These lovely flowers of the Mountain Laurels so familiar in many parts of Texas belie their past ritual usage for archaic people of the Lower Pecos and many other historic Native American groups. These flowers produce the potent “mescal bean,” which causes nausea, convulsions and even death when ingested. Mountain Laurels are one of three powerful plants abundant in the Lower Pecos that were used ceremonially by ancient peoples to gain visions, talk to ancestors, cure sickness, or fill other important needs. Articles about datura and peyote, two other potent plant helpers of the Lower Pecos are planned in the coming months.
Sophora secundiflora grows wild in the dry limestone country of south Texas, and it is often used as an ornamental shrub in urban and suburban settings. The fragrant flowers are a favorite of bees. However the pretty red beans they produce are highly toxic.
When eaten, even as little as half a bean can cause nausea and vomiting, dilation of the pupