hand holding leaves of chacruna plant in the air

The Teachings of the Chacruna Plant 

Divine union and the bridge to wholeness.

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After drinking a cup of ayahuasca, I take account of myself. I scan my body, bringing it to stillness. If this is too easy, I know I will need to drink more medicine to make the mareacion “open.” But when I do so against a growing subtle anxiety, an apprehension that makes me want to react with fear, I know I’ve had just enough. The medicine will be strong. I buckle up and breathe. 

Before the visions open, this sensation peaks. I’ll want to do something. I’ll talk to myself. Okay! What do I do? But I do nothing. I’ll try not to scratch myself or adjust in my seat. There is often a nausea at this point, the body wanting to eject before the spirit arrives where the medicine plans to deliver it. I sit tight. I breathe through the nausea, and then, it opens. And then I breathe through that. Everything that comes—–the subtle thoughts, the emotions, the mind’s reactions to the visions—I observe it all. 

It is the most wonderful experience, and within it, the deepest meditation. The intimate observation and accounting of myself, my mind, and the subtleties of experiencing through the being that I am. And it is only through Ayahuasca—and Chacruna—that I experience it. 

READ: The Quiet Wisdom of the Ayahuasca Plant

But those times that I’m waiting through the first hour or more, time passing normally, thinking normally, and knowing that I want more, I’ll often obsess over the medicine. Did I have enough? Is it strong enough? Was it something I ate? How was the quality of the vine? And I’ll fixate on if there was enough chacruna in the brew. And sometimes, it is only the distraction of my own train of thought that lets the medicine fly right past me.

The Union of Ayahuasca Vine and Chacruna Plant

Traditional medicine systems of the East combine plants synergistically to amplify and balance one another’s positive effects. This underlies Traditional Chinese Medicine, rooted in ancient Daoism, and Ayurveda, rooted in the ancient yogic wisdom of the Vedas. However, no two traditional plant medicines are as vital—and powerful—in combination as Ayahuasca and Chacruna, native to the Amazon rainforest. 

The word “Ayahuasca” may refer to a single plant, the vine Banisteriopsis caapi, the prepared medicine Ayahuasca always refers to this vine combined with the leaves of Chacruna–Psychotria viridis–and made into a strong decoction. The remarkable chemistry of this combination of plants is unique in traditional Indigenous medicines. The two plants together are required to create the holistic experience known as Ayahuasca.

Note

The medicine Yagé from the Indigenous traditions of Colombia and Ecuador refers to the same species of vine, B. caapi, combined with the leaf of another vine, Diplopterys cabrerana, also commonly known as yagé ocó, huambisa, chagropanga, or chalipanga. Yagé and Ayahuasca are similar yet distinct traditions, coming from different regions of the Amazon and with unique cultural lineages. For the purposes of this article, we will be discussing the Ayahuasca tradition centered from Peru eastward into the Amazon basin, which employs Chacruna as its admixture plant.

A strong brew of just the ayahuasca vine may have a mild effect on mood, at least if not for  forgiving any nausea that is likely to coincide. The vine’s bark contains a high concentration of tannins.

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Chacruna is different. Chacruna prepared by any method would have no psychoactive effect whatsoever if taken orally. Chacruna contains N,N-Dimethyltriptamine (DMT), but when consumed orally on its own it is immediately oxidized by the natural presence of the enzyme monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A) in the gut, and deactivated before it can reach the brain. 

The B. caapi vine contains the beta-carboline alkaloids harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine, which are short-acting monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). As the name suggests, these inhibit monoamine oxidase and prevent the breakdown of DMT, allowing it to bind to the 5-HT2A serotonin receptors in the stomach and small intestine and being chemically responsible for the visionary potential of the Ayahuasca brew. 

man standing in jungle holding machete
Juan Ruiz in the UNAP Research Forest

Chacruna Leaves: A Botanical History

For guidance on the botany of Chacruna in the context of other plants in the jungle, I contacted Juan Ruiz Macedo, a Peruvian botanist and one of the great experts on the identification and scientific classification of Amazonian plants. Juan curated the Iquitos Herbarium (Herbarium Amazonense) for decades and received collections from and worked with many ethnobotanical luminaries, including Dennis McKenna, Tim Plowman, Wade Davis, Alwyn Gentry, and the great Richard Evans Schultes. 

