The ayahuasca plant is a fascinating vine, with a long history and a number of effects and medical benefits.
The scientific name for the plant is Banisteriopsis caapi. It is also known as iowaska (commonly spelled as ayahuasca), yage, and caapi.
Some indigenous communities in the Amazon use only the ayahuasca plant for ceremonial purposes. However, most ayahuasca use as we know it involves a combination of the ayahuasca plant with a plant containing the chemical DMT.
Important Facts About the Ayahuasca Plant
In this article, we will outline all aspects of the ayahuasca plant: its cultural history, usage, effects, and what the research tells us about it. We will also describe how the ayahuasca plant achieves unique effects when used in traditional ayahuasca brews.
#1. The Ayahuasca Plant is Over a Million Years Old
According to the botanist Bronwen Gates, the ayahuasca plant emerged around 1.25 million years ago in the Amazon rainforest[*].
This was during a time when plant diversity increased dramatically in the Amazon. Caapi belongs to a family (grouping) of plants known as Malpighiaceae.
#2. Ayahuasca Vine is Only Found in the Amazon
When looking at the geography of the ayahuasca plant, we find that it's not widely found.
The ayahuasca plant is a vine that grows naturally in the Amazon rainforest only, mainly in:
This may explain why most ayahuasca retreat centers are located in South America!
#3. The Ayahuasca Plant is Not Psychoactive Alone
The psychoactive alkaloids of caapi are known as harmala alkaloids (a group of substances with a similar chemical structure). The ayahuasca plant contains the following harmala alkaloids (with the concentration included)[*]:
- Harmine (0.31-8.43%)
- Harmaline (0.03-0.83%)
- Tetrahydroharmine (0.05-2.94%)
These chemicals are monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). This means that when you ingest them, they inhibit the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO) from working in your body.
This is important in the context of the ayahuasca brew. If you were to ingest a plant containing DMT (e.g. Psychotria viridis) by itself, you would not have a psychedelic experience. This is because MAO in your body breaks down the DMT, making it inactive.
But, MAOIs inhibit MAO in the body, so if you take caapi and Psychotria viridis at the same time, in an ayahuasca brew, then the DMT becomes orally active. This can result in the strong psychedelic effects you expect from an ayahuasca ceremony.
Scientists used to refer to harmine as telepathine[*]. They believed this chemical was responsible for people’s telepathic experiences under the influence of ayahuasca.
#4. The Caapi Vine is Massive
The ayahuasca plant is a giant vine.
It can grow up to 30m in length. It also has white or pale pink flowers that usually bloom in January. It looks like other related plant species such as Banisteriopsis membranifolia and Banisteriopsis muricata.
#5. The Legality of the Ayahuasca Plant is a Grey Area
The legality of ayahuasca varies based on the country, as well as based on how you use the plant.
- In the US, caapi is legal[*]. But if you combine it with Psychotria viridis, for example, to make ayahuasca, you would then be in possession of an illegal substance. However, the exception is if you belong to the União do Vegetal (UDV) religion, which uses the ayahuasca brew as its religious sacrament. In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that UDV members were exempt from the US’ prohibition of DMT[*].
- In Australia, harmala alkaloids are scheduled substances (schedule 9 drugs)[*]. But, the ayahuasca plant itself, even though it contains these chemicals, is not explicitly illegal in most states in the country. However, the legal status of caapi often depends on court rulings.
- In Canada, like in Australia, harmaline is a controlled substance (a schedule III drug)[*]. But also like in Australia, the legal status of the caapi vine is ambiguous since the law does not explicitly say the plant itself is illegal.
- The ayahuasca plant is legal in many countries in South America since many governments recognize the ayahuasca brew as a valid religious sacrament. These countries include Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru.
The Cultural History of the Ayahuasca Plant
While the origins of ayahuasca use are still uncertain, the researcher Bernd Brabec de Mori suggests ayahuasca use emerged in the Tukano region in the southern Colombian Amazon[*].
How long indigenous communities have used ayahuasca for is shrouded in mystery. Its use may be thousands of years old. Some of the oldest earliest evidence of its use comes from a 1,000-year-old shamanic pouch, found in Bolivia, containing both harmine and DMT[*]. The harmine may have come from the caapi plant.
In one study, researchers note they found evidence of caapi use in northern Chile. They based this on the presence of harmine in the hair of several mummies (dated 800-1,200 AD) that were found[*].
However, these mummies were found in the Atacama Desert of Chile, where the ayahuasca plant doesn’t grow. This suggests indigenous populations had trading networks set up, allowing ayahuasca to travel very far from its point of origin.
