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Salvia Divinorum: Die Wahrsagesalbei
by Jochen Gartz
Nachtschatten Verlag 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by David Aardvark, 8/28/2007

Salvia divinorum: Die Wahrsagesalbei, a new German book by Jochen Gartz, kicks off with a foreword by Christian Rätsch, who comments on the demonization and prohibition of psychoactive plants and drugs throughout history, relating that S. divinorum had escaped a large amount of publicity until recently. He notes the preponderance of web-based reports (unfortunately giving the wrong URL for the Salvia divinorum Research and Information Center), and quickly summarizes salient chemical and pharmacological details related to salvinorin A. He laments that sensationalistic press may limit scientific discovery, and opines that prohibition causes more problems than it prevents. The book then moves into Chapter 1—a short introduction with a historical quote from María Sabina and a mention of the contemporary chemical isolation of salvinorin A in the 1980s.

Chapter 2 tells of early ethnobotanical investigations into the identity of Salvia divinorum. Within the context of the “discovery” of this plant by western science, Gartz summarizes the experiences of R. Gordon Wasson, Albert Hofmann, and Anita Hofmann with the curanderas Consuela [Garcia] and María Sabina, and notes the unusual association of a “Shepherdess” in one of the common names for the plant (hojas de la Pastora), as well as the proposal that S. divinorum might have been the Aztec sacred plant pipilzintzintli.

Chapter 3 provides a botanical description of the plant and its natural habitat in the Sierra Mazatec, mentioning that it hasn’t been found anywhere outside this region despite the fact that the natives claim it came from elsewhere. Gartz notes that the flower’s bell-shaped calyx is bluish or purplish in color, but the corolla is always white, and he correctly points out that: “Jonathan Ott zählte 1996 sechs Publikationen auf, die irrtümlicherweise bei den Farbzeichnungen der Pflanze blaue Kronblätter zeigten.” In spite of these comments, Gartz strangely includes a photograph of a plant in bloom with a corolla that turns purple and terminates in a double-bloom with petals that look nothing like a Salvia divinorum bloom! (Further, the leaves shown are clearly not S. divinorum leaves.) This picture appears in the center full-color section of the book, with the caption “Diverse Blütenstadien der Salvia divinorum” (“Diverse bloom-stages of Salvia divinorum”). When I asked Daniel Siebert what he thought about this image, which was certainly not an example of the diversity of S. divinorum blossoms, Mr. Siebert identified it as being the double corolla of a horticultural variety of Datura metel. Unfortunately, this image (also on the book’s back cover no less), will do little to clear up the confusion related to the color of this plant’s blooms. Furthermore, in the same section under “Frischpflanzen und getrocknete Salviablätter,” (“Fresh plants and dried Salvia leaves”) Gartz shows another plant that is clearly not a S. divinorum plant, but rather some sort of Solanaceae (probably a Brugmansia). Since Gartz didn’t take these photos himself—and as we’ll see from the description of the following chapter, he seemingly doesn’t have a lot of personal experience growing the plant to draw on—it is quite odd that he wouldn’t have asked for some input from better-informed colleagues as to what the plant looks like before publishing these photos. (Alas, this Solanaceous plant photo also appears again on the back cover of the book.)

Chapter 4 discusses cultivation of the plant, relying very heavily on the American book Salvia divinorum Grower’s Guide (SDGG). Indeed, the wording and topics are virtually identical—when translated—throughout this entire chapter of the book, including things like not recommending rooting hormone and suggesting that pussy willow can be used as a producer of auxin(e), providing a similar “optimum” temperature range for rooting the plants, providing the identical root-length transplant time, the exact same three suggested soil mixtures presented in the same order, the same pH range for the soil, and the similar phrasings of text, such as “Despite what many people believe, it is possible to grow Salvia divinorum outside a humidity-controlled environment…” (from SDGG) presented as “Entegegen mancher Meinug ist es jedoch möglich, die Salvia divinorum ausserhalb einer sehr feuchten Atmosphäre…” The chapter then continues to on to describe the exact same process of acclimatization over the same time frame that is presented in the SDGG, the exact same indoor lighting suggestions and cautions, the exact same hydroponic-growing instructions, the same theories regarding leaf-browning (stress and/or a virus that expresses itself due to excessive cloning), the same comments about nutrient needs, the same potential pests as well as the same methods of controlling them, including the same predator insects and the same tips on replacing copper “snail” tape after a year. Since this chapter of Gartz’ book is predominantly just a German translation of the SDGG, I would hope that the publisher of the SDGG is receiving translation royalties!

