The (psycho-) medical use of succulents

Many succulents, including cacti, are known for their pharmaceutical value. In this contribution a bit of general background and a brief description of the medical uses of some succulents. Including references to websites.

An alkaloid is a nitrogenous organic molecule that has a pharmacological effect on humans and other animals. Alkaloids are found in plants, animals and fungi, and can be extracted from their sources by treatment with acids. When administered to animals most alkaloids produce striking physiological effects, and the effects vary greatly from alkaloid to alkaloid. Alkaloids are poisonous, some are used in medicine as analgesics (pain relievers) or anaesthetics. The medical use of most succulents are related to their alkaloid content.

The Mesembryanthemaceae (mesembs) is South Africa’s largest succulent plant family, and it constitutes a major part (ca. 63%) of the southern African succulent flora. With approximately 123 genera and ca. 1680 species, it is also South Africa’s second largest plant family, accounting for approximately 10% of South Africa’s flora. The family is almost entirely endemic to southern Africa, although a few species are known to occur naturally outside this region. Most South Africans know plants which belong to the Mesembryanthemaceae as ‘vygies’. Of many mesembs the ‘medical’ virtues are known with indigenous people for centuries but not until recently ‘discovered’ by scientists and pharmaceutical industries.One of the best known mesembs is Sceletium namaquese or Sceletium namaqua. The active ingredient is a cocaine-like alkaloid. South African psycho-freaks love it but -and we’ve seen examples- it can cause braindamage!!! As do many plant based drugs after over usage. Paradox: in the medical world an extract of the Sceletium alkaloid is used for treatment of psychological and psychiatirc disorders.

The globally best known Southern African succulent is most probably the Hoodia Gordonii. We are outspoken critics of hoodia gordonii scams and con artists.  The Hoodia attracted the most unscrupulous operators who continue to sell counterfeit Hoodia diet pills simply because they know they can get away with it. But there are a few honest players in the market but to find them is as looking for a needle in an haystack.

It’s estimated that 80 percent of the Hoodia being bought by consumers is adulterated (cut with cheaper ingredients) or just outright counterfeit. The USA-based Alkemist Pharmaceuticals, “The Plant Authentication Experts,” can provide you with a list of suppliers of approved hoodia products.

The San tribesmen have chewed on Hoodia Gordonii for eons as a hunger surpressor. Indigenous use of herbs is actually a good indication of long-term safety, despite the frustrating fact that conventional medicine scientists tend to ignore  such cultural evidence.

The medical proportions of  Aloe vera  were known by the Greeks since at least the fourth century BC. Today, they are still popularly used in a bevy of products. One company lists over 300 kinds of cosmetics, medicines and ointments that are made from various aloe extracts; mainly from Aloe vera and Aloe ferox. The latter one is a South African native. The Internet is rife with get-rich-schemes involving Aloe products. Most of the aloe grown commercially is from the Carribean, South Florida or South Texas.

There is a website which must be owned by one of the global mailorder giants in the field of ‘medical’ (read: hallucinating) herbs and succulents. It includes brief descriptions of the effect of the use of some cacti. A few examples:

“Stenocereus (Ritterocereus) hystrix. This is a truly unique cactus as it is the only species that is known from outside Southern America and Mexico to contain similar alkaloids to Lophophora williamsii and Trichocereus Peruvianus!!!! This species is found in the West Indies and could be used in places where Peyote ceremonies can be legally conduced if Peyote was not available or as alternative more economical entheogen.

Trichocereus bridgesii is unique in it’s appearance with its long menacing spines. The Trichocereus bridgesii has a long shamanic tradition of use throughout its homeland in the high Bolivian deserts. It is perhaps the most powerful, magical and least used of the Trichicereus cacti. Trichocereus bridgesii is often kept indoors because of its powerful, protective spirit. It’s a hardy Cactus which grows very fast.

Trichocereus terscheckii. This is a very large cactus, found in Northwestern Argentina were its called Cardon grande or Cardon santo “sacred cactus.” It has frequently been confused with another species, T, pasacana, of the same region, but it is more branched, with fewer ribs, different spines, and large flowers. Terscheckii cactus contain mescaline and trichocereine which account for the psychedelic effects.

Peyote Cactus, Lophophora williamsii- Sacred Cactus. Peyote is a native of the Chihuahan Desert, specifically, portions of the Rio Grande Valley in Southern Texas, and south as far as the state of San Luis Potosi in Mexico. It has provoked controversy, suppression, and persecution for centuries now. Condemned by the Spanish conquerors for its “satanic trickery”, and attacked more recently by local governments and religious groups, the plant has nevertheless 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.

San Pedro cactus is the name given to the species of the genus Trichocereus (T. pachanoi, T. peruvianus and T. Terscheckii) which comprises about thirty species. San Pedro Cactus is a large columnar psycho tropic cactus that grows in the Andes and has been used for shamanic healing in Peru and Ecuador for centuries. The wisdom within San Pedro Cactus can activate the “healer within” by showing the patient through visions deep insights into there own lives. Cuzco cactus, Trichocereus cuzcoensis. Very closely related to the Peruvian Torch, Trichocereus peruvianus, the Cuzco cactus is found only in the Cuzco area of Peru. It has a densely branched body and grows to about 6 meters and produces large white fragrant flowers.
The very interesting thing about this particular cactus are its alkaloids M, Dimethyl-M and anholine. It is consumed for shamanic purposes as often as T. peruvianus and has been reported to be similar to Peyote.”

 In the internet encyclopedia Wikipedia you can find more info about the most psycho-active alkaloid mescaline and other alkaloids in cacti such as the peyote and Peruvian torch cactus.

Far more interesting is the diverse medical use of the Yucca genus.   Herewith an extract of one of the internet encyclopedias:

” The primary medical use of Yucca is to treat arthritis and joint pain and inflammation. Native Americans used sap from the leaves in poultices or baths to treat skin lesions, sprains, inflammation, and bleeding. Teas made from Yucca mixed together with other herbs are still brewed by folk healers in northern New Mexico to treat asthma and headaches. Constituents of the Yucca are used today to treat people with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. The plant’s medical properties are found in saponins, precursors of cortisone, which prevent the release of toxins from the intestines that restrict normal cartilage formation. Saponins are produced naturally in the body by the adrenal glands. It is believed Yucca works best for arthritis when taken over an extended period of time.Yucca extract is used to treat a variety of other conditions, including migraine headaches, colitis, ulcers, wounds, gout, bursitis, hypertension (high blood pressure), and high LDL cholesterol (also called bad cholesterol). Liver, kidney, and gallbladder disorders are also treated with yucca extract. More recently, researchers have found that resveratrol, a compound found in Yucca extract as well as in red wine, inhibits the aggregation or clumping of blood platelets. This finding suggests that Yucca extract may be useful in preventing blood clots.”

At last but not at least something about the most widely used natural ‘psycho-therapeutic’ medicine in South Africa; Gethyllis spiralis better known as the ‘koekmakranka’ (Afrikaans abbreviation of ‘good for my sick stomach’). The skin is used for the treatment of boils and carbuncles, bruises and insect bites. And extract is also used as insect repelland. A draught made of the fruit softens teethache with babies and haertburns of older people. Best it’s known as the medicine for ‘die boer’ (the farmer). Soaked fruit in brandy (‘mampoer’ or ‘witblits’) is claimed to cure stomachache. That gives many people an excuse to simulate illness and to drink their medicine.