The ‘balché’ tree has long been cultivated and held sacred by the Maya of Yucatan [Mexico], n. Guatemala, and British Honduras, who use it to prepare a ritual beverage of the same name. It is consumed communally in times of need, to re-establish links with the gods [who gave the balché ritual to the Mayan ancestors], or sometimes for almost any reason that can be thought of off-hand [as with the Lacandon Maya]. The brew was once taken rectally as an enema, but today is usually only consumed consumed orally. The beverage is prepared in a specially-made canoe, which
is sometimes made from the balché tree itself. Water is added to the canoe; wild honey [which usually may not be consumed for more trivial purposes] is then dissolved in the water to a ratio ranging from 1:1 to 2:1 [water: honey]. Old, used pieces of balché bark, probably harbouring yeast colonies, are crushed and added, along with fresh bark strips, and sometimes root, equivalent to 4 strips each c.33cm long per brew [it was not noted how many people this would serve]. This mixture is then fermented for 3-6 days, with a fi nal alcohol content of 1-5%. Incantations are uttered
throughout the early stages of preparation, calling in the spirits of toxic plants and creatures of the jungle, some of which may also be added to fortify the brew [see Methods of Ingestion].
Before group consumption in a ritual circle, the ‘soul’ of balché is offered to each of the gods in turn in a palm-leaf cup [or other appropriate vessel], held up to the heavens. A conch-shell is sounded, which invites everyone to attend the circle to drink. All are served an equal amount from a central pot, and all drink simultaneously. Over the next few hours, 17 litres or more may be consumed by each person, with frequent vomiting, urinating and defecating to make room for more. Effects, which manifest quickly, consist of euphoria, feelings of good-will, sharpened perceptions,
muscle relaxation, emesis, and purging, followed fi nally by a deep sleep. There is said to be little subsequent hangover. Apparently, even after drinking large quantities, one does not feel drunk, despite the alcohol content, due to a modifi cation of action from the balché bark. When made with ‘kava’ [see Piper 2] in place of L. violaceus, the effects are very similar (De Lima et al. 1977; Montgomery pers. comm.; Rätsch 1990, 1992; Rätsch pers. comm.). It should also be noted that in Yucatan, a stingless bee collects honey from Turbina corymbosa; this honey is said to be quite inebriating (Ott 1998a). It is not known whether the wild honeys used for preparing balché similarly bear psychoactive constituents from such a source. In Central and South America, the roots of some Lonchocarpus spp. [such as L. nicou (L. fl oribundus) and L. densifl orus] are thrown into water as a fi sh poison. In Brazil L. urucu is used for this purpose, but it is the leaves and stems which are valued, rather than the root. The use of these plants in stupefying fi sh is due to their rotenone content [up to 20% in L. nicou dry root]. Species high in rotenone have a thick, abundant
latex. Rotenone is a neurotoxin which is generally considered non-toxic to mammals (Allen & Allen 1981; Prance 1972; Usher 1974). However, recent animal studies have implicated rotenone [i.v.] in causing some symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, with chronic exposure (Butcher 2000; Greenamyre et al. 1999). Canavanine [see Canavalia] has been found in some Lonchocarpus spp., such as L. bussei, L. capassa, L. cyanescens, L. eriocalyx, L. laxifl orus and L. neisii (Bell et al. 1978). L. violaceus root bark has yielded 16% of a raw extract, containing prenyl-stilbenes called longistylines [similar to kawain from kava – see Piper 2], and rotenone; the root has yielded 1.4% longistyline A, 0.3% longistyline B, 1.3% longistyline C and 0.7% longistyline D. All of the longistylines have antibacterial properties (De Lima et al. 1977; Monache et al. 1977; Rätsch 1992), but their potential psychoactive properties seem to be uninvestigated. Seeds have also yielded the peptide enduracididine and traces of 4-OH-arginine, as well as the alkaloids 2-amino-4,5-dihydro-1H-imidazole-4-acetic acid, and 3,4-dihydroxy-2,5-bis(OHmethyl)pyrrolidine (International… 1994).
Lonchocarpus violaceus is a small, glabrous tree. Leaves alternate, imparipinnate; leafl ets in 3-5 pairs, ovate, translucent-dotted, to 8.9cm long, dark green above. Flowers numerous in axillary racemes to c.25cm long; bracts small, caducous; bracteoles 2; calyx truncate, lobes short or obsolete, 2 uppermost ones longer and connate; petals whitish outside, pale purple or pinkish inside, standard orbicular-obovate, with 2 basal ears, wings oblique-oblong, clawed, eared, slightly adherent to the keel above the claw, keel obtuse, eared, clawed; stamens 10, 1 of them separated
at the base but united above with the other 9; anthers versatile. Ovary silky-pubescent, 2-many-ovuled; style incurved, fi liform; stigma small, terminal. Fruit a fl at, indehiscent leguminous pod, lanceolate, membranous or leathery, to 5.9cm long and half as wide, 1-seeded; seeds round, fl at or kidney-shaped. S.e. Mexico, Guatemala, British Honduras, West Indies, Colombia, Venezuela, Zimbabwe; cultivated as an ornamental (Allen & Allen 1981; Bailey & Bailey 1976).
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