Salvia botany botanical information
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Indigenous Use
Botany of Salvia
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Review of Literature
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Salvia Cultivation

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THE BOTANY OF SALVIA DIVINORUM

Review of Literature


Botany of Salvia - introductory photoAlthough the use of the mushrooms and morning glories was documented by the Spanish conquistadores and chroniclers who arrived in Mexico during the Sixteenth Century (Wasson, 1963), the literature on S. divinorum is relatively recent. Wasson originally proposed that this Salvia was the plant known to the Spanish by the Nahuatl (Aztec) name of pipiltzintzintli, but new investigations suggest that the Mexican name probably refers to Cannabis sativa L. (Díaz, 1979).

There are a number of common names for S. divinorum and nearly all are related to the plant's association with the Virgin Mary. It is known to the Mazatecs as ska María or ska Pastora and the sage is also known by a number of Spanish names including hojas de María, hojas de la Pastora, hierba (yerba) María or la María. The Mazatecs believe this Salvia to be an incarnation of the Virgin Mary, and care is taken to avoid trampling on or damaging it when picking the leaves, which are used both for curing and in divination (Fig. 2).

Attempts at the identification of ska María Pastora were carried out in conjunction with anthropological expeditions led by one of Mexico's leading anthropologists, the former Austrian engineer, Roberto G. Weitlaner, who rediscovered native use of hallucinogenic mushrooms among the Mazatecs in 1936 (Wasson, 1963). On a field trip in 1938, Weitlaner's future son-in-law, the American anthropologist, Jean B. Johnson learned that the Mazatecs employed a "tea" made from the beaten leaves of a "hierba Maria" for divination. The preparation was used in a manner similar to the "narcotic" mushrooms and the semillas de la Virgen, which were later identified as morning glory seeds (Johnson, 1939). Blas P. Reko, who knew Weitlaner well, referred to a "magic plant" employed by the Cuicatec and Mazatec Indians to produce visions. It was known as the hoja de adivinación (leaf of prophecy) and although Reko could not identify the plant, it was probably S. divinorum (Reko, 1945).

In 1952 Weitlaner reported the use of a yerba (hierba) de María by the Mazatecs in Jalapa de Díaz, a small Oaxacan village. According to his informant the leaves of this plant were gathered by curanderos (shamans or healers), who went up into the mountains and harvested them after a session of kneeling and prayer. For use in "curing" the foliage was rubbed between the hands and an infusion of from 50 to 100 leaves was prepared, the higher dose being used for alcohol "addicts". Around midnight the curandero, the patient and another person went to a dark quiet place (perhaps a house) where the patient ingested the potion. After about 15 min the effects became noticeable. The subject would go into a semi-delirious trance and from his speech the curandero made a diagnosis and then ended the session by bathing the patient in a portion of the infusion that had been set aside. The bath supposedly ended the intoxicated state. In addition to such "curing", the yerba María also served for divination of robbery or loss (Weitlaner, 1952).

Five years later the Mexican botanist, A. Gómez Pompa, collected specimens of a Salvia known as "xka (sic) Pastora". He noted that the plant was used as an hallucinogen (alucinante) and a dose was prepared from 8 to 12 pairs of leaves. Since flowering material was not available, the sage could not be identified past the generic level (Gómez Pompa, 1957). The holotype specimen of S. divinorum was acquired by Wasson and Hofmann in 1962 while they were traveling with Weitlaner. Flowering plants were brought to them in the village of San José Tenango, as they were not permitted to visit the locality in which ska María Pastora grew. This collection was sent to Epling and Játiva-M. who described it as a new species of Salvia, S. divinorum (Wasson, 1962; Epling and Játiva-M., 1962).

Wasson was the first to personally describe the effects of ska Pastora, relating the experiences he and member of his party had on ingestion of different doses of a beverage prepared from the plant's foliage. At a session in July 1961 in which he participated, a curandera (female shamans are very common among the Mazatecs and other Mexican peoples) squeezed the juice of 34 pairs of leaves by hand into a glass and added water. Wasson drank the dark fluid and wrote that although the effects came on much faster than those of the mushrooms, they lasted a much shorter time. He saw only "dancing colors in elaborate, three-dimensional designs" (Wasson, 1962). Summing up the experience, he later stated (pers. comm):


A number of us (including me) had tried the infusion of the leaves and we thought we experienced something, though much weaker than the Psilocybe species of mushroom.

Hofmann and his wife, Anita, who accompanied Wasson on an expedition the following year, took an infusion prepared from five and three pairs of S. divinorum leaves, respectively. Mrs. Hofmann "saw striking, brightly bordered images" while Hofmann found himself "in a state of mental sensitivity and intense experience, which, however, was not accompanied by hallucinations" (Hofmann, 1980).

María Sabina, the Mazatec shaman made famous by Wasson, and who lives in the Mazatec highland town of Huautla, in Oaxaca, briefly mentioned her use of the plant in her autobiography (Estrada, 1977):

If I have a sick person during the season when the mushrooms are not available, I resort to the hojas de la Pastora. Crushed (molido) and taken, they work like the "children" (i.e., the mushrooms). Of course, the Pastora doesn't have as much strength.

Roquet and Ganc reported that the Mazatecs prepared a dose of S. divinorum from 120 pairs of crushed leaves and used the plant only when the mushrooms and morning-glory seeds were not available. Roquet and his associates used the plant twice in their psychiatric investigations of Mexican hallucinogenic plants and stated that they had difficulties in working with it (Roquet, 1972).

José Luis Díaz and his coworkers studied the use of ska María Pastora in the Mazatec highlands during the 1970's. Díaz himself took the Salvia infusion under the supervision of a shaman, Doña J., on six different occasions, noting an increased awareness of the plant's effects each time. The first changes he perceived were a series of complex and slowly changing visual patterns that occurred only in complete quiet with closed eyes. There were no colored geometric patterns which characteristically occur with ingestion of other hallucinogens nor were there auditory images. After a short time he noticed peripheral phenomena, such as a feeling of lightness in the extremities and odd sensations in the joints. The climax of effects, accompanied by dizziness or nausea (mareo), lasted about 10 min and disappeared about 0.5 h after ingestion of the infusion. Other, more subtle, effects seemed to persist for a few hours (Díaz, 1975a).

Hofmann (Hofmann, 1964) and Díaz (Díaz, 1975a) each investigated S. divinorum chemically without isolating and identifying any active principle. As noted above, the descriptions in the literature emphasize the mildness of the plant's effects. There are many ways to achieve visions other than by ingestion of classically defined "hallucinogens" such as mescaline, LSD and psilocybin. Among these are meditation, prayer, mental illness, disease (especially when accompanied by fever), poisoning, experiences of dying, and suggestion (placebo effect). Therefore, prior to conduction chemical and animal studies, we decided to attempt to clarify the role of S. divinorum as a vision inducer among the Mazatec Indians.

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