Chacruna grows wild like a weed in the forest understory of the Amazon foothills, and is commonly planted by ayahuasqueros in the jungle lowlands. It’s propagated from germinated seed, or, more often, by leaf cuttings., Wwithin a couple years, Chacruna grows into a thin bush about head height and the ayahuasquero can begin harvesting the leaves. It will fill out somewhat as it grows up to a maximum height of around 16 feet. 

herbarium species
Juan at UNAP showing writer Matthew Stoltz an herbarium specimen collected by Dennis McKenna and Tim Plowman | Photo credit Matthew Stoltz, courtesy McKenna Academy

P. viridis is one of 13,500 species in the coffee family, Rubiaceae, and one of 1850 species globally represented in its genus, Psychotria. Juan shared that of the hundreds of Psychotria in the new world tropics, many are also known to contain DMT: Psychotria alba, Psychotria remota, and Psychotria carthaginensis all included. One striking example is Psychotria poeppigiana (also classified as Palicourea tomentosa), where the alkaloids are present not in its leaves but in the bracts of the bright red inflorecense—it’s decorated with many imaginative colloquial names,  such as beso de negra (black kiss) and labias del diablo (lips of the devil). 

When asked if any of these other plants are actually used, Juan only mentions a Belgian curandero who brews ayahuasca with P. carthaginensis and a woman in the American Southwest who mixes the flowers of P. poeppigiana into her brew. Neither are Indigenous.

READ: How the Shipibo Came to Be the Most Common Group Serving Ayahuasca to Foreigners

P. poeppigiana flower
Psychotria poeppigiana | Image via Wikimedia Commons

Why Is the Chacruna Plant So Unique?

And that begs the question: why aren’t other plants used? If ancient Indigenous peoples discovered aAyahuasca as a matter of trial and error, shouldn’t there be a diversity in the sources of DMT used and plants traditionally combined with the B. caapi vine? Or groups that use one type of Psychotria over another?, What about mixtures that include the resins of other trees, or the seeds of another plant?

And while the trial-and-error hypothesis is a bad one in a biodiverse ecology of hundreds of millions of possible combinations, that same forest has numerous DMT-containing plants. 

So why Chacruna?

Dennis McKenna gave me a lucid answer: “It’s a clean source of DMT. No other alkaloids.” In a brew as concentrated as ayahuasca, that matters. Even small amounts of other alkaloids could cause adverse or negative effects. Other Indigenous medicines of South America such as Virola elongata resin and Anadenanthera peregrina seeds contain DMT, as well as other alkaloids such as bufotenin. 

And I believe that’s as much as we can learn from a strictly scientific-botanical perspective. 

man collecting Chacruna leaves
Matthew Stoltz collecting chacruna leaves | Photo by Ace Ehlman

“All this is about a way of life, far beyond alkaloids, far beyond one night ayahuasca sessions,” Jonathon Miller Weisberger tells me.  He says that “the modern, reductionistic approach that attributes the effect of the plant to its alkaloids” s…may be fundamentally flawed.

The Meaning of Chacruna 

Jonathon has dedicated his life to the Ecuadorian Amazon, and his Indigenous friends and teachers who live there. He worked with the Waorani to demarcate their territory in the early 90s, and supported the Kichwa to reclaim their sacred lands and have them protected as Napo-Galeras National Park. He has spent decades drinking medicine and learning from the late great Secoya master Don Cesario Piaguaje and the Kichwa master Casimiro Mamallacta. 

