Erythrina berteroana is a shrub-like tree that may grow up to 30 feet tall! It has thorny branches and 2-4 inch long leaves which grow on groups of three. The flowers are red and 1-3 inches long and grow in loose clusters. The seeds are bright red and shaped like beans (Ratsch 1998, 237).
Erythrina berteroana grows in Guatemala, El Salvador, and southern Mexico. It is tough to grow from seed, but easy to grow from cuttings of mature branches. It likes a good amount of water but must not be over-watered, and does not tolerate any cold or frost (Ratsch 1998, 237).
TRADITIONAL USES: Young E. berteroana flowers are cooked and eaten as vegetables in Guatemala and El Salvador, and if a large quantity are consumed, sedation and deep sleep will occur. The branches may be crushed to produce a fish poison. The trees are also used to create living fences, and are grown in Theobroma cacao orchards to provide the plants with the shade they need to grow (Morton 1994).
Since ancient times, the beautiful bright red seeds of the E. berteroana tree have been used to make necklaces and other jewelry. In the markets of southern and central Mexico, strings of the seeds may still be purchased (Ratsch 1998, 238). The seeds also have a long history of being used by the Maya for purposes of divination, though the exact method used is not presently known.
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: One quarter to one half of a seed may be chewed and swallowed to experience the sedative, aphrodisiac effects of the plant. To prepare the young flowers as a vegetable, they are harvested before they open and turn red, and may be cooked in any way. However, sedative effects are only experienced when eating large quantities. Once the flowers have opened, the calyx may be eaten as a vegetable. The young leaves and twigs are also edible when cooked, but are not particularly tasty. They may be simmered to create a sedative tea (Voogelbreinder 2009).
MEDICINAL USE: The flowers or young leaves and shoots may be steeped in hot water to make a sedative tea for sleep induction. The sedative effects generally come on within thirty minutes of taking the tea (Morton 1994). A tea prepared from the flowers is used in Guatemala to treat hormonal and menstrual imbalances in women, and to alleviate hemorrhages, dysentery, and anxiety. It is thought that just placing the flowers and leaves beneath the pillow will allow for restful sleep (Duke 1972).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: The seeds and flowers of E. berteroana contain erythrina alkaloids. These alkaloids are responsible for the sedative effects of the plants. A new alkaloid, erythratine-N-oxide, has been isolated from this particular species (Soto-Hernandez & Jackson 1994).
The effects of E. berteroana seeds are narcotic, sedative, and mildly inebriating. Spanish Priests who came to the Americas reported that local women often consumed the seeds for their aphrodisiac effects – specifically, deep sleep with intensely erotic dreams. Overdose leads to fever, chest and abdominal pain, and intoxication (Ratsch 1998, 238). Consuming too many seeds may be fatally toxic, and at the very least will lead to vomiting and diarrhea, so care is very important when working with this plant.
Morton, J. “Pito (Erythrina Berteroana) and Chipilin (Crotalaria Longirostrata), (Fabaceae), Two Soporific Vegetables of Central America.” Economic Botany 48, no. 2 (1994): 130–138.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Soto-Hernandez, M., and H.A. Jackson. “Erythrina Alkaloids: Isolation and Characterisation of Alkaloids from Seven Erythrina Species.” Planta Medica 60 (1994): 175–177.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.