by Peter Gorman

Often called the Father of modern ethnobotany, botanist, explorer and author Richard Schultes is the Director Emeritus of Harvard’s famed Botanical Museum. Beginning in 1940, Dr. Schultes spent a total of 17 years in the Amazon, mostly in the remote regions of Colombia where he investigated and collected the medicinal, edible and toxic plants used by the Kofan, Witoto and other indigenous groups. He is the recipient of dozens of awards for his pioneering botanical work, among them the Cross of Boyaca—Colombia’s highest honor—and The Gold Medal of the World Wildlife Fund, presented by Britian’s Prince Philip. Additionally, he has authored and co-authored numerous books—including two written with LSD synthesizer Dr. Albert Hofmann—among them Plants of the Gods—Origins of Hallucinogenic Use (Schultes and Hofmann; 1979, McGraw-Hill, NY) and The Healing Forest: Medicinal and Toxic Plants of Northwest Amazonia (Schultes and Raffauf; 1990, Dioscorides Press; Portland, OR).

 Now 80 years old, Dr. Schultes, the father of three grown children, continues to work at the Botanical Museum two days a week, is concentrating on finishing several book projects, and is hoping to make one more trip to his beloved Colombian Amazon.  

Peter Gorman: Let’s start with how you came to be an ethnobotanist.

RICHARD SCHULTES: Well, I’m from an old New England family, and  when I was growing up one of my uncles had a farm up in what was then a small town, Townsend, Massachusetts. I spent the summers up there, helping in the haying, and I began to collect plants. I don’t know where I learned that you pressed them, but I pressed them in big encyclopedias. Then I began to learn what the vernacular names of the plants were and as I got older I learned that they had Latin names—which didn’t mean much to me until I studied Latin. So I always had an interest in plants.

PG: What did you study in school?

RS: Well, I did my undergraduate thesis on peyote. I went out to Oklahoma with an anthropologist, Weston LaBarre—who was then a graduate student at Yale and later became famous writing several books on peyote—and attended four or five all night ceremonies and tried peyote with the Indians. We spent time with three or four different tribes, mainly Kiowa. Anyway, I collected some peyotes and brought them back and did a little chemical work on it. 

PG: Were you the first to do chemistry on the peyote cactus?

RS: No. But I’d had several courses in organic chemistry and I just became interested in it. I’m ashamed of it now because it’s very complicated and I was just a beginner at chemistry.

But in writing my thesis I became interested in a misconception that had taken hold in relation to peyote and the sacred plant of the Aztecs, Teonanacatl. William Safford, an ethnobotanist—I think he was with the Smithsonian—had said in 1916 that the Aztec’s Teonanacatl must have been peyote. Which did not fit in with my knowledge of botany because peyote is a cactus and cacti do not grow in high wet forests, while Teonanacatl was undoubtedly a fungus, a mushroom which doesn’t grow in deserts. And so I went to Mexico hoping I’d be able to see this plant, Teonanacatl, and I ended up doing my thesis on the useful of plants of the Mazatec Indians. 

PG: Did you ever find Teonanacatl?

RS: Yes. I was able to bring back one identifiable species of this mushroom they were using, Panaeolis sphinctrinus, and in 1941 I published a paper in the Harvard Botanical Museum Leaflets identifying that one species as Teonanacatl. Of course, thanks primarily to the work of Gordon Wasson and the Mexican mycologist Gaston Guzman, we have since learned there are about twenty-four species used by the Shamans of Oaxaca. 

PG: Did you get to do the magic mushroom with the Mazatec’s?

RS: No. I hadn’t tried it. I only had a couple of specimens.

But I fell in love with Oaxaca and thought I’d probably work all my life there on the flora.

PG: What changed your mind about continuing to work in Mexico?

RS: Well, after I’d gotten my PhD, I had two jobs offered to me: biology master in a private school in New England and a grant from the National Academy of Sciences to go to the Amazon to find out what plants the natives used in making their curare .

PG: Why was the National Academy of Sciences interested in curare?  

RS: Because in late 1930s, scientists had isolated a chemical from one of the plants used to make curare called tubocurine, which was just becoming very important in medicine. It’s a muscle relaxant that’s now used in any good hospital before deep surgery. Now the Indians make many different kinds of arrow poisons so the Academy wanted to know as much as possible about the different plants they used. So that was the job I took. I took a plane down to Bogota in 1940 and worked out in the field on that project. 

PG: How did you first go into the jungle?

RS: I first went in with Indians who lived along the base of the Andes mountains in Colombia, some of whom spoke Spanish. So I had an entree. And as I went farther inland I got Spanish speaking Indian boys who spoke the language of one or two of the tribes and that way I got in among them. 

