The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications by Christian Rätsch, translated by John Baker, with a foreword by Albert Hofmann. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press; 2005. Hardcover, 942 pages. 978-0892819782. $125.
Christian Rätsch is a German anthropologist and author of several books related to the subject of psychoactive (psychedelic) plants. Other books by Rätsch cover topics like the sacred use of plants, marijuana, shamanism, and witchcraft. This encyclopedia is a large and somewhat intimidating book, but the format is friendly and embellished by many beautiful photographs and drawings. The full price is $125 but the street price is more reasonable (about $79 at Amazon.com). As the name implies, this is a mighty work, encyclopedic in its coverage of psychotropic plants.
The foreword by recently deceased chemist Albert Hofmann, father of LSD (see tribute article on page 76), is not related to chemistry but is more of a social commentary emphasizing the “spiritual” or metaphysical nature of these plants and their cultural uses. Considering his experience (he was 102 years old) and status within the psychedelic community, this is a nice addition.
While the book does briefly discuss some chemistry and pharmacology of each plant genus, the majority of space is occupied with a detailed sociologic setting for each plant and how it is/was cultivated, prepared, and used. A typical botanical description may be insufficient to allow actual identification of plants in many cases, but there are other sources for this information. First person accounts of the psychoactive effects of a plant are sometimes provided by the author when the published literature is incomplete or contradictory on the issue of a plant’s psychedelic properties.
The first 543 pages are devoted to “major monographs” of psychoactive plants in alphabetical order by genus from Acacia to Withania. Each monograph generally contains sections on family, subspecies, synonyms, history, distribution, cultivation, appearance, psychoactive material, preparation and dosage, ritual use, medicinal use, constituents, effects, commercial forms and regulations, and literature references.
Pages 545–591 cover little-studied psychoactive plants, while pages 593–601 deal with reputed psychoactive plants. After a small section on psychoactive plants that haven’t yet been identified (603–617), there is a 75-page A-Z section on psychoactive fungi with the same general categories as the first A-Z section. Psychoactive products with no apparent connection, including alcohol, ayahuasca, and snuff, as well as some legendary preparations such as mead and soma, are then discussed for another 100 pages. This is followed by another small A-Z section on active constituents of plants such as atropine, first isolated from nightshade (Atropa belladonna, Solanaceae); caffeine, first isolated from coffee beans (Coffea arabica, Rubiaceae); cocaine, first isolated from the Peruvian coca bush (Erythroxylum coca, Erythroxylaceae); nicotine, first discovered in tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum, Solanaceae); etc.
In all, this is a major work that will be an essential reference to those interested in cultural and historical aspects of psychedelics. It will certainly appeal to botanists and other biological scientists with a specific interest in this area, though they may need to supplement with other references for more in-depth coverage of a particular plant.
—Jerry Cott, PhD Pharmacologist Silver Spring, MD