In his book Rainforest Medicine: Preserving Indigenous Science and Biodiversity in the Upper Amazon, Jonathon illustrates the depth of the spiritual importance of P. viridis through its name:

 Amiruka Panga variety of Chacruna
Amiruka Panga variety of Chacruna used by the Mamallacta family | Courtesy Jonathon Miller Weisberger

“The Kichwa name chacruna (Psychotria viridis) incorporates chak, referring to the rung of a ladder, or to a bridge or the ladder itself, and runa, a word of extensive symbolism and meaning that evokes a state of being. Runa can be translated as “an integral and spiritually developed person”; in the high Andes the word refers to a married couple. The implication is that the bridge or ladder joining the physical and spiritual realms (and thereby conveying the wisdom and visions of the latter) can only be accessed by being runa, a person who leads an integrated, balanced life of virtue, upholding all the standards conveyed by the word” (p. 319-320, reprinted with permission from the author).

The wisdom of the name Chacruna contextualizes the visionary and spiritual aspects of the experience as part of a communal spiritual life; it’s not about a chemical experience or where to source it. 

“In modern times there’s too much emphasis on DMT, and there needs to be more emphasis on the divine union of opposites”, Jonathon tells me. “The auspicious effects of these plants is about context and following ancestral protocols in the preparation of the ayahuasca brew to allow the alkaloids to be anchors for celestial energies. This is about plants that bring forth wisdom as to how we can go about achieving balance in our everyday lives.”

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The question was never how did the Indigenous healers of the past know to combine ayahuasca with chacruna. The origin myths show that ayahuasca was always combined with chacruna:

“The origin stories of Chakruna relate that this plant did not come forth alone, rather always together with the Ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi). Either from having grown out of the grave of Manko Kapak, the founding father of the Inka people, who is believed to have lived to 800 years of age, so that his people may have his wisdom. Or from the heart of the Shiu Amarun, the glistening fertility boa of the earth, when it was slain by Atacapie, the seven headed boa of disintegration and chaos, so that the people may always have the abundance needed to live in harmony with the earth and each other, as related by a Kichwa legend from the Ecuadorian Amazon.” The complete myths can be found in Jonathon’s wonderful book, Rainforest Medicine. 

A medicine as profound and dynamic as ayahuasca is not something that is stumbled upon, or discovered. For anybody alive today, or has had the opportunity to meet it, it is always a gift.

For Readers Interested in Learning More

I met Juan Ruiz and visited the UNAP (Autonomous University of the Peruvian Amazon) herbarium while volunteering for the McKenna Academy to support their BioGnosis project, which is developing a partnership with UNAP and raising money to catalog all collections and digitize the herbarium and to record as much of Juan’s knowledge, stories, and expertise as possible. Learn more about the program here. 

The photos of myself picking Chacruna were taken at Yorenka Tasorentsi, a living food sovereignty and reforestation project as well as a healing center and indigenous meeting place, The center most recently hosted the 4th Indigenous Ayahuasca Conference and Benki is engaged year-round in activism to protect the environment and defend indigenous rights. Learn more via their Instagram, @yorenka.tasorentsi, and their soon to be updated website.

Jonathon Miller Weisberger is an ethnobotanist and author, who has studied amazonian plants for over 27 years. His book Rainforest Medicine is highly recommended as an orientation to Ayahuasca and Yagé, and the indigenous traditions of Ecuador that steward it. He hosts retreats at his ethnobotanical and healing center in Costa Rica as well as organizes trips in Ecuador. Learn more via the Rainforest Medicine website

Deeper Learning

The Huni Kuin people of the Brazilian Amazon are dedicated to preserving—and sharing—their culture for one main reason: Spreading the messages of the rainforest. Emily Ana Levy & Leia Friedwoman explore the healing traditions of the Huni Kuin in the article for DoubleBlind.

DoubleBlind Magazine does not encourage or condone any illegal activities, including but not limited to the use of illegal substances. We do not provide mental health, clinical, or medical services. We are not a substitute for medical, psychological, or psychiatric diagnosis, treatment, or advice. If you are in a crisis or if you or any other person may be in danger or experiencing a mental health emergency, immediately call 911 or your local emergency resources. If you are considering suicide, please call 988 to connect with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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