But they certainly knew I was there before I did, because the grapevine from one tribe to another is much more efficient than Western Union. So even some of the people who hadn’t had any contact with outsiders knew I was in the area and what I was doing.

I spent a lot of time with the Witotos. I did quite a bit of work with them and also with the Kofan, both of whom make a number of arrow poisons from different plants. 

Later when I heard about the outbreak of World War ll I thought I would be conscripted, so I made my way back to Bogota and went to the US Embassy there. But instead of conscripting me they told me to go back into the jungle and try to stimulate the production of rubber. This Bostonian who’d never cut a rubber tree, but I’d been with the Indians nine months at that time so they assumed I had learned all about that.  

PG: And how did you do? 

RS: Well, I gathered a lot of material from species that had been known from the last century, and I also discovered one new species of dwarf rubber tree. It’s an endemic species, only found on one mountain in the Amazon, a mountain that has many unique plants on it. It’s recently been made a protected biological area. This is the mountain that’s been named for me.

PG: I didn’t know there was a mountain that had been named for you. What’s it called?

RS: Mesa Schultes. Mesa means table. So it’s Shultes’ Table. Before that I had a cockroach I collected in the Amazon named for me, and I thought that was a great honor. It’s the genus called Shultesia. But I’ve come up from cockroaches to mountains. 

PG: There are a number of plants with your name as well, aren’t there?

RS: Oh, yes, about two hundred and ten species. Plants are frequently named for the collector. A number of my plants are also named for the Indians who use them. That’s also very common among botanists, to use geographical or tribal names. 

PG: What’s the process of collecting a plant?

RS: The first thing you do is take a cutting of the plant and press it between sheets of newspaper in a plant press so that you can identify it later. Fruits and flowers are very helpful here, we always try to get them. Without this, what we call the herbarium specimen, you have nothing. 

The second thing you do, if you want to later analyze the plant’s chemicals, is to take a wide mouthed plastic jug and put some 70 percent ethyl alcohol into it and then cut the plant in half-inch pieces and put the pieces into the alcohol. The alcohol—provided you use ethyl, and not methyl or booze—will not change the chemical composition of the substances. If they are leached out, they will be in the alcohol which the chemist will have. Actually it’s much more easily worked with that way than if the chemicals are in the actual plant material. That’s the only way to collect. 

PG: And how did the Indians feel about your collecting their plants?

RS: The Indians are wonderful natural collaborators, because they are so interested and knowledgeable about their flora. Everyone was always interested in why I wanted this plant or that plant. The fact was, I wanted it because they used it. If they asked me why I wanted something, I made up a disease we use it for—I’ve invented more diseases than we ever had, so they think we’re a good deal more decrepit than we actually are. And then they’d often say “You can’t use that plant for that. That plant is for treating earaches,” or something like that. That’s how I’d find out how they used it, you see?

PG: How many medicines have been made from the plants that you’ve taken? 

RS: Very few. There’s one that’s called yoco which has a very high content of caffeine which is now used to reduce obesity. I also have a couple of things in Sweden that are being looked at, and several that the American company Shaman Pharmaceuticals are looking into. But American companies, until recently, have looked down their noses at plant chemistry. They have no interest in it. 

I’m glad some of them are starting to take notice because when you consider that the Amazon has 80,000 species of higher plants—and Indonesia, Southeast Asia, or Africa have at least that many as well—well, this is a tremendous chemical storehouse. 

PG: Did you ever need an indigenous medicinal remedy?

RS: No. I really never got sick in the Amazon except for malaria and I always had chloroquine for that. It was always the first thing I put in my briefcase. 

It’s generally very healthy there. There’s tuberculosis and leprosy, which is very common, but that can be controlled if you have soap with you. 

PG: There’s an African shrub called Iboga plant, which is used, among other things, to stop people from obsessive behavior. It’s currently being looked into by the National Institute of Drug Abuse as an addiction interrupter. I’ve heard stories that ayahuasca is sometimes used similarly to treat alcoholism. Have you heard that as well?

RS: No, I haven’t, but I’m convinced that some of these so-called drugs will have side effects that can be used in certain diseases or conditions. For example, one of the big problems that exist among American Indian tribes is that so many of the young people become alcoholics. Many of these people stop drinking when they go to these peyote ceremonies, and I’m sure its not only religious teachings in the ceremonies, but the weekly taking of peyote that’s helping them as well. 

But most of these things have not been properly looked at by medically oriented people. Some of the chemicals in them have not been investigated at all. And chemists take the chemicals that we get out of these compounds and change them to make semi-synthetic compounds. The possibility of making something that may have a special effect is enormous. That’s what i think when I see these forests burning up or being cut down in Brazil. It’s a crime against humanity.