Chapter 5 relates data regarding the chemical and pharmacological investigations of Salvia divinorum—history that has also been pretty well covered by two previous journal articles (Ott 1995, Ott 1996). Even chapter 6 on the psychoactive effects of Salvia extracts mainly presents “trip reports” that have appeared elsewhere, quoting from Wasson, Valdés, Schuldes, and Turner. Chapter 7, “Investigations with pure Salvinorum (sic) A” quotes from Siebert’s published “lab notes,” again relates a “trip report” found in Turner’s book, and retells Ott’s experiments with the vaporized pure compound and sublingual acetone/DMSO mixtures. Chapters 6 and 7 offered—at most—only two or three “trip reports” that I hadn’t read already. Gartz sums up the lack-of-binding to neuro-receptors found via the NovaScreen tests, and notes the high potency of salvinorin A. He points out that Jonathan Ott had wondered why the traditional Mazatecs were unaware of what a potent plant they really had, and suggests that the answer to this question is that it was simply because they lacked the chemical knowledge and necessary solvents to extract the salvinorin A, and that they were probably better off for their ignorance. Gartz states that he feels that the combination of pure salvinorin A with well-known tryptamines, phenethylamines, or LSD in higher doses (which has been published in some “trip reports”), is an irresponsible consumption behavior that stands in stark contrast to the traditionally moderated ritual use of plant preparations in México (for which there have been no reported problems). Although such an attitude appears at first blush to harken the romantic ideal of “native wisdom,” and can certainly be seen to be the situation in some cases (such as with the extraction of cocaine from coca leaves and the resultant addiction problems), it isn’t terribly accurate to imply that native drug-users as a rule didn’t mix-and-match psychoactive plants. Witness the use of Brugmansia and tobacco in some ayahuasca brews, or the same sorts of goings-on with traditional San Pedro usage, and Gartz may have missed that the Mazatec have been reported to concurrently use psilocybian mushrooms, i.e. “tryptamines,” with Salvia divinorum (Emboden 1979). While purified compounds need to be handled with respect, the combination of such for psychonautical exploration is no different in principle today than with the natives of old. Take care, or get your ass kicked (or worse); clearly there is a learning curve and the plants (or chemicals) will let you know when you are treading on thin ice.

Finally, Gartz sums up the book in chapter 8, noting that there are still many mysteries surrounding this plant, that related plants may still be found which contain salvinorin A or similar compounds, and that new methods of studying the brain and its interaction with psychoactive chemicals—such as PET scans—may eventually result in the discovery of what areas of the brain are most closely connected to the visionary properties of salvinorin A.

This book does an excellent job of succinctly covering the history of Salvia divinorum up to the new millennium, pulling together the various aspects of ethnobotany, pharmacology, cultivation, chemistry, and contemporary use, into one place for the first time. Alas, it doesn’t present any recent information such as the simple, single-solvent extraction methods discussed via special interest e-mail groups, or the use of S. divinorum in religious meditations (Soutar & Strassman 1999–2000), or as an antidepressant (Hanes 2001). Nor does the author break any new ground by actually bioassaying the previously untried (and potentially potent) chemical salvinorin C (Valdés 2000; Valdés et al. 2001). To the best of my knowledge, in English, there are currently four books on S. divinorum (Turner 1996; Sociedad para la Preservación de las Plantas del Misterios 1998; Aardvark 1998–2001; Shayan 2001), as well as a shorter booklet (Anon. 1999), complete chapters in other books (Heffren 1974; Foster 1984; Pendell 1995; Rätsch 1998), a web-based FAQ (Sage Student 2002) a User’s Guide (Sage Student 2000), numerous journal articles, and a giant web site with up-to-the-moment topical data ( Which begs the question, I suppose, do we really need another book on Salvia divinorum at this point? The answer may be “yes,” but predominantly because this book is in German, and hence will reach an audience that might have a hard time reading the myriad of information that is already available in English.

[73 pp., 1 line drawing, 1 chemical sketch, 1 black and white photo, 13 color photos, 6 additional pages of advertisement, with a bibliography and a suggested reading list. No index.]

Originally Published In : the Vernal Equinox 2002 issue of The Entheogen Review

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