The first written accounts of ayahuasca use come from Jesuit missionaries who explored the Amazon, beginning in the 17th century[*]. These missionaries described ayahuasca use in negative terms, reporting that it had diabolical effects.
Ayahuasca Plant Usage
The Piaroa people of Venezuela use the caapi plant as a hunger suppressant, stimulant, antidepressant, and hunting aid (through improvements in vision)[*].
For many hundreds – perhaps thousands – of years, indigenous tribes in the Amazon rainforest have used the ayahuasca brew in a ceremonial context. Traditionally, experienced shamans guide ceremonies, whereby both the shaman and others drink ayahuasca.
Shamans and indigenous populations use ayahuasca for the purpose of healing, communication with spirits, and sometimes divination (seeking knowledge of the future). The caapi plant is considered sacred and an important ‘plant teacher’ in its own right[*].
The first Westerners to use ayahuasca drank the brew during their explorations in the Amazon, in the 19th century[*]. Since the late 20th century, ‘ayahuasca tourism’ has been on the rise, with Westerners traveling to the Amazon to drink ayahuasca. They do so for various reasons, including:
- Dealing with mental health issues, such as depression and trauma
- Seeking treatment for addiction problems
- Overcoming personal issues and personal crises
- Seeking spiritual experiences and spirituality
Ayahuasca ceremonies nowadays also take place in many countries outside South America, with popular destinations including Costa Rica, Portugal, and Spain.
Ayahuasca Plant Effects
The effects of the ayahuasca plant vary, depending on both dosage and if you take the caapi plant on its own or as part of an ayahuasca brew.
When Used on Its Own
If you use the caapi plant on its own, even at very high dosages, it doesn’t tend to produce strong hallucinogenic effects. At least, you won’t have any hallucinogenic effects that resemble those you will get if you drink the ayahuasca brew.
The effects of the ayahuasca plant on its own include:
- A ‘buzz’ or feeling of intoxication
- Slight psychedelic effects, such as visual changes
- Visions that are shadowy, like silhouettes, smoke, or clouds, and in one color only (monochromatic)
- Body load (uncomfortable physical sensations)
- Feeling sluggish
When Used in an Ayahuasca Brew
When you combine the ayahuasca plant with a DMT-containing plant and consume it, the effects are different than if you consumed DMT on its own (such as by smoking it). For example, the ayahuasca experience is longer than a smoked DMT experience, 6-8 hours compared to up to 20 minutes with smoked DMT.
The harmala alkaloids in caapi contribute to the dreamlike visions you experience when you drink ayahuasca. The other effects of drinking the ayahuasca brew include:
- Visual and auditory hallucinations
- Communicating with ‘spirits’ or entities
- Confronting deep and personal problems
- Feeling connected to the earth and nature
- Mystical experiences, like being outside time and space, indescribable experiences, losing your sense of self, out-of-body experiences, connecting with a ‘divine’ presence
- Intense emotions, like ecstasy, euphoria, gratitude, fear, and panic
- Gaining insights and new perspectives
When Used With Freebase DMT
Some people mix the caapi plant (as well as other plants) with freebase DMT for smoking. This is known as ‘changa’, sometimes referred to as ‘smokable ayahuasca’. The addition of caapi lengthens the smoked DMT experience and may make it more similar to an ayahuasca experience than smoked DMT alone.
Research on the Ayahuasca Plant
Studies on ayahuasca suggest that the ayahuasca plant on its own – as well as when used in an ayahuasca brew – has a number of benefits.
The Medical Benefits of Caapi on Its Own
Some potential medical benefits of the chemicals in caapi include:
- Alleviating the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease[*]
- Neurogenesis (the formation of new neurons in the brain)[*]
- Decreased inflammation and nerve cell damage[*]
- Improvements in memory and learning[*]
The Therapeutic Benefits of the Ayahuasca Brew
Researchers have found that consuming the ayahuasca brew may provide you with a number of benefits, including:
- Improved mental health following long-term use[*]
- Positive, lasting personality changes[*]
- Reduced symptoms of depression[*]
- Recovery from drug addiction[*]
Caapi and Ayahuasca Are Generally Safe and May Have Long-Term Benefits
Both the caapi plant and the ayahuasca brew appear to be physically safe and non-addictive, with no known adverse effects on long-term users.
If you have a condition like depression and other treatments haven’t worked for you, then taking part in one or more ayahuasca sessions could be beneficial. Ayahuasca can also act as a catalyst for personal and spiritual growth.
However, we recommend that you only join well-respected and reputable ayahuasca ceremonies. Find an ayahuasca retreat where the guides are well-trained and highly experienced.
You want your ayahuasca experience to be as comfortable and supportive as possible. In the right kind of environment and context, ayahuasca can be a therapeutic and potentially life-changing experience.