Planta maestras (plant masters or plant teachers) are key among the shaman’s tutelary spirits, his chief allies and guides to the worlds of health and healing. In ordinary reality, they are also considered the jungle’s most skilled and important ‘doctors’ because of their usefulness and relevance to the healing concerns of most patients. Through knowing these plants, the shaman can deal effectively with the diseases of his people.
It can be difficult to find discrete Western analogues for some of these jungle plants because plants grow where they are needed and the healing required by a New York banker will be quite different from that of a Peruvian farmer. The psychological and spiritual benefits bestowed by such plants, and their ability to restore emotional balance, banish negative energies, or open the heart to love, are desirable in any culture, however, so it is possible to find plants with equivalent or similar effects if we wish to diet them and understand their qualities for ourselves.
With this in mind, here is a description of some of the more commonly dieted planta maestras and (either singularly or in combination) plants of our own that will produce like effects.
CHIRIC SANANGO: FOR LOVE
Chiric sanango grows mainly in the upper Amazon and in a few restingas (high ground which never floods). It is good for colds and arthritis and has the effect of heating up the body. (Chiric, in Quechua, means ‘tickling’ or ‘itchy’, which refers to the prickly heat that it generates). Plant shamans often prescribe it for fishermen and loggers, for example, because they spend so much time in the water and are prone to colds and arthritis. The patient should not drink too much at a time though because it can lead to a numbness of the mouth as well as a feeling of slight disorientation. It is also used in magical baths to change the bather’s energy and bring good luck to his ventures.
Used in the West, the plant has a more psychological effect, but still to do with ‘heat’. Here, it enables people to open their hearts to love (it ‘warms up’ a cold heart, but will also ‘cool’ a heart that is too inflamed with jealousy and rage) and identify with others as if they were brothers and sisters. In essence, it helps people get in touch with the sensitive and loving part of themselves. Another of its gifts is enhanced self-esteem, which develops from this more healthy connection to the self.
Chiric sanango can be prepared in water, in aguardiente (weak sugar cane alcohol) or made into syrup by adding its juice to honey or molasses. It can also be boiled in water and drunk, or eaten raw and is said to better penetrate the bones if taken this way.
For a Western diet, mint has some of the properties of chiric sanango and is a balancer of the body’s physical and emotional heat. It can cool you down on a summer’s day but will also provide warmth when drunk by an open fire in winter, and it has the same effect on the emotions, promoting the flow of love as well as alertness and clarity. For these reasons it has been associated with the planet Venus, which was named after the Roman goddess of love.
Good plants to combine with mint include lemon balm and chamomile. Lemon balm was known in Arabian herb magic to bring feelings of love and healing (Pliny remarked that its powers of healing were so great that, rubbed on a sword that had inflicted a wound, it would staunch the flow of blood in the injured person without need for any physical contact with them), while chamomile is a great relaxant and a perfect aid to exercises in meditation and forgiveness. Recent research at Northumbria University in the UK has also proven the beneficial effects of lemon balm in increasing feelings of calm and well-being, as well as improving memory.
Chiric sanango also brings relief from arthritic pain and if this is your concern, Western plants that could be added to mint include marigold and ginseng.
To make a tea of any of these herbs, simply boil the fresh ingredients (the amounts you use can be much to your own taste, but three heaped teaspoons of each is about right) in a pint or so of water for a few minutes and then simmer for about 20 minutes, allowing it to reduce, and blowing smoke – which carries your intention – into the mixture as it boils. This will wake up the spirit of the plants and attune them to your needs. Add honey if you wish, then strain and drink when cool.
For a mixture that will last a little longer, add the fresh ingredients to alcohol (rum or vodka is recommended), with honey if you wish, and drink three-to-five teaspoonfuls a day, morning and night.
These methods of preparation can be used for all plants.
GUAYUSA: FOR LUCID DREAMS
This is a good plant for people who suffer from excessive acidity, digestive, or other problems of the stomach and bile. It also develops mental strength and is paradoxical in the sense that, just as chiric sanango is cooling and warming at the same time, guayusa is both energizing and relaxing.
Guayusa also has the effect of giving lucid dreams (i.e. when you are aware that you are dreaming and can direct your dreams). For this reason it is also known as the ‘night watchman’s plant’, as even when you are sleeping you have an awareness of your outer physical surroundings. The boundary between sleeping and wakefulness becomes more fluid and dreams become more colourful, richer, and more potent than before. For those interested in dreams or ‘shamanic dreaming’, this is the plant to explore.
