Lophophora is a small genus of low-growing, spineless, Central American cacti. The best-known species is Lophophora williamsii commonly called peyote. It occurs in the Chihuahuan desert on the border of southern Texas and northern Mexico, generally growing in desert scrub areas on limestone. These small plants are slow growing, taking take thirty years before they first flower in the wild. In cultivation, plants tend to flower more quickly and respond well to being grafted. The pink or white flowers are followed by edible, pink fruit. The distinctive tufts of hairs are the source of the name Lophophora which means ‘crest-bearing’ (‘peyote’ being a Nahuatl word meaning ‘glistening’).
Peyote has a long history of human use. The cactus contains the psychoactive alkaloid mescaline. It has been used to engender altered states of consciousness, possibly for as long as 7,000 years. It has a strong religious connection with the Huichol and Tarahumara in Mexico who make ritualised pilgrimages to collect it. In Huichol belief, the deer-god left peyote plants in its tracks. One Huichol man is quoted as saying: ‘peyote is the crossing of souls, it is everything that is. Without peyote nothing would exist’. Traditionally, the tops of plants are carefully cut off, allowing the plant the chance to re-grow. These pieces are then dried and eaten. Ingestion leads to feelings of extreme nausea followed by hallucinations.
In 1919, the Austrian chemist Ernest Späth isolated mescaline, the first psychedelic compound to be synthesized. Thirty years later, Aldous Huxley famously wrote a detailed description of the effects of ingesting mescaline in his book, The doors of perception (1954). Carlos Castaneda’s The teachings of Don Juan (1968) described his outlandish experiences as apprentice to a Yaqui shaman. Despite serious doubts as to their veracity, the huge success of this book and its sequels led to interest in wild peyote as a source of powerful psychedelic drugs, which had lasting effects on the American counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s.
Medicinal uses of mescaline have been proposed for the treatment of alcoholism. In Native American cultures there are many medicinal uses as well as spiritual ones. In the USA peyote can be harvested and used for religious purposes. Commercial harvesting and illegal collection have reduced wild populations, whilst changes in land use, such as ploughing, have also had negative effects on the species. Lophophora williamsii is now classified as vulnerable with a decreasing population.
Anderson EF 2004. The cactus family. Timber Press.
Anderson EF 1996. Peyote: the divine cactus. The University of Arizona Press.