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Enzyklopädie der psychoaktiven Pflanzen: Botanik, Ethnopharmakologie und Anwendung
by Christian Rätsch
AT Verlag 
Reviewed by Jonathan Ott, 1/8/2006

Smythe-sewn hardcover; 941 pp.; 32 pp. index; 27 pp. bibliography with 1059 citations, 5 pp. mushroom bibliography with 178 citations plus bibliographies to individual articles; 8 pp. botanical systematics appendix. Foreword by Albert Hofmann, p. 6.

The long-awaited publication of Christian Rätsch’s Enzyklopädie der psychoaktiven Pflanzen is a major publishing event for ethnopharmacognosists as well as psychonauts, to both of which groups the book is directed, in the tradition of the Shulgin’s PIHKAL and TIHKAL and this reviewer’s Pharmacotheon and Ayahuasca Analogues. Unlike many books which loosely use the term by way of title, this is truly an encyclopædia, oversized, nearly 1000 pages in length and with a total of 454 articles subdivided into seven basic lexicographic sections: 1) The Most Important Genera and Species from A to Z; 2) Less-Researched Psychoactive Plants; 3) Alleged Psychoactive Plants; 4) Hitherto Unidentified Psychoactive Plants; 5) Psychoactive Mushrooms; 6) Psychoactive Products and 7) Plant Active Compounds. Sections 1 and 5–7, totalling 774 pages (521, 76, 116, 61 pp.) contain 252 articles (157, 29, 31, 35), or an average of just over 3 pages per entry; whereas sections 2–4 total 73 pages (47, 10, 16 pp.) with 202 articles (135, 26, 41), or just over 1/3 page per. There is a 27-page general bibliography of 1059 citations as well as a general mushroomic bibliography of 5 pages with 178 citations, and each of the articles (with occasional exception of the shorter articles) is accompanied by its own specific bibliography. While this involves some duplication of citations in related articles (for example, there are eight different articles for Brugmansia spp.), this would appear to be minimal and certainly is more convenient for the researcher. On the other hand, it would have been more convenient for the investigator to have merely one lexicographic section as opposed to seven, although the fairly detailed 32-page index offsets this objection, giving facile access via botanical or common names, names of chemical compounds, etc. In my opinion, lexicographic sections 2–4, which contain the shorter entries, could surely have been collapsed into one, and in many cases the assignment of a given plant to the category of “less-researched,” “alleged,” or “hitherto unidentified” psychoactive plant could be questioned or seen as arbitrary, and it might also be argued that certain plants, such as Crocus sativus or Piper betle belong rather in one of these tenuous categories than in the major, definitive list; as also that neither Cocos nucifera nor Vitis vinifera belong there, but rather in the Psychoactive Products list, with other fermentation substrates.

But these are captious objections, and overlook the obvious fact that this is an attractive and eminently-accessible presentation of a veritable wealth of information on psychoactive ethnopharmacognosy, never before assembled in such detail and broad scope in a single volume. The book is lavishly illustrated with more than 800 color photographs, mostly by the author and generally excellent, as well as a multitude of black-and-white illustrations—botanical line-drawings, chemical structural formulæ and cultural artifacts. As would be expected in such an ambitious editorial under taking, a few errors have crept in, such as the photograph on p. 510 of Cereus peruvianus identified as Trichocereus peruvianus (obvious to me, inasmuch as the plant is in my garden, grown from seed collected in Riverside, California in 1995!). Another minor error in a figure-legend: the caption on p. 756 to the photograph of Mexican Xtabentún liqueur states it is fermented from traditional xtabentún (Turbina corymbosa, source of ololiuhqui seeds) honey, whereas I spoke to the manufacturer in Mérida in the mid-1980s while researching this subject (vide my recent article in Economic Botany 52(3): 260–266, 1998), and learned it was made indiscriminately from diverse commercial honeys; nor did I find evidence for the continued production of traditional xtabentún honey.

