Some months ago the speaker at a meeting of Polmont Horticultural Society chose “Cacti” as his subject.
He entertained and instructed his audience excellently and in equal measure with a fascinating introduction to this range of durable plants. And one of the many varieties of cactus that he mentioned was peyote, which is the common name for a member of a family of very slow-growing cacti which are native to the southwestern United States and to north and central Mexico. And when I say that peyote is slow-growing, I mean very slow-growing, for peyote takes the better part of 30 years to reach flowering age in the wild. Peyote’s pukka botanical name is Lophophora williamsii - Lophophora from two Greek words meaning ‘bearing a crest’ and williamsii in memory of one of several plant collectors called Williams. I cannot ascertain which Williams is immortalised in the name. Sic transit gloria mundi,* as the Romans said: But I do know why its botanical name means ‘bearing a crest’ and that’s because its small, usually pink flowers … which open during the day in the early summer … resemble a tuft or crest atop the button-shaped, green, 10cm crowns of the plant. The flowers are followed by small edible pink fruit, containing black, pear-shaped seeds that are between 1mm and 1½mm long and 1mm wide. These fruit mature to a browny-white colour.
Seeking further information about peyote on the internet, I found many sites blocked with this message on my screen: “Your HomeSafe® settings prevent access to this site.” This statement was followed by this explanation: “The site you tried to access was detected to contain content that falls into the category Drugs, Tobacco and Alcohol, which your HomeSafe® settings won’t allow.” And the explanation for this can be found in the fact that peyote seeds contain mescaline which, to quote Wikipedia, is “a naturally occurring psychedelic alkaloid of the phenethylamine class, known for its hallucinogenic effects comparable to those of LSD and psilocybin,” psilocybin being the hallucinogenic constituent of ‘magic mushrooms’. Apparently, the peyote seeds are usually chewed or boiled to produce a tea; and mescaline. I learn, has been used for thousands of years as a drug by some Native Americans in Mexico as part of their religious ceremonies. What a sheltered life I have led and intend to continue to lead, for I also learn that mescaline is extremely bitter to the taste and frequently causes feelings of nausea before its psychedelic effects kick in.
Peyote, the most common name for Lophophora williamsii, entered the English language as a direct import from Spanish, the Spaniards having come across the plant in South America before the Brits got there. And the Spaniards took the name from the Nahuatl language spoken by the Aztecs. The plant is sometimes called mescal buttons, muscal buttons or pellote and the good news … or bad news, according to your particular penchant … is that cultivated plants of Lophophora williamsii, which can be grown indoors in Scotland and reach maturity in only a few years, have only traces of the hallucinogenic chemicals present in wild plants and, while ingestion of the seeds still causes nausea, vomiting, headaches and feelings of anxiety, their psychedelic effect are minimal, if they are present at all.
And so, while I promise that I am not advocating the use of mescaline or any other drug that alters thinking, causes changes in time perception and induces apparent sightings of things that aren’t really there (I hope not! – Ed.) rest assured that peyote won’t grow in a Scottish garden and that cultivated peyote is not hallucinogenic. Enjoy a dreamless sleep!
How fleeting is worldly fame!