Photo of Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001) in the Amazon. Through his studies of indigenous uses of plants, he is often considered the father of modern ethnobotany . Original photo from Wikipedia

Spiritual Plants and Ethnobotany
Ethnobotany is the study of the interactions between plants and people. As a field of study, ethnobotany is multidisciplinary and encompasses a wide spectrum of disciplines including anthropology, biology, botany, chemistry, pharmacology, and sociology (Balick & Cox 1999). In addition to the above, ethnobotany often requires one to conduct plant collections in the field in order to acquire plant species from a given environment which have a long history of use by a specific population or culture (Balick & Cox 1999; Miller 2011). Prior to undertaking collections it is important that an ethnobotanist has obtained ethics and prior informed consent from all parties involved and that collection permits from the appropriate authorities are obtained. Generally while conducting field work, an ethnobotanist will document plant uses and compile this information into a list. Collected specimens are then vouchered and identified through collaborations with herbariums (Balick & Cox, 1999; Miller 2011; Bennett & Balick, 2014).

Classic ethnobotany describes a strong connection between plants used to treat neurological diseases and those associated with ceremonial and/or ritualistic practices. The isolation and development of valuable drugs from plants classically follows a well-established pipeline consisting of the following steps: ethnobotanical research, collection of plant material, extraction of phytochemicals, bioassay, fractionation, isolation, and pharmaceutical testing (Balick & Cox, 1999). Using this method important drugs for treating memory loss (galanthamine) and HIV (prostratin) have been discovered (Newman & Cragg, 2012; Cox,2001; Heinrich & Teoh, 2004). In order to identify good botanical leads, statistical tools may also be used to analyze ethnobotanical datasets (Moerman et al. 1991; Moerman & Estabrook 2003, Moerman 2012; Turi & Murch 2013; Weckerle et al. 2011, 2012; Bennett & Husby, 2009).

Daniel Moerman’s online Native American Ethnobotany Database contains ethnobotanical information for 3618 species among 291 Native American/First Nations groups (Moerman 2009; Moerman 2012). Previously, Turi and Murch (2013) analyzed ethnobotanical data pertaining to spiritual and ceremonial plant uses by North American indigenous peoples and identified species belonging to the Buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) as good candidates to contain novel psychoactive compounds (Turi & Murch 2013). To date, limited phytochemical and pharmacological information is available for spiritual species belonging to the Ranunculaceae, thus the current article will provide a summary of current understandings for species belonging to the genus Actaea, Clematis, and Delphinium.

The Buttercup Family (Ranunculaceae)


John Gerard (c. 1545-1612) wrote The Herball or Generall Hiftorie of Plants in 1597. In this work he refers to members of the Buttercup family (referred to as crows-foot) as dangerous to consume. Photo taken from

dangerous to be taken into the body and therefore require very exquisite moderation, with a most exact and due maner of tempering, not any of them are to be taken alone by themselves, because they are of most violent force, and therefore have the greater need of correction. (Gerard 1636).

The family Ranunculaceae consists of 60 genera and 1700 species worldwide (Whittemore & Parfitt, 1997). While many species are considered toxic or poisonous, species from the Ranunculaceae have a long history of use within various parts of the world such as England, China, Egypt, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and India (Turner 1984). Similarly in North America, members of the Ranunculaceae possess a wide spectrum of medicinal applications for treatment of skin, respiratory, and neurological ailments. Furthermore, members have reportedly been used in ceremony, to revive individuals, and to treat conditions of unknown origin (Turner 1984; Moerman 2009). With respect to the medicinal chemistry, benzylisoquinoline alkaloids (BIA) are characteristic of many genera found in the Ranunculaceae (i.e. Thalictrum, Ranunculus, Actaea) (Liscombe et al., 2006). Several genera from the Ranunculaceae (i.e. Clematis, Anemone) are also known to contain the glycoside ranunculin which undergoes enzymatic conversion to form protoanemonin when plant tissues become damaged (Turner 1984; Majak 2001). Protoanemonin is an irritant to skin and mucosal membranes. Thankfully, its blistering effects can be removed by drying protoanemonin containing plant materials to form anemonin, a less harmful constituent (Chawla, Kumar & Sharma 2012). In addition to the above, triterpene glycosides have been identified within various genera (i.e. Actaea, Clematis, Thalictrum) (Chawla et al., 2012; Khamidullina et al., 2005; Avula et al., 2007)