One of the best Brazilian botonists has written that he calculates less than one percent of the Amazonian flora of Brazil has been even superficially looked at by chemists. And so imagine what we are destroying in the Amazon alone! Thousands of species that we’ll never be able to analyze and many of them we don’t yet even have botanical names for.

PG: What can be done to save this knowledge of the people’s whose native regions we’re so quickly destroying?

RS: Civilization, our culture, is advancing with every road, every airport, every commercial company after wood. And with missionaries, tourists and others who are coming into contact with primitive peoples and, while not purposely maybe, certainly destroying their cultures. 

This is one of the things I’ve argued for: ethnological conservation. We’ve got to preserve the knowledge of these peoples. For example, one of my former students and best field men, Dr. Michael Ballick, is taking as much time as he can from his job at the Botanical Gardens in New York to work in Belize where there are three or four old medicine men; if they die all the knowledge of what they’re using is gone. He has a woman there who speaks their language who works with these medicine men and he goes down three or four times a year and she gives him the notes. It’s a wonderful thing. All that will be saved. 

PG: Once we’ve saved their knowledge, how do we make sure that the indigenous people from whom it comes get their fair share?

RS: There’s a lot of discussion about that and many drug companies have agreed to see that some help, whether its financial or some other way, gets back to the tribe. Where I worked, money would be useless, absolutely useless. They don’t need money. It would have been much better for me if they had since I had to pay them in things and had to carry all the stuff down into the jungle. But in many other places where they can use money, money can be given to the tribe or some representative of the tribe. 

In the case of Shaman Pharmaceuticals, they have set up a special sub-branch of environmental conservation, The Healing Forest Conservancy. And they’ve agreed that if they make any money from any of the things they get from the Indians, that they will give back to the group in some way or another. Either by sending a doctor there, or sending money if they can use it, or sending a bright young boy out and giving him a year or two in school somewhere. There are many ways of doing this. 

PG: And how do we save the environments of these peoples?

RS: This is another thing I argue for: botanical and environmental conservation. In many places, especially in Brazil, commercial interests are bringing in all sorts of mechanical material and cutting not only the trees they want, but taking down every twig. The pictures that you see from Brazil are horrendous. I’ve seen them cutting everything down and letting it dry and then setting it afire, and then, of course, nothing else grows. What we’ll have is a great extension larger than the United States, of desert scrub, small plants and trees. You’ll never get the forest taking over.

PG: Is the same true in Colombia?

RS: No. Thanks to the lack of much white penetration and thanks to the rapids and the rivers which make navigation with boats impossible on all but the Putumayo River, the destruction is only by Indians with axes. They cut enough to get their food, period. They don’t take down a thousand acres at a time.

They work those clearings for five or eight years until the land doesn’t give any more crops, and then they move. And in those small areas the jungle takes back over. Which it doesn’t when you cut large areas.

PG: Isn’t a large part of the problem the population explosion, particularly in the Third World?

RS: I have long thought that the number one crisis facing the world is population. For every child born it means a few inches less soil for food. And the way we’re destroying the forests and agricultural land, we no longer have the luxury to procreate the way we have. You have to make people aware, particularly in a place like Colombia, that after two or three children they have to stop. 

Now the Colombian government was doing this with medical advice, and then the Pope comes in there, the first stop of any Pope in the New World—and Colombia is a very Catholic country—and he berates the government for this. He should stay over in Rome and leave governments alone. But he said this was a terrible thing to do and most of the ordinary Colombian people, being so strongly Catholic, believed him. Fortunately the government didn’t. They’re still doing it.

PG: Let me ask about your vision plant experiences. Tell me about using ayahuasca and virola snuffs with the indigenous people. You must have had some extraoradinary experiences…

RS: I wouldn’t call them extraordinary. With virola snuff you don’t usually have same effects that you get with ayahuasca. I have taken peyote in ceremonies with the Indians, and ayahuasca, and with both of these I get color reactions. But I never had visions and I don’t see things, although I know that many people do. With peyote, for example, or mescaline, many people see things from our culture. And the Indians, with ayahuasca, see huge snakes and jaguars and in some cases, if they have been indoctrinated to think they can, they see other-world spirits, or the spirits of their anscestors. But I have never seen anything except color. If you remember Walt Disney’s Fantasia, the first thing is a color interpretation of Bach’s Tocata and Fugue. That’s the closest I can tell you of my experience with peyote and with ayahuasca. I see vague things like clouds or smoke of different colors going across my field of vision, but I’ve never seen anything concrete. I think this is mostly a psychological difference; that these people expect to see those things. As a scientist, I don’t expect to see them. 

