Of all the American cacti species, the peyote has one of the most tangled histories.
Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) is also known by various other common names, including chief, devil root, diabolic root, dumpling cactus, father of visions, mescal buttons, sacred mushroom, and satanic gift.
Peyote (Lopophora williamsii) is a member of the Cactus family. It is native to parts of Mexico and the southwestern U.S.
As cacti go, peyote is fairly small, and it grows very close to the soil surface. This spineless species is grayish-green and globe-shaped. At the top, it is decorated with a matted accumulation of white, wooly fuzz.
A single peyote plant may have any number of ribbed sections. On the surface of these sections are rounded tubercles. At most, the plants are about 2½ inches tall and perhaps twice as wide.
Peyote blossoms are pink, about an inch in diameter. They’re produced from the center of the plant. These can eventually produce reddish-pink, club-shaped fruits.
The plant’s root is long, and remotely resembles a parsnip or carrot.
The plants usually grow in groups or clumps of fifteen or so.
Suited to warm areas, they are hardy in zones 9-11, with the minimum temperature being about 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
Peyote can be propagated by seeds and offsets. A number of online sources are offering growing kits with seeds. It is likely that these are more popular among drug users than gardeners.
The upper parts of the plants are sliced off, and dried for mescal buttons. In this form, it was used for sacramental purposes by Native Americans before the arrival of Columbus. It was known to the Aztecs.
The plants are potent hallucinogens. When taken as part of religious rituals, participants experienced trance-like states in which they saw powerful visions.
Following the arrival of the Spanish, the colonial authorities sought to discourage natives from using the plant. In 1720, a Tacs Indian was persecuted for creating an uproar after using peyote. Despite the stand taken by colonial governments, the use of the plant by native tribes continued to spread. By 1900, it was in use by the Comanches, Cheyenne, and Kiowas. Following the establishment of the Indian Bureau, this group also sought to destroy the sources of peyote. In 1915, USDA banned import of peyote, which usually came via Mexico.
As the years passed, other American agencies added their two cents worth. In 1916, the first anti-peyote bills were introduced in Congress. An anti-peyote rider was approved in 1923-2924. Federal statue defined peyote as a narcotic in 1929, and in 1940 regulations of the U.S. Post Office prohibited mailing the substance.
In addition to these anti-peyote measures, various states—particularly those in the West, banned use of the plant.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 came as a breath of fresh air. Finally, the Native American Church could once again use peyote legally.
Native tribes also used the plants to treat various ailments. This isn’t something one should try for self-treatment, because this plant can be very toxic. Native healers have the necessary skills to prescribe its use, but for use by most individuals this would be very risky.
Because the plant is a powerful hallucinogen, non-Indians began taking it for recreational purposes. This kind of drug abuse is hard to understand mainly because the main ingredient—mescaline—is available in synthetic form. As part of a scientific study, the writer Aldous Huxley took a dose of mescaline, and wrote of his experiences in “The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell.”
Now, the peyote is facing a new kind of challenge. The plants are becoming rare. They were never very common to begin with. This is partly due to the fact that non-Indians are overharvesting to use the buttons for recreational drugs.