Solandra spp.

As was the case with so many other plants and fungi in the Americas during the colonial period, Tim Knab maintains that Catholic priests, attempting to prohibit the Huichol (Wixárica) ritual use of Solandra (whose common name is Kiéri), “probably destroyed many of the plants in their unsuccessful effort to stamp out idolatry in the region.”

Masaya Yasumoto says that “the Huichols recognize a close relationship among plants of three solanaceous genera, SolandraDatura and Brugmansia.” He also points out that “it is believed that the pollen of Kiéri flowers makes birds and insects faint, and causes honey bees to lose their sense of direction.” 

Furthermore, writes Yasumoto, “Kiéri Tewiyari is even more unforgiving, causing madness and even death for the transgressor.” 

Solandra is a plant of dark mysteries and transformative forces for Indigenous healers willing to assume these considerable risks. Susana Eger Valadez describes the movement between different species, when a human becomes a wolf, under the aegis of this potentially perilous plant-teacher: “The following night, again on the full moon, the wolves who have claimed the initiate will take him into their den. This time, he will be under the influence of the powerful wolf-kiéri plant.” In one of the confocal images included here, a strangely illuminated red oval portal appears in the lower right. What would happen if one had the preparation to enter?

Lilián González Chévez documents the current ritual use of Solandra guerrerensis (called Hueytlacatzintli) among Nahua healers in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, where the plant is used primarily to identify the cause of witchcraft and learn how to free victims from these spells, to find lost objects, and to request a specific skill for a client (such as rapidly being able to play a musical instrument with great virtuosity). But, most importantly, Solandra still plays an important role in ceremonies of shamanic initiation.

Her superb fieldwork on the contemporary traditional medicinal uses of Solandra, also known as hueytlacatl (whose name in Náhuatl means “supreme plant worthy of kings and nobles”) includes a detailed description of the complex, days-long curing ritual itself as well as the first-person testimony of Nahua healer Don Cirilo Soriano from Tlalcozotitlán, a town of 1000 residents in the Mexican state of Guerrero. He gives a compelling account of his powerful plant-visions during his beginnings as a curandero decades ago under the tutelage of Teodora Petlatekatl from the town of Zitlala. On the one hand, this story is an intimate tale of resilience recounted by real people describing how plant wisdom from pre-Hispanic times persists to the present day. But it also demonstrates how centuries of prohibition and demonization of the old gods and the sacred plants themselves have forced ancestral vegetal knowledge underground. Hueytlacatl, once consumed in a cacao drink by Indigenous sovereigns themselves for the purpose of divination, has been recategorized over time as witchcraft and relegated to a limited, precarious existence in the hands of traditional healers catering to the health needs of a predominantly Náhuatl-speaking population employed by multinational corporations, as Adriana Saldaña Ramírez reveals: these are the poor, marginalized migrant workers exposed to pesticides and contaminated water who struggle to survive as they put fruit and vegetables on the tables of those who live in the global north. 

The santo remedio, an anthropomorphized plant-god who speaks with the patient in the form of terrifying visions complete with wolves and poisonous creatures while confirming who caused the patient’s disease and by what means, is a powder made from the vine of hueytlacatl and the bark of huaxchiquimolin (Leucaena matudae), a member of the Fabaceae family that is an endangered species found only in Mexico (See Zárate for a complete overview of this Mimosoid legume whose leaves and flowers bear a strong resemblance to Anadenanthera spp.).  Don Cirilo is quoted as saying that huaxchiquimolin is a “brother” of hueytlacatl and that “they work well together,” something that, apparently, he discovered on his own, outside of his apprenticeship. The dose is precisely-measured (1 cm. deep in a bottlecap). It can then be drunk after dissolving it in water or, preferably, mezcal. To be healed is to have one’s shadow restored.

Lilián González Chévez’s study ends with a pointed disclaimer in the interest of public safety due to solanaceous neurotoxic tropane alkaloids that can cause insanity and death and also, one assumes, as a way of calling for the need to protect the sacred Nahua cultural heritage in Guerrero from a tragically destructive outside foreign onslaught of spiritual seekers similar to what occurred after a publication by Gordon Wasson about another small, remote Mexican town, Huautla de Jiménez, where a healer named María Sabina treated patients with her niños santos.

It has been a privilege and a joy to care for Solandra maxima at home in upstate New York. After four years without blooming, hueytlacatl revealed a dozen glorious golden chalices in a spectacular indoor show as a terrible blizzard did its cold work in December. The flowers rose from the vine like green, faceted pyramids and then extended themselves as pale yellow ghostly forms whose round petalled indentations were eyes that surely saw in different ways than mine. And when they opened, the color combination of deep gold cups veined in maroon was breathtaking. For weeks at night, each flower was a world unto itself and helped bring a bewitching olfactory landscape from a warmer faraway place that permeated our home. The stamens were thick with sticky white pollen. And it was impossible to resist the temptation to taste it only to become lost in maelstroms of air almost instantly in a dream of being a bee in a dangerous liaison with Solandra. 

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