Psychotropic Plants

Peyote: A Psychoactive Cacti with Sacred Importance

For such a small, unassuming plant, peyote can pack a strong psychoactive punch. Found on the dry, elevated slopes of mountain scrubland in Mexico and Southern America, the peyote cacti (Lophophora williamsii) has a rich history of use in many Native American groups. With strong hallucinogenic effects, it has been used not only as an entheogen but also as a herbal medicine.

A cluster of peyote cacti (Lophophora williamsii) | Photo by Leonora Enking on Wikimedia Commons

What are the active compounds in Peyote?

Peyote contains a range of psychoactive alkaloids, of which mescaline is considered the most psychoactive. It can be found in other plants too, including the San Pedro cactus and the Bolivian torch cactus. Mescaline was first isolated in 1897 by a German chemist known as Arthur Heffter.

What effect does Peyote have?

The mescaline in peyote has effects that are likened to LSD and also psilocybin mushrooms. Effects can last anywhere from 2-12 hours. As a hallucinogenic plant, people usually experience visual disturbances and changes in perception of color, audio, and size.

A group of potted peyote | Photo by Peter A. Mansfeld on Wikimedia Commons

It may have very negative effects too. Other symptoms could include severe anxiety, pupil dilation, vomiting, muscle twitches, sweating, and also paranoia.

What is the medicinal potential of Peyote?

Limited studies have shown that mescaline may be able to treat addictions like alcoholism, and also conditions like depression. Many herbal drugs, like liberty mushrooms or kava, are controlled substances, and this limits scientific study into their medical potential.

Many people used peyote to treat conditions like toothache and fever, but also as pain relief during childbirth. In Mexico, you can still find herbal remedies like peyote gel which is used for pain relief.

Peyote gel seized by customs at the Mexico/Texas border | Photo by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Wikimedia Commons

Is Peyote toxic?

Like any drug, peyote can pose risks, and peyote cactus abuse and toxicity have been documented. Unregulated doses can cause serious illness and even death.

Cultural Symbolism of Peyote

Used for thousands of years, peyote has a rich history in several Indigenous nations of America and Mexico. It was consumed as an entheogen and also used to treat some medical conditions too. The top of the peyote cactus is usually cut off and dried, allowing the remaining base and root to heal and regenerate a new crown.

A black and white photo showing 9+ Native Americans gathering in a tepee with a wide open doorway.
A peyote ceremony | Photo from unbekannt on Wikimedia Commons

As European colonizers and Christianity arrived in America, the use of peyote became severely restricted. Like psychoactive morning glory seeds that were used by native groups in South America, peyote became a prohibited drug. Sadly many cultural practices were lost, but it continues to be used today, ceremonially by the Native American Church (NAC).

The Wixárika people (Huichol) of Mexico use peyote within spiritual rituals that connect people to ancestor spirits and gods.

A bracelet created by the Wixárika people that represents a peyote cactus | Photo by Jupagame on Wikimedia Commons

As interest in peyote grows, tours are now conducted by members of the NAC, and also by guides in Mexico. However, many people who have cultural links to peyote are worried about unsustainable harvesting from people looking to collect seeds and profit from wild cacti.

Is Peyote legal?

In most countries, peyote is illegal to own, sell or prepare for recreational purposes. In some reservations in the US, Native Americans can grow, possess and use peyote for spiritual and cultural purposes as part of the Native American Church.

What Does Peyote Look Like?

Peyote is a small, low-growing cactus. It has an unusual appearance, with no spines and a round, flat, bulbous shape. The flesh coloring is a blue and greenish hue, and when flowering, it has a white/pinkish flower that partially resembles a daisy or member of the Asteraceae family. They’re often called peyote ‘buttons’ because of their small rounded shape.

Peyote flower | Photo by Karelj on Wikimedia Commons

Where Does Peyote Grow?

They tend to grow in small groups, with new shoots forming from larger and more mature cacti. Peyote grows very slowly and can be found wild in Mexico and small areas in southern states in the US. It favors dry and humid areas, with limestone soils, particularly the Chihuahuan desert and the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range.

Peyote cactus in dry limestone soil | Photo by Amante Darmanin on Wikimedia Commons

Conclusion

It’s illegal to own, grow and use peyote, but many individuals are interested in its hallucinogenic potential. However, as a hallucinogenic so closely linked to Native American culture, it is important that the connection is respected, and the plant population is protected.

Featured Image: Peyote cactus | Photo by Peter A. Mansfeld on Wikimedia Commons

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