In the longer articles of sections 1 and 5–7, the level of detail is impressive, particularly given the broad scope of the book. The articles each have sections on: family; varieties and subspecies; scientific-name synonymy; common names; history; distribution; cultivation; description; drug-parts; preparation and dosage; ritual use; artifacts; medicinal use; constituents; effects; and commercial forms and formulæ. The heading for the articles gives the complete scientific name and most common identifying name(s). In almost all cases, there are photographs of the plants, usually several, as well as of prepared drug-forms and associated artifacts; sometimes with classic botanical drawings, archaic art, photographs of typical use, and/or structural formulæ of active constituents as marginalia. Even the two general bibliographies are nicely illustrated with marginalia photographs of numerous publications! The accuracy of the information presented is also laudable, although inevitably, in a book of this size and scope, specialists will take issue with some details. For example, on pages 719–720, in the article on Ayahuasca Analogues and Pharmahuasca, it is stated: “Normally, for pharmahuasca a dosage of 100 mg N,NDMT and 50 mg harmaline is recommended per person.” Whereas 100 mg DMT is surely a stiff dose (about 3 x minimal visionary dose for me, and I am more resistant than most to tryptamines), and I have found as little as 40 mg harmaline to activate tryptamines orally for me, it turned out I have a lower titre of gastric MAO than most. One trial of pharmahuasca with 20 mg 5MeO-DMT (equivalent to about 100 mg DMT) plus 50 mg harmaline (as free-base) was inactive in each of six individuals, and I have found at least 60 mg harmaline (as free-base; and about twice as much harmine) is required reliably to activate tryptamines orally in most people. Also, in the recipe for “prairie ayahuasca” on p. 717, it is stated that 30 g of root-bark of Desmanthus illinoensis constitutes a dose with 3–4 g of Peganum harmala seeds, whereas I found, experimenting with two different strains, that twice this quantity was necessary. In commenting on “Mayahuasca,” Rätsch notes the possibility the Mayans had brewed an ayahuasca from leaves of Banisteriopsis muricata, which do indeed, as he states, contain both DMT and Β-carbolines. On the other hand, this seems unlikely, given the extremely low levels of both reported in only a single analysis, apparently from cultivated material in India (about 25 times less Β-carbolines than reported as an average in stems of B. caapi, with less than 1% of the DMT quantity found in average Psychotria or Diplopterys leaves added to ayahuasca). Furthermore, I know of no real evidence, direct or tangential, that the archaic Mesoamericans knew of ayahuasca-type beverages based on Banisteriopsis species, nor that they attached any particular importance to these, as so obviously is the case all over Amazônia. Again, this is carping on fine details, and on the part of one who is as much a specialist on ayahuasca and pharmahuasca as anyone.

But it is only at such a level of detail that I can find fault with this excellent book. It has taken its rightful place as a valuable reference book in my extensive library, and even for non-German-readers, it is well worth the high price for the magnificent illustrative material it contains, as well as the customary high-quality paper, design and printing from Swiss AT Verlag. On the other hand, it seems an English translation is in the works, which will be a major, and costly endeavor, and it is doubtful the book will see a commensurate quality of production this side of the Atlantic, where we seem to be having a rough time escaping from the Yankee tradition of the “sleazy dope-book,” as exemplified by innumerable very forgettable pamphlets, the English translation of Jochen Gartz’ fine book on psychoptic mushrooms, as well as the recent offerings from the late D.M. Turner, not to mention periodicals such as High Times and its imitators and Psychedelic Illuminations. Christian Rätsch and AT Verlag are to be commended for making a major and high-quality contribution to the literature on psychoactive plants, which deserves a place of honor in the library of every serious psychonaut and scholar of Psychotropica.

ADDENDUM TO THE ABOVE REVIEW by David Aardvark, published in the Autumnal Equinox 2005 issue of The Entheogen Review

The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications by Christian Rätsch. Foreword by Albert Hofmann. 2005, Park Street Press, 942 pp.

Jonathan Ott previously reviewed the original 1998 German edition of this book (TER 8(2): 81–83). The layout of the new English translation is nearly identical to the German version, although the publisher did remove the erroneously labeled photo of a Cereus peruvianus (as Ott pointed out), and corrected it with a Trichocereus peruvianus photo. Also worth mentioning from Ott’s review is his speculation that when a translation of this book eventually appeared in English, it would be “doubtful the book [would] see a commensurate quality of production this side of the Atlantic,” which is not the case. The Park Street Press offering is actually better than the original. Page quality is excellent, photographic images seem a tad sharper, and while the German book was 7.75” X 10.75”, the American edition is a larger 8.5” X 11.25”, and sewn-and-glued with a higher number of signatures. In short, this beautiful book is the ultimate reference volume on psychoactive plants. While the cost is high, it is worth every penny.

Originally Published In : The Entheogen Review, 1999

1 Comment »

  1. I remember seeing this book somewhere when it first came out (‘99 or so) and being disappointed that it was only in German. I thought it would probably never get translated or given the “half ass” treatment since Europeans tend to see book making as more of an art than us Americans who tend to see books more as a means to just hold printed words (The quality of a book and its styling is important to book collectors such as myself. I’m tired of seeing old books of mine fall apart simply because of poor binding). I’m delighted that it has been translated and it has retained or surpassed the quality of the original.
    I’m wondering who did the translation? Maybe I missed something, but it doesn’t seem to say in the review. Hopefully it was Ott, who also translated Hoffman’s (Happy 100th birthday Albert!) LSD: My Problem Child and from what I hear, did a superb job (at least there was nothing akward sounding like a lot of poorly translated Japanese video games and animation. ALL YOUR BASE ARE BELONG TO US…lol) As in book making, translation is an overlooked art than can make or break a book You can’t just input the text into a computer and print the tranlsated output. (Go to google and tranlate something back and forth a few times and see how screwed up it gets) There are many nuiances and cultural traits to a language, especially more linguistically complex ones like English and German. For example, the German title of LSD: My Problem Child was LSD: Mien Sorgenkind. I could be wrong, but I don’t think the German word sorgenkind has a direct English translation, and appropriately enough, it was changed to the similar “problem child”. A horrible tranlation might have called it LSD: My Bad Child or some other nonsense that doesn’t capture the essence of the original word.

    Comment by monoamine — 1/14/2006 @ 12:26 pm

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