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Salvinorin: The Psychedelic Essence of Salvia Divinorum
by D.M. Turner

Salvia Divinorum: The Plant and its History

Salvia divinorum is used by the Mazatec Indians living in remote regions of Oaxaca, where it first came to the awareness of western researchers in the first half of this century. Little is known regarding the plant's use before this period, although there is some indication that it may have been used by the Aztecs in earlier times. The first description of this plant in western literature was made by Swedish anthropologist Jean Basset Johnson in 19391. Johnson. who was investigating psilocybe mushroom use amongst the Mazatecs, also noted their use of Salvia divinorum in healing ceremonies.

Salvia divinorum is a very rare plant, being found in only a few ravine locations in the Sierra Mazateca mountains. The plant is easily propagated by cuttings, and during the past few decades it has made its way into numerous botanical gardens and private collections around the world. Virtually all of the Salvia divinorum in circulation has been vegetatively propagated from two parent clones of this species. The first specimen was collected by R. Gordon Wasson in 1962. A second, so called "palatable" strain was collected by Bret Blosser in 1991. The "palatable" variety is actually still quite bitter, although less so than the Wasson clone. There are a few other strains being maintained, some of which were grown from seed, but these are not in general circulation.

Cuttings of Salvia divinorum placed in a jar of water will begin rooting within two to three weeks. When the roots have reached about 1", the cuttings may he transferred to pots. Salvia divinorum likes humidity and moisture, moderate but indirect sunlight and warm temperatures. In most parts of the United States it will grow best in a greenhouse and appreciates frequent misting. Too much sunlight will turn the leaves a pale green. If the leaves curl up and dry at the edges, it is a sign that the temperature is too warm for the amount of humidity they are receiving. The plants should be kept from freezing at all times, although they may grow back after a light frost that does not freeze the roots.

Salvia divinorum grows into a vine-like bush with branches frequently reaching 7 to 10 feet in height before bending over under their own weight, often rooting where they fall. The plant has jagged- edged leaves that reach 4" to 6" in length. The amount of leaf is typically sparse in proportion to the stems, and often the plants have a slightly straggle appearance. The stems are square-shaped and hollow with winged edges. Under proper growing conditions the leaves have a beautifully deep, rich, almost velvet-like sheen, and appear quite sensuous. In the fall Salvia divinorum produces delicate flowers with white corollas and purple calyxes. Salvia divinorum sets seed rather infrequently, and only on rare occasions have these seeds proven to be viable.

It is thought by many botanists that Salvia divinorum is a cultigen. It is not known to exist in the wild, and the few patches that are known in the Sierra Mazateca appear to be the result of deliberate planting. A Mazatec shaman informed Wasson that the Indians believe the plant is foreign to their region and do not know from where it came. And if Salvia divinorum is a hybrid, there are no commonly held theories on what its prospective parents may be.

Amongst the Mazatecs, Salvia divinorum (Diviner's sage) is known under such names as ska Maria Pastora and Hierba Maria, which translate as "the herb of Mary" or "leaves of Mary the Shepherdess". In a recent paper, Jonathan 0tt has noted that the Mazatecs lack an indigenous name for Salvia divinorum, both the Christian theme of Mary, as well as sheep, having been introduced to the region during the Spanish conquest. The Mazatecs also list a method of consuming this plant that does not efficiently utilize its psychoactive content, and seem to be generally unaware of its tremendous potency. Based on this information, and the likelihood of its being a cultigen, Ott has suggested that Salvia divinorum may be a post-conquest introduction to the Sierra Mazateca. However, it has also been suggested, initially by R. Gordon Wasson, that Salvia divinorum may be the Aztec plant Pipiltzintzintli, an entheogen that was briefly described by a 17th century Spanish friar. Ott has found that the little information available regarding Pipiltzintzintli supports this hypothesis, while ruling out several other plants that have been suggested as candidates for this Aztec sacrament.

R. Gordon Wasson, the famed ethnobotanist who introduced psilocybe mushrooms to western society, was also the first to personally describe an experience with Salvia divinorum. In July of 1961 he participated in a healing ceremony performed by a Mazatecan curandera. Wasson ingested the squeezed juice of 34 pairs of leaves, and described the results as "coming on sooner (than the mushrooms), being less sweeping, and lasting a shorter time. It did not go beyond the initial effects of the mushrooms - dancing colors in elaborate, three- dimensional designs." In 1962 Wasson was joined in Oaxaca by Swiss pharmacologist Albert Hofmann, inventor of LSD, who also first isolated psilocybin from mushrooms gathered in this same region. Hofmann brought an alcohol extract of Salvia divinorum back to Switzerland where he attempted to isolate the active component. He was unsuccessful, finding the extract to no longer be active, and suggested that the plant's active principal was unstable.

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