In the Western world, bracken, jasmine, marigold, rose, mugwort, and poplar, will produce the same affect of lucid or prophetic dreams. The leaves and buds of the latter were often a key ingredient in the ‘flying ointments’ of European witches, who used it for what we would call astral projection. A mixture of these plants can be used to produce a liquid (either fresh or in alcohol) that can be taken in the same way as the examples above. It is also possible to prepare them in a way that practitioners of Haitian Vodou use for working with their native ‘dreaming plants’, by making a bila, or dreaming pillow, by taking small handfuls of mugwort and poplar and blend them together. Sprinkle the mix with neroli, orange or patchouli oils (aromatherapy oils are fine) as well if you wish and, as they do in Haiti, a little rum and water to bind the mix together. Put your intention into this as well – that these herbs will help you to dream more lucidly and gather information from the spirit world – then allow the mixture to dry for a few days. When it is ready, crumble it into a cloth pouch and place it beneath your pillow. Keep a dream journal next to your bed and, as soon as you wake up next morning, immediately note down your dreams and your first waking sensations.
AJO SACHA: STALKING THE SELF
This plant is a blood purifier and helps the body to rid itself of toxins (spiritual or physical) as well as restoring strength and equilibrium lost through illnesses that have an affect on the blood. More psycho-spiritually, it helps to develop acuity of mind and can also take the user out of saladera (a run of bad luck, inertia, or a sense of not living life to the full). It is also used for ridding spells – i.e. undoing the work of curses or removing bad energy that has been sent deliberately or by accident (in an explosion of rage, etc).
In floral baths, it will relieve states of shock and fear (known as manchiari), which can be particularly debilitating to children, whose souls are not as strong or fixed as an adult’s; a powerful shock can therefore lead to soul loss. The same phenomenon, especially regarding children, is known to the shamans of Haiti, where it is called seziman, and those of India, who take great care to protect children from frights of this kind and are often employed by the anxious parents of newborn children to make protective amulets for their babies.
Another key to ajo sacha is that in the Amazon it is used to enhance hunting skills, not only by covering the human scent with its own garlic-like smell (the plant also has a strong garlic taste although it is in no way related to garlic), but by amplifying the hunter’s senses of taste, smell, sound, and vision, all of which are, of course, essential for success and for survival. It is therefore a plant of stalking.
In the Western world this stalking ability tends to translate psychologically, and the plant becomes a means of helping an individual hunt or ‘stalk’ her inner issues. To underline this, the Shipibo maestro Guillermo Arevalo adds that this plant also opens up the shamanic path and helps us to see beyond conventional reality – if we have the heart of a warrior and are prepared to live under the obligations of shamanism. For this, we will need courage, the ability to face the truth, and to know our true calling, and no fear of extremes or ‘ugly’ things.
It is fascinating that this plant which is used to aid hunting in the rainforest still posses this same essential quality in an environment such as ours where food is purchased from supermarkets and we do not need to track down game at all, but we often have work to do in stalking ourselves. It is clear that this plant has extraordinary qualities.
Western plants with equivalent therapeutic uses include valerian and vervain. The former has been recorded from the 16th century as an aid to a restful mind and, in the two world wars, was used to combat anxiety and depression. Today, it is still used for these purposes. It also brings relief from panic attacks and tension headaches, which are regarded as symptoms of an underlying cause arising from an unresolved issue or stress of some kind. By relaxing the mind, the psyche is able to go to work on the real problem, aided by the plant itself.
One way of dieting valerian (which will also aid a deep and restful sleep) is by adding equal parts to passionflower leaves and hop flowers and covering with vodka and honey for a few weeks, after which a few teaspoons are taken at bedtime.
Vervain, meanwhile, was well-known to the Druids, who used it to protect against “evil spirits” (nowadays, we might say ‘inner issues’ or ‘the shadow-self’). It is also used to help with nervous exhaustion, paranoia, insomnia, and depression. Once again, by relaxing the conscious mind it empowers the unconscious to go to work on (stalk) the more deep-rooted problem.
Another protective plant that also has the effect of purifying and strengthening the blood is garlic. Nicholas Culpepper noted its balancing qualities and wrote of it as a “cure-all”. It has long been associated with magical uses, protection from witches, vampires, and evil spells, and as effective in exorcisms (i.e. psychologically speaking, in ridding us of our inner demons). Roman soldiers ate it to give themselves courage and overcome their fears before battle. There is also a tradition of placing garlic beneath the pillows of children to protect them while they sleep and defend them from nightmares.
One way of dieting garlic is in the form of garlic honey – which is not as disagreeable as it sounds. To make it, add two cloves of peeled garlic to a little honey and crush them in a mortar, then add another 400g or so of honey to the mix. This can be drunk in hot water or simply eaten, two teaspoons a day, morning and night.
Other plants that are good for increasing ‘wisdom’ (inner knowledge) include peach, sage, and sunflower, all of which can also be dieted fresh or in a little rum or vodka.