The genus Actaea L. (Baneberry)

White Baneberry NPS

Picture of White Baneberry or White Cohosh. Photo Credit: National Park Service

It is estimated that between 2-10 species of Actaea are found in North America (Whittemore and Parfitt, 1997; USDA, 2015). Over the years taxonomic rearrangement between Actaea and Cimicifuga has led to various synonyms for members of this genus. For example, Cimicifuga racemosa L. is a widely used synonym for Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa L.). Amongst North American Actaea species, Black cohosh is most commonly studied due to its commercial importance for treating symptoms associated with menopause (Avula et al., 2007). Interestingly, neglect towards the healing properties of other cohosh species such as Red cohosh (Actaea rubra (Aiton) Willd) and White cohosh (Actaea pachypoda Elliott) was noted over a hundred years ago by eclectic practitioners:

The facts are: Actaea alba [A. rubra] and Actaea spicata var. rubra [A. rubra], together with Cimicifuga racemosa [A. racemosa], were used by the American Indians as emmenagogues and parturients, as well as in the cure of rheumatism. Thus they became known to the whites, and by reason of their introduction were employed in domestic practice in the same manner. They accordingly were brought before the medical profession, and while the abundance of Cimicifuga racemosa enabled it to become a common remedy, the relative scarcity of the Actaeas kept them from being as well known. There is really little difference, physically, chemically, therapeutically, or physiologically in the three plants; they are gathered indiscriminately, and doubtless the common plant, Cimicifuga, will naturally always take the precedence. Neither species of Actaea has ever been officinal (Llyod & Llyod 1887).

Assessment of Moerman’s Ethnobotanical database revealed that roots from A. rubra are used medicinally during ceremony by the Cheyenne (Hart, 1976) (Table 1). According to Hart (1976), the Cheyenne named A. rubra after their prophet and saviour sweet medicine who placed his powers in A. rubra after his death. Cheyenne women would boil roots and drink a tea in order to promote lactation. Sweet medicine told the Cheyenne people that A. rubra would help raise their children, and it is believed that feeding breast milk to children after consuming A. rubra will lead to the development of a child who is patient, grounded and courageous. In addition to the above, the roots of A. rubra are incorporated into the Sun Dance, Sacred Arrow, and Sacred Hat ceremonies by performing a “throwing it at him” ritual, in which a small portion of the root is chewed by a priest-instructor and spat at others, thereby ‘throwing’ the powers of sweet medicine towards others.

Table 1: Summary of Reported Uses During Ceremony as Medicine for members of the Ranunculaceae (See Moerman 2009 for further information)

Species Part Used Common Name Ceremonial or Spiritual Use as Medicine
Actaea rubra (Aiton) Willd. Root Baneberry, Red Cohosh The Cheyenne use the root as a ceremonial medicine (Hart, 1981).
Anemone canadensis L. Root Canada anemone, meadow anemone, crowfoot, round-headed anemone The Ojibwa ingest the roots of Canadian anemone in order to prepare for singing during medicine lodge ceremonies (Smith 1932).
Aquilegia canadensis L. Root and Leaf Canadian columbine, Eastern Red columbine, Wild columbine The Meskwaki use a decoction made from  root and leaf material of canadian columbine as a persuasive power during trade or council (Smith, 1928).
Aquilegia triternata Payson N.D Mountain columbine The Navajo use mountain columbine as a fumigant during ceremony to treat headaches (Wyman and Stuart ,1951).
Clematis virginiana L. N.D Virginsbower The Cherokee incorporate Devil’s Darning needles into green corn medicine (Hamel and Chiltoskey, 1975)
Clematis occidentalis (Hornem.) DC Leaves and Stem Western Blue Virginsbower Leaves are used to remove ‘ghost bullets’, while the stem is used as a smudge to revive those who came near ghosts (Turner, 1984).
Delphinium geraniifolium Rydb. N.D Clark Valley Larkspur Taken during ceremony as an emetic by the Hopi (Colton, 1974)
Delphinium scaposum Greene N.D Tall Mountain Larkspur Taken during ceremony as an emetic by the Hopi during the Po-wa-mu ceremony (Colton, 1974; Voth 1901)
Ranunculus cymbalaria Pursh N.D Rocky Mountain Buttercup Used as an emetic during ceremony by the Navajo and Ramah (Vestal, 1952).
Thalictrum fendleri Engelm. Ex A. Gray N.D Fendler’s Meadowrue Plant taken as a medicine during ceremony by the Navajo. On the fifth nght after the blackening ceremony, a tea is consumed and used for bathing (Vestal, 1952).

