Cestrum parqui

Cestrum parqui, commonly known as palqui, is a flowering bush native to central Chile whose fetid leaves have been used medicinally by the Mapuche for the treatment of wounds, rashes, allergies, inflammations and fevers. Mössbach mentions the Chilean saying: “Wherever the devil has planted a nettle, God has planted a palqui.” In a recent phytochemical overview of this plant, Bahgat et al. describe how Cestrum L. species are responsible for cytotoxic, spermicidal, anti-microbial and pesticidal activities. Huanquilef et al. demonstrate in their study how Cestrum parqui can control insects that have a negative impact on the Chilean forestry sector. Cestrum parqui, affirm the researchers, could be an alternative treatment, replacing deleterious methyl bromide fumigation that has ozone-depleting effects on the environment. 

But there are additional characteristics of this plant that give it a special importance to the Mapuche culture. In an anthropological study of the ruka, the Mapuche dwelling in the forested mountains of southern Chile, Juan Carlos Skewes describes how homes constitute part of a living landscape, a way for their inhabitants to become integrated with the environment and thereby protect both the forest and themselves. Skewes discusses how the trees and shrubs become allies of the Indigenous residents in their everyday lives “as a source of wisdom or health in the case of the pellín (Nothofagus obliqua), whose physical presence is advisable for the sick, or as a contra (antidote) for evil spells in the case of palqui (Cestrum parqui), a shrub known for its toxicity.” 

There is a certain secrecy that seems to envelop this plant, though this is certainly understandable given the prying eyes of non-Mapuche outsiders. Plowman mentions Cestrum parqui in an article on another powerful member of the Solanaceae family Latua pubiflora: the Mapuche-Huilliche of southern Chile hold purification and healing ceremonies that can include whipping the patient with the branches of the foul-smelling palqui (known in Spanish as hediondilla) to banish the evil spirits and enemy shamans who have caused the illness. Rätsch affirms that he experienced the psychoactive properties of the smoked leaves of palqui, comparing the atropine-like effect to that of the solanaceous Brugmansia. Rätsch also cites sources that name Cestrum parqui, along with Latua pubiflora and other plants, as a principal ingredient in a psychoactive incense used ritually by the Mapuche. 

According to a fascinating book edited by Iván Pérez Muñoz, the most sacred place for the Mapuche-Lafkenche is Isla Mocha, an island in the Arauco Province of Chile, 40 kilometers off the coast of Tirúa. The name of this island, known by the Indigenous population as Amucha or Amuchura, comes from the words in the Mapuche language Mapudungun Am (“soul”) and Uchran (“to be resurrected”). This is the stopping place on the way to Wenumapu, the Mapuche Paradise. As the story goes, it is easy enough to live and much more difficult to die. Nomtufe ferries the souls with their little flames in the immensity of the night from the continent to the island in a dugout canoe made of a single piece of the Chilean Laurel (Laurelia sempervirans) that is called triwe by the Mapuche. Four venerable women transform themselves into whales (meli yene) at the end of the day and follow the embarkation as they carry on their backs an irascible woman with long white hair known as the Trempülkahue, the Supreme Judge, the Interrogator of Souls. The whales make the trip more difficult with the currents and whirlpools they create, demanding payment for the transportation provided in the form of a necklace of precious stones carried by the souls and then, as the turbulent journey continues, each of the soul’s two eyes that make a small splash into the water as they sink beneath dark waves and calm the Trempülkahue, who then decides which of the souls are worthy of continuing to Paradise as kimche—people who were good, just, and hardworking in life, who had a sense of lineage and of belonging to a place, and who possessed spiritual fortitude. An archaeobotanical study conducted by Chilean researcher Carolina Godoy-Aguirre at a site on the northeastern part of Isla Mocha known as El Vergel Complex examined microscopic plant residue on ceramic shards and positively identified five species, including Zea mays (Corn) for fermented drinks (in approximately 1300 CE) as well as Cestrum parqui used for medicinal or for as yet unknown ritual purposes. In 1685, in another instance of colonial repression, Spanish authorities forced the 500 Indigenous residents of the island to abandon the sacred ground of their ceremonial center and sent them to live at a missionary settlement in Concepción. Isla Mocha may have been uninhabited for the next 160 years, though some believe that a small group of Mapuche permanently remained in the part of the island that is now the Nature Reserve.

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