaves to Ayahuasca to “produce fewer visions and give the impression of coldness”.
“pishikawa”; “kawa-kui ” (Sharanahua) – Leaves of pishikawa are added to Ayahuasca, and are said to be stronger than batsikawa.
Schultes, R.E. and R.F. Raffauf. 1995. The Healing Forest: medicinal and toxic plants of the northwest Amazonia, Dioscorides Press, Portland, Or. ISBN 0-931146-14-3