*N.D. = Not Described

The ability of constituents present within A. rubra roots to alter mood and behaviour has never been examined. Interestingly, stimulatory and psychoactive effects produced by other Actaea species have been described. For example the Meskwaki and Cherokee would ingest the roots of White Cohosh in order to revive those who are nearing death (Smith 1928; Hamel & Chiltoskey 1975). Grieve (1932) also notes the benefits of Actaea spicata L. a species native to Europe, for treating mental unrest by stating:

it is of an acrid, poisonous nature, throughout, and though the root has been used in some nervouse cases, and is said to be a remedy for catarrh, it must be administered with great caution.

Though limited, there is some phytochemical and pharmacological data available for A. rubra. Ali, Khan, and Khan (2006) identified eleven triterpene glycosides in A. rubra roots, no cytotoxicity or anticancer activity was observed for any of the isolates. Avula, Ali, and Khan (2007) compared the distribution of 18 triterpene glycosides across A. racemosa, A. pachypoda, A. podocarpa, and A. rubra and noted unique differences between species which could be used for fingerprinting. Lastly, eight polyphenolic constituents were identified in A. rubra roots; compared to A. racemosa, A. pachypoda, and A. podocarpa, total phenolic content and antioxidant potential was highest for extracts derived from A. rubra roots (Nuntanakorn et al. 2007).

The genus Clematis


Photo of Clematis occidentalis. Photo Credit: Walter Siegmund

It is estimated that between 32-54 species of Clematis are found within North America (Whittemore & Parfitt 1997; USDA 2015). With respect to spiritual botany, Moerman (2009) lists two species of Clematis: virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana L.) and western blue virgin’s bower (Clematis occidentalis (Hornem.) DC) (Table 1). Traditionally, C. virginiana is used by the Cherokee as an ingredient for green corn medicine (Hamel & Chiltoskey, 1975). A wash prepared from the stems of C. virginiana is applied by the Iroquois to induce unusual dreams (Herrick 1977). Blackfoot shaman would apply leaves of C. occidentalis after the removal of ‘’ghost bullets’’ from one’s body. In the event that an individual came into close proximity with a ghost and fainted, stems were burned to revive them (Turner 1984; Hellson 1974).  It is also interesting to note that over a century ago, eclectic and homeopathic practitioners would recommend using C. virginiana for treatment of neurological conditions. For example, King’s American Dispensatory 1898 states that “Clematis virginiana has been highly spoken of as a nervine in uterine diseases” (Felter & Lloyd, 1898), while Professor E.M. Hale a homeopathic physician wrote that a 1:2 tincture made by placing the leaves and flowers of C. virginiana in alcohol is

useful in nervous erethism, sleeplessness, neuralgic and rheumatic headache and toothache. It is particularly useful in the reflex neurosis of women, arising from irritation of the ovaries and urinary organs; also for the neurosis of men, when connected with painful affections of the testicles and bladder (Llyod & Lloyd, 1884).