PG: You’ve had a long relationship with Dr. Albert Hofmann. How did you two meet?

RS: I met him in a conference in Berlin. I knew that he was interested in the work of Mr. Wasson on the intoxicating mushrooms. That was when Wasson was just beginning that work. So I said I’d been in the Oaxaca area and knew a little about them. And that struck up a friendship. We boycotted a lot of lectures and just sat and talked. And after that we wrote two books together. We’re great friends. 

PG: Did you ever do Hofmann’s LSD?

RS: No. I always told him I didn’t want to because it wasn’t a natural thing, it was a synthetic. And because of that I had no interest in it. 

PG: What about Gordon Wasson, the mycologist?

RS: Well, I went to the Amazon right after Mexico and I hadn’t been home for two years during the war—I was getting rubber out—and when I finally got home this banker called up from New York and said “I know of your paper in which you identified one species of mushroom as Teonanacatl. I’m going to go down there because this is very interesting to me. Can you give me some names?”

Well, I didn’t know anything about Wasson, and I told him it had been several years since I was last in Mexico but gave him the name of a doctor, Dr. Reko, who worked in Oaxaca and who’d been interested in these mushrooms too. So Wasson went down to Mexico and got in touch with this doctor who set him up with names of people to see.

PG: Wasson and yourself later became good friends, didn’t you?

RS: We became very close friends. He even had an honorary appointment in the Harvard Botanical Museum, because even though as far as science goes he was an amateur—in the best sense of the word, a lover of knowledge—he was doing research that no one else had done. And publishing it. He published I think six or seven books in the 22 years he had an honorary appointment.  

PG: Did you ever get to use the mushrooms?

RS: No. Because I never went back to Mexico. I would have had I been with Wasson on one of his trips, as Albert Hofmann was. 

PG: Is there any truth to the stories that Wasson kept them around for his guests….

RS: I don’t think that’s true. He gave most of his specimens to the museum here. You can see them in our lecture hall in bottles. 

PG: What about datura? Is that something you’ve used?

RS: There are six species in the Andes of South America, and a number of the Indians do use it, alone or with other hallucinogens. But I would never take a solanaceous plant. 

PG: Why not? 

RS: The scopolomine and atropine which they contain are very very toxic alkaloids. And not only that, the concentration of these alkaloids in a single plant can vary from one season to the next and very often from one day to the next. In any event it’s too dangerous to fool with. I wouldn’t do it.

PG: What are your feelings about drug use in our society?

RS: I am concerned with the excessive use of drugs like marijuana and cocaine, but I don’t know what you can do about it, especially cocaine. Coca, you know, is harmless when used by the Indians, who chew the leaves of the coca bush. But that’s quite different than processed cocaine. I’m sorry about what Colombia is going through now, with their drug problems. But who’s responsible? We are. If we didn’t buy the cocaine or Europe…well now Japan is buying it. They’re having a terrible problem there. 

PG: I’m not a fan of cocaine either. Marijuana, you and I might disagree on…

RS: I don’t necessarily disagree with you on that, except I think it’s got to be controlled in a motorized civilization. The effects of marijuana differ with different people and at different times with the same person. But there are two things it always does, and in the beginning when you don’t feel too woozy you don’t recognize them: It distorts the sense of time and of space, both of which you absolutely need when you’re driving.

But I do think they should decriminalize it. I have been to court many times to testify for these young kids who were caught sharing a marijuana cigarette with a friend and they want to put them in jail and make a real criminal out of them. What a travesty of justice. 

PG: You’ve joked about being the guru for the psychedelic generation. Did you and Wasson and Hofmann ever sit around and laugh about being the trinity of psychedelia?

RS: Well, yes. We were all in a meeting some years ago which Jonathan Ott put on in San Francisco, and he had all sorts of experts on hallucinogenic plants there. The peyote man, Weston LaBarre was there, and Albert Hofmann and myself and Wasson and many other people. And we naturally thought it was funny, all of us there in our suits and ties, not looking like gurus at all. Well, I’m not a guru and never thought about myself that way. 

I used to lecture down there in California during the hippie days, and I think many people were disappointed when they saw me. They thought I would look like Allen Ginsberg or something. 

PG: Despite your conservative appearance you really did usher in the psychedelic revolution, the three of you. Shultes, Hofmann, and Wasson…

RS: I don’t think I did, but altogether I suppose you could say we did. Actually, I think Mr. Leary did more than any one of us in ushering in that. 

PG: Do you regret your part in bringing the idea of vision drugs to the Western world?

RS: No. I don’t. Not at all. I never have.