By Lin Li
Sep 25 2020
For thousands of years, the indigenous people of Peruvian Amazon have used a wide range of medicinal plants for healing and spiritual purposes. These powerful plants with special abilities for healing and believed to open spiritual portals are known as “teacher plants.” The San Pedro Cactus, or referred by the locals as huachuma, is one of the most important plants used in healing practices of a Peruvian shaman.
The San Pedro Cactus, Echinopsis pachanoi, is a member of the Cactaceae family. The cacti are easily recognizable and probably the most popular in drought-tolerant areas. These plants are not only charismatic and evolutionarily intriguing; many species are known to be psychoactive. The San Pedro is a fast-growing, multi-stemmed columnar cactus native to the Andean range of South America. Each stem can grow up to 20 feet tall and six feet wide, starting from pale green when young and becoming dark green with age. They produce a hallucinogenic substance called mescaline that can induce an altered state of consciousness. People often describe this state as euphorbia and dream-like, sometimes accompanied by vivid hallucinations and altered sensory experiences¹.
The use of San Pedro cactus in Peru can be traced back to the Chavίn culture that flourished between 1200 to 200 BC. The evidence can be seen from many stone carvings of figures folding a San Pedro cactus created by the Chavίn culture². Shamanic ceremonies using San Pedro cactus are still in practice today. Huachuma retreats are a popular attraction for those hoping to pursue healing and spiritual cleansing. During the Huachuma Ceremony, the cactus is ingested either as dried powder or made into tea. The effects begin in 40 to 60 minutes and last around 12 hours³.
Cactaceae is among the many fascinating plant families digitized by the Endless Forms project at the New York Botanical Garden. There are over 11,000 Cactaceae specimens in our collection, ranging from the giant Saguaro to San Pedro cacti. These specimens often provide crucial links to the history of civilization and reveal their closest associations with people and culture.