Despite the above ethnobotanical uses, no phytochemical or pharmacological data could be retrieved for either species. A recent review of the literature found that approximately 250 compounds have been isolated from 35 species of Clematis. Furthermore, preliminary screening of 26 species revealed a wide spectrum of pharmacological activity including analgesic, anti-inflammatory, diuretic and hypotensive (Chawla et al. 2012). Although the exact phytochemical underpinnings for the medicinal use of Clematis species is yet to be elucidated, Turner (1984) has suggested that blistering and irritant effects caused by protoanemonin, can partially explain the use of Clematis species, as well as other members of the Ranunculaceae, for the treatment of skin conditions, muscular pain, and respiratory ailments (Turner 1984). Given over 40% of compounds isolated from the genus Clematis are saponins, Chawla et al (2012) postulates that triterpene glycosides may contribute largely to the medicinal chemistry of this genus.

The genus Delphinium (Larkspurs)


Photo of Subalpine Larkspur (Delphinium spp.). All Larkspur species are considered toxic to humans and livestock and should not be eaten (see Photo credit: National Park Service

It is estimated that 61 to 73 species of Delphinium are distributed throughout North America (Whittemore & Parfitt 1997; USDA 2015). Larkspurs (Dephinium spp.) are considered extremely toxic, and have been implicated in the deaths of livestock in Western parts of North America (Manners, Panter & Pelletier 1995; Green et al. 2012). According to Moerman (2009) two species of Delphinium are used during ceremony as emetics: Clark Valley Larkspur (Delphinium geraniifolium Rydb.) and Tall Mountain Larkspur (Delphinium scaposum Greene) (Table 1). According to Voth (1901), D. scaposum is used medicinally during the Po-wa-mu ceremony by a Hopi messenger in order to obtain visions or revelations which are then communicated to others.

The pipe lighter had in the meanwhile gotten some toǩamsi (Delphinium scaposum), put it into a bowl and poured some water over it. Of this emetic the messenger drank a large quantity, placed the bowl on the floor, bent over it and by irritating his pharynx with his finger produced a very thorough emesis into the bowl. The Powamu priest put a little honey into the mongwikuru and on the long feather which the young man had brought back and then all waited in profound silence until the young man was through vomiting….The Powamu priest then asked the messenger to relate the experiences of his trip, which he did in the minutest manner, stating where they traveled, whom they met on the way, how these were dressed, what they spoke with them and where they went, what they carried, etc (Voth 1901).

Larkspur has also been employed during ceremony for other purposes, for example Navajo shaman use “blue sacred powder” which is made from D. scaposum petals as a sacrificial offering (Mathews 1886).  The Hopi will place “blue pollen” on a flute altar which is made by grinding D. scaposum flowers and corn into a blue meal (Hough, 1897). Phytochemical and pharmacological investigation towards the toxicity of North American Delphinium species has implicated several norditerpenoid alkaloids as the main constituents responsible for their toxicity (Manners et al. 1995). These compounds can be grouped into two classes, 7,8-methylenedioxylycoctonine (MDL) and N-(methylsuccinimido) anthranoyllycoctonine (MSAL) (Green et al. 2013). Similar to other plant toxins, both MDL and MSAL type alkaloids block nicotinic acetylcholine receptors present in the central nervous system and/or neuromuscular junction, which in turn can lead to paralysis and eventual death (Manners et al. 1995; Green et al. 2012; USDA 2015). In the event of poisoning, symptoms can be mitigated by taking drugs which inhibit acetylcholinesterase, thereby increasing levels of acetylcholine at the neuromuscular junction (Green et al. 2013).


Photo of Belladonna (Atropa spp.). Though extremely toxic, members from the nightshade family (Solanaceae) have been employed for ritualistic or spiritual purposes.

Plants which exploit cholinergic signalling in the CNS have classically been used for witchcraft, spirituality, and to hallucinate. For example, Belladonna (Atropa belladonna L.), Jimson Weed (Datura stramonium L.) and other species from the Solanaceae contain atropine and scopolamine, a muscarinic acetylcholine receptor blocker (Perry 1997). While numerous works have investigated the phytochemical profiles for several North American Delphinium species which are involved with livestock loss, information directly pertaining to both D. scaposum and D. geraniifolium could not be found. Still, it is very likely that reported effects caused by Larkspur ingestion during ceremony are at least partially due to the presence of norditerpenoid alkaloids. Given the average plant leaf can contain upwards of 30, 000 chemicals, it is also likely that perceived effects caused by Larkspur ingestion are due to synergism between compounds, and a combination of structure activity relationships which involve various targets.

Concluding Remarks

Although A. rubra, C. virginiana, C. occidentalis, D. geranifolium, and D. scaposum have all been employed for medicine during ceremony, limited phytochemical and pharmacological information exists to support their use. This does not mean that the above plants are ineffective or have no potential to treat a wide spectrum of ailments. Rather, it suggests future research opportunities to better understand their ceremonial use and medicinal chemistry are ahead. While there is some evidence to suggest selection of plants for spirituality and ceremony may partially be mediated by a plant’s phytochemical make-up, researchers have only scraped the surface, with a majority of current understandings limited to a select number of plants. Previous analysis of Moerman’s Ethnobotany database revealed that at least 300 species were employed by First Nations and Native American peoples as medicines during ceremony (Turi & Murch 2013), to date the vast majority of these species have never been investigated.

Native American ceremonial practice is an important component for maintaining balanced connections between mind, body and spirit (Portman & Garrett 2006; Garrett et al. 2011). Healing practices may involve some combination of the following: teas, purification ceremonies, herbs, special foods, prayer, chants, dancing, sand painting, and therapeutic activities such as singing (Portman & Garrett 2006). Given the above, it is important to note that perceived therapeutic effects which render a plant medicinally effective during ceremony may or may not be phytochemically-driven as other influences from the surrounding environment, community, culture, psyche, etc are likely involved.  Furthermore, a placebo effect should also be considered when investigating the therapeutic efficacy (Moerman & Jonas 2002). Interestingly, Turner (2009) has noted widespread use of fragrant species for spirituality and ceremony by First Nations peoples living within Northwest regions of North America. Thus, a plant’s phytochemical make-up may incite its use during ceremony and spirituality, but to what extent still remains unknown.

Spiritual plants convey a sense of euphoria, revival or awakening and can alter ones state of consciousness through hallucinogenic or psychoactive properties, making them a useful tool for treating a wide spectrum of neurological disorders (O’Connor & Roth 2005; McKenna 1995; McKenna et al., 2011). Over the years, investigation of plants used for spiritual or ceremonial purposes have identified numerous phytochemicals which can mediate brain function. For example, Cannabis has a long history of spiritual use with one of the earliest works from China stating that: if taken over time it “makes one communicate with spirits and lightens one’s body” (Touw 1981). Currently, cannabinoids from Cannabis (Cannabis sativa) are under investigation for the treatment of Parkinsons and Huntingtons disease (Fernandez Ruiz et al. 2011, Little, Villanueva, & Klegeris 2011). Furthermore, Kavalactones present in Kava root (Piper methysticum) have traditionally been consumed in Oceania as a ceremonial beverage for the purpose of unifying or strengthening social bonds within a community (Balick 2002), and are now considered as an effective treatment for anxiety (Sarris et al. 2009, Sarris and Kavanagh 2009).

Given the observation that species used in ceremony, to revive, or to communicate with metaphysical forces have led to the discovery of novel psychoactive constituents or therapies, future research should focus on uncovering the phytochemical underpinnings which govern the sacred and spiritual use of North American species, as they may provide researchers with new avenues for treating a wide spectrum of ailments including neurological conditions.


Christina Headshot 1Christina E. Turi obtained a B.Sc in Plant Biology from the University of British Columbia (Canada), and an M.Sc in Ethnobotany at the University of Kent (UK). Her PhD research focused on the phytochemistry and ethnobotany of North American spiritual and ceremonial plants leading her to join the Gosling Research Institute for Plant Preservation upon completion of her studies. In addition to being managing editor for Spiritual Botany Magazine, she is currently involved with several GRIPP projects which aim to preserve North American biocultural diversity,


Posted by Christina Turi