San Pedro Cactus

The South American columnar cactus Echinopsis pachanoi, though unlike peyote in appearance, has a similar history and use by Native Americans in Peru. Extending far back into antiquity, the temple of Chavin de Huantar, located high in the central Andes of Peru, contains a remarkable stone carving that represents one of the first images of a cactus. It is of a godlike figure combining the characteristics of an eagle and a serpent, who holds in his hand a piece of columnar cactus, almost certainly representing the San Pedro cactus. Dating to approximately 1300 b.c. (Davis 1983, 368) it predates by a fewyears ceramic items showing the San Pedro cactus. Ceramic "cigarettes," probably depicting the San Pedro cactus, have been found at a coastal site north of Lima near Casma with an age of about 3000 years; investigators suggest that these may represent a method by which early Native Americans obtained the psychotomimetic effects of mescaline (Ostolaza 1995). Other ceramic items from the same region and era show interesting combinations of jaguars and the cactus. The cactus, a high-mountain plant, probably was domesticated along the coast as early as the Early Intermediate Period (200 b.c. to a.d. 600) by the Nazca and other groups (Davis 1983,368).

Just as for peyote in Mexico, the Spanish went to considerable efforts to eradicate the use of the San Pedro cactus because it was believed to be a form of devil worship, but the practice continued among the mestizo culture of Peru despite the church's prohibitions. The cult slowly became a syncretic blend of Roman Catholic and pre-Hispanic elements, which explains the name, San Pedro cactus. Many Christians believe that St. Peter holds the keys to heaven; the effects of the cactus indicated to the mestizo people of Peru that it was the key for them to reach heaven while still on earth. Other vernacular names for Echi-nopsis pachanoi are huachuma in the northern Andes, achuma in Bolivia, and aguacolla and gigantón in Ecuador (Schultes and Hofmann 1979, 154-155). Ritual complexes involving a curandero or shaman have evolved in which the cactus is seen as having spirits who communicate with and carry out the leader's directions. The San Pedro cactus activates "an inner power of the curandero, enabling one to project an inner psychic force, to control the spirits, and to interact with

San Pedro Cactus

Stone carving at Huantar, Peru, representing Echinopsis pachanoi, San Pedro cactus the natural and supernatural energy fields, the vital essence of the world" (Schultes and Winkel-man 1995,226-227).

The San Pedro cactus is now used primarily for therapeutic purposes, which may include treatment of alcoholism and even mental illness. It also is perceived to have great power in undoing witchcraft and fighting against various forms of sorcery. Some even use it to heal ailments of the Echinopsis pachanoi, stomach, kidneys, liver, and blood. San Pedro Cactus, east of Sayan, Lima, Peru

Stone carving at Huantar, Peru, representing Echinopsis pachanoi, San Pedro cactus

Echinopsis Cactus Sunny Cultivar Plant

Preparation of San Pedro cactus, Echinopsis pach-anoi, in Peru, photograph by Douglas Sharon

Large pieces of the cactus stem are harvested and prepared by slicing as one would a loaf of bread. The pieces are boiled in water for as long as 7 hours, with other plants such as Datura often being added. A strict diet should be followed prior to ingesting the plant: animal fat, grease, salt, chili peppers, and pieces of plants that entangle (vines such as beans and other legumes) are excluded (Schultes and Winkelman 1995, 227). The preferred method of ingesting the San Pedro cactus is through the nose. Tobacco is often used in combination with the San Pedro cactus, for users believe that it enhances the effects of the cactus, clears the mind, and enhances the several effects such as visions, imagination, and sight. The psychotomimetic effects of the San Pedro cactus result from the alkaloid mescaline, which is also found in peyote. Concentrations of the alkaloid in the two cacti are similar according to Crosby and McLaughlin (1973,416), but Shulgin (1979, 42) claims that the San Pedro cactus, Echinopsis pachanoi, has only one-tenth as much mescaline. Shulgin further notes, however, that a related species, E. peruviana, has approximately the same mescaline content as peyote; it is known by some as San Pedro macho. Mescaline is also found in several other species of Echinopsis (syn. Trichoce-reus), including E. cuzcoensis, E. deserticola, E. ta-caquirensis, and E. uyupampensis (syn. E. valida?) (Agurell et al. 1971; Shulgin 1979). The effects of mescaline are the same as described for peyote. Marlene Dobkin (1968,192), in an early study of the mestizo use of San Pedro cactus, observed that its ingestion causes nausea and vomiting but that these are "important in purging the sick person of impurities." Davis (1983, 375) comments that there was minimal intoxication among the participants in ceremonies he witnessed.

The ritual consists of an all-night healing session composed of two parts. The first, led by the curandero who is under the influence of the San Pedro cactus, lasts about 2 hours and involves singing, praying, and whistling. In this first phase the curandero divines the cause of the patient's illness and how best to cure it. Both the patient and the curandero's assistants also take the San Pedro cactus and tobacco through the nose. All drink a cup of the San Pedro tea or infusion at the end of the first session. The second phase consists of the curandero's treating the patient through the use of various folk medicines derived from plants (Davis 1983,367). The cactus "permits the emergence of the visionary power of the curandero, who visualizes the aspects of the patient's life which represent the causes of the problems" (Schultes and Winkelman 1995, 228). Like peyote, the San Pedro cactus seems to provide a bridge between the traditional pre-Anglo culture and that of modern society. As one curandero stated, "San Pedro is always in tune with ('accounted' with) the saints, with the powers of animals, of strong personages or being, of serious beings, of beings that have natural power . . (Sharon 1972,121).

Several forms of the San Pedro cactus are used by the curanderos, the most usual being those with seven ribs. Four-ribbed plants are rare but are believed to have special healing properties. Plants from the highlands are said to be the most potent, possibly as a result of climatic and soil factors (Sharon 1972,120).

A traditional drink called cimora involves the San Pedro cactus and various other plants, including the cactus Neoraimondia arequipensis, two species of Brugmansia (Solanaceae), Iresine spp. (Amaranthaceae), Isotoma longiflora (Cam-panulaceae), and Pedilanthus tithymaloides (Eu-phorbiaceae). Most of these plants, according to Schultes and Hofmann (1979,156), have "biody-namic" properties. Davis (1983, 370) suggests, however, that" cimora appears to be a generic term which may be applied to a number of plants, specifically the brugmansias and perhaps... the euphorbiaceous Pedilanthus tithymaloides He goes on to say that the matter of cimora still needs clarification. Clearly, however, cimora is not simply a mixture of the San Pedro cactus and a few other plants.

Two other species of cacti, though not psychotomimetic, have had a profound influence on many indigenous people in North America: saguaro, Carnegiea gigantea, and the Indian fig cactus, Opuntia ficus-indica. They are considered in some detail before examining other members of the cactus family and their uses by humans.

Continue reading here: Saguaro

Was this article helpful?

+1 0