The Peyote Cactus – Lophophora williamsii

Image of the Peyote cactus, Lophophora williamsii from
Image of the Peyote cactus , Lophophora williamsii from Pixabay

Having been known and written about since at least the sixteenth century, Lophophora williamsii is a cactus that lives in the Texan desert and is also native to South America. Within these regions, it’s fair to say that the Peyote was a cherished plant by the Native Americans in Northern America and by the Huichol and the Tarahumara in South America. It was said to have ‘inspired’ (or at least been ingested by) writers like Kerouac and Huxley.


For ten thousand years this plant has been used as a hallucinogen. One was found (along with other psychotropic plants) in a Mexican cave and has been dated back to 8500BC. In another Mexican cave, a necklace made of dried peyote buttons was found dating back to 800AD, along with peyote samples dating back to 5000BC.  These dried buttons are a common way of preparing, storing and then ingesting peyote, even today. The plant has continued to play a major sacramental role among the Indians of Mexico, while its use has spread to the North American tribes in the last hundred years.


The first full description of the living cactus was offered by Dr Francisco Hernández who as the personal physician of King Philip II of Spain was sent to study Aztec medicine. In his ethnobotanical study of New Spain, Dr Hernández described “peyotl”, as the plant was called in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs: “The root is of nearly medium size, sending forth no branches or leaves above the ground, but with a certain woolliness adhering to it on account of which it could not aptly be figured by me. Both men and women are said to be harmed by it. It appears to be of a sweetish taste and moderately hot. Ground up and applied to painful joints, it is said to give relief. Wonderful properties are attributed to this root if any faith can be given to what is commonly said among them on this point. It causes those devouring it to be able to foresee and to predict things….”


It’s believed that the Native Americans deepened their knowledge of peyote thanks to the Lipan Apache. We know that the Lipan Apache. taught the Comanche tribe about this plant, and in turn, they passed this information on to the Kiowa, we see similarities in the way that these groups held peyote ceremonies, in both Mexico and North America, strengthening the idea that this knowledge was indeed shared. The Native Americans were certainly harnessing it medicinally. They used it for pain, fever, skin diseases and even to treat blindness.


In more recent Native American history, we saw a resurgence in the use of peyote within the Native American church during the 19th century. Within the church, the cactus was referred to as the ‘sacred medicine’. The use of hallucinogenic didn’t sit well with the American authorities, who sought to ban the use of peyote tops being consumed by church members. Indeed Most of the early records in Mexico were left by missionaries who opposed the use of Peyote in religious practice. To them, Peyote had no place in Christianity because of its pagan associations. Since the Spanish Ecclesiastes were intolerant of any cult but their own, fierce persecution resulted. But the Indians were reluctant to give up their Peyote cults established on centuries of tradition.


The Native American tribes spread the word about peyote, for example; introducing it to the Navajo. New peyote rituals and ceremonies organically grew over timediffering from tribe to tribe. Success in spreading the new Peyote cult resulted in strong opposition to its practice from missionary and local governmental groups. The ferocity of this opposition often led local governments to enact repressive legislation, despite the overwhelming scientific opinion that Indians should be permitted to use Peyote in religious practices. In an attempt to protect their rights to free religious activity, American Indians organised the Peyote cult into a legally recognised religious group, the Native American Church. This religious movement, unknown in the United States before 1885, numbered 13,300 members in 1922. Membership of the Native American Church at present is claimed to be a quarter of a million Indians. ( Evans. R, 1992)


Back in 1888, Louis Lewis began studying the chemistry of the peyote, and he, unsurprisingly, discovered alkaloids. Louis lumped all these alkaloids together and called them ‘anhalonine’. A decade later, Arthur Heffter stepped in and was able to isolate four individual peyote alkaloids, one of which he named ‘mescaline’. He diligently researched the psychotropic effects of peyote by repeatedly ingesting it, and its alkaloids. Mescaline is one of 55 alkaloids that have been found in peyote. Peyote typically contains 3% mescaline, a phenylethylamine. When you dry peyote and eat it (as is common practice) this stops to about 1%. It isn’t very fat-soluble and thus doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier rapidly. This is why, unlike other psychotropic plants, we see people consuming quite a lot of the cactus to achieve psychotropic effects. Mescaline has a half-life of six hours, with its psychotropic activity lasting for up to ten hours. Like psilocin in the magic mushrooms, mescaline is excreted in the urine unchanged, ie; no biotransformation takes place.


There is now a tourist industry that entirely sustains the former mining town Real de Catorce, (a Spanish-Mexican-Western village that used to be the home of a huge silver mine) serving up to 5,000 Western tourists annually who come to take peyote in the desert. It has been restored into the perfect Wild West getaway.


“The white man goes into his church house and talks about Jesus; the Indian goes into his tepee and talks to Jesus.”

J.S Syotkin

Enjoy reading about the Peyote? Check out Victoria Protheroe’s other BioWeb articles:

The Mandrake

The Alluring Fly Agaric

The health benefits of spending time in nature




Image Source: Pixabay

Brickell. C, RHS Encyclopedia Of Plants and Flowers, publisher DK (2019)

Candeias. M, In Defense of Plants: An Exploration into the Wonder of Plants (Plant Guide) Kindle Edition

Evans. R Schultes. A, Plants of the Gods 

Their Sacred, Healing and Hallucinogenic Powers, Healing Arts Press (Vermont) (1992)

Willis. C, Peyote: The Truth About Peyote: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to the Peyote Cactus (Lophophora williamsii) And The Full Psychoactive Effects (Peyote … Psychedelics, Native Americans, Meditation) CreateSpace Publishing, (2015)

Wynd. V, Prestel, The Unnatural History Museum, London



About Victoria Protheroe 10 Articles
With a lifelong love of nature and wildlife and a Master’s degree in research, Victoria Protheroe enjoys spending her free time combining these interests to explore new areas of wildlife research and conservation. Her current area of interest is with reptile care, specifically snake husbandry.

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