Salvia divinorum (salvia) a shrub native to Oaxaca, Mexico, which has been used spiritually and medicinally by indigenous Mazatec tribespeople for centuries. It’s a powerful natural hallucinogen that produces an intense psychedelic high. Today, it’s garnering attention in the West for recreational use, but also slowly for possible medical use.
The species S. divinorum is a member of the genus Salvia, a large group of more than 900 species belonging to the Lamiaceae (mint) family. Although the common name “sage” refers particularly to Salvia officinalis—from which the herb used in cooking is obtained—it may also refer to any ornamental or medicinal plant within the genus.
The salvia divinorum plant, hereafter referred to as salvia, is a tall shrub with square, hollow stems. It has hairless, ovate leaves, which may be dentate or toothed and are between ten and thirty centimetres in length. The plant grows to over a metre in height, and its stems are particularly prone to breaking and trailing along the ground, where they also enthusiastically form new root sites.
The flowers, which appear rarely, are white with purple calyxes, and seldom form viable seed. Instead, the plant’s propensity to form new roots sites along its stem allows for exceptional ease of vegetative propagation, which is the plant’s primary method of reproduction.
Where is salvia found?
Salvia grows in the cloud forests and tropical forests of the Sierra Mazateca, which is in the north-west of Oaxaca State in Mexico. Salvia is present at elevations of between 300 and 1,830 metres above sea level. It is commonly found growing along the edge of the frequent streams and rivers that run downhill to the Rio Tonto, a major tributary of the Rio Papaloapan.
Salvia flourishes in moist, humid environments with low light conditions, and prefers black soils with high humus content. For many years, the Mazatec tribes concealed the locations that salvia is found in from European botanists and taxonomists due to the plant’s value and sacred status.
Cultivation of salvia seeds
Salvia presents somewhat of a conundrum to taxonomists, as it’s not fully understood whether the plant is a cultigen (a product of cultivation), a natural hybrid, or a true species. The uncertainty is due to the plant’s vegetative means of reproduction and unusual sterility, which is more common in sterile hybrids (mules and asses are examples of this phenomenon in mammals) or in inbred cultivars.
Recent genetic research has indicated that the plant is not an interspecific hybrid, although its origin remains obscure.
Salvia cuttings: An alternative to seeds
Due to the lack of viable seeds, salvia can only be cultivated by means of vegetative propagation (“cloning”). Cuttings are taken from a mature mother plant, and will form roots in tap water within two or three weeks. Flowering is photoperiod-dependent, just like cannabis, and occurs when day length drops to twelve hours or below.
What causes salvia’s psychoactive effects?
Salvia has been shown to contain the active ingredient salvinorin-A, a potent psychotropic molecule with the chemical formula C23H28O8. Unusually for a naturally-occurring hallucinogen, salvinorin-A does not contain a nitrogen atom and is therefore not an alkaloid (unlike DMT, mescaline and psilocybin).
In fact, it’s a terpenoid, the same class of organic chemical to which cannabinoids, menthol, camphor and many other important natural substances belong. By mass, it’s the most potent natural hallucinogen, being effective in doses as low as 200µg (psilocybin is effective at 6mg, DMT at 60mg, and mescaline at 100mg).
Salvinorin-A is a kappa-opioid receptor agonist, and is the first non-alkaloid known to affect this specific receptor. All other naturally-occurring hallucinogens affect the 5-HT2a serotonin receptor, but salvinorin-A has no effect on this receptor. It’s thought that salvinorin-A’s main effects are realised through agonising the kappa-opioid receptor. However, it’s now known that the substance is also a partial agonist of the D2 dopamine receptor.
Possible risks, and treatment of salvia intoxication
Due to the properties above, and unlike most other natural hallucinogens, salvinorin-A produces a dissociative state in the user that is often dysphoric. Intense feelings of well-being are not often reported; rather, the drug is reported to cause intense, and often harrowing and disturbing, visionary or trance-like states, although uncontrollable laughter is also commonly observed.
There are many potential side effects of using salvia, which mostly affect the brain (but there can also be physiological effects). These can include:
- Brief, intense hallucinations
- Mood changes
- The feeling of being detached from one’s body
- Altered visual perceptions
- Slurred speech
The high from using salvia is almost instant, and intense, although it’s short lived. As of now, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on any type of treatment for salvia intoxication, though.
Traditional use of salvia
Salvia has been used by the indigenous Mazatec tribes in spiritual and religious ritual for hundreds of years. Typically, only the fresh leaf is used in Mazatec shamanic ritual. The leaf is crushed to extract the juices before being mixed with water and drunk, to produce the desired visionary effect. Alternatively, large quantities of fresh leaves may be chewed and swallowed.
Salvia is integral to the healing rituals practised by the Mazatec, as it allows the user to “access” the realm of the spirits that are believed to control sickness and health in the material world. Often, salvia is used as a substitute for psilocybin mushrooms, but there are some shamans who make primary use of salvia.
Usually, the salvia ritual takes place in darkness, and participants are encouraged to lie in silence and stillness. Before the leaves or infused water is consumed, it’s blessed and consecrated to the spirits. Then, the shaman (and possibly the sick individual or individuals too) consume the salvia and wait for the effects to manifest. If the visions are meaningful to the shaman, the cause of the illness is identified, and a course of action can be chosen.
Salvia was also historically used to directly treat several illnesses including headaches, rheumatism, diarrhoea and anaemia; for these purposes, it’s used at lower doses and is commonly administered as a tea.
Current use and availability
Now, salvia and salvia extracts are abundant and easy to source, either online or from local smart shops and head shops. It’s common to find products on sale which consist of dried leaves fortified with extracted juices to increase their potency—such products are often sold in strength classes of 10x, 20x, and even higher (although there is no standard of potency and variability between products is high).
While salvia is used recreationally by most users, ritualistic use persists within the remaining Mazatec tribes; through syncretism of traditional religion and Christian beliefs imported by the Spanish conquistadors, the plant is now known as ska María Pastora (“leaves of the shepherdess Mary”) and is associated with the Virgin Mary.
Legality of salvia – seeds and plant
Salvia is legal in most countries and in most U.S. states. However, there are some that consider its hallucinogenic effects to be dangerous and societally unacceptable, and have therefore banned or are attempting to ban the plant.
At least thirteen countries have banned or controlled salvia in some way, including Australia, Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Canada, Denmark and Finland. Some countries have made it entirely illegal, while in other places, there are simply restrictions (For example: No import or sales, but personal cultivation, possession, or consumption is decriminalized).
In the U.S. the Schedule of Controlled Substances doesn’t list salvia as a controlled substance, although various states including Oklahoma, New Mexico, Michigan, and Florida (where possession can lead to up to five years’ imprisonment) have enacted their own legislation.
Why plants like salvia must be protected
As with most attempts to prohibit a substance, such actions are more likely to end in a black-market existing for a previously taxable item. This likely will result in an increase in criminality and price (and decrease in quality) that usually accompanies such policies, rather than the substance in question simply fading out of popular use.
- Disclaimer:This article is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult with your doctor or other licensed medical professional. Do not delay seeking medical advice or disregard medical advice due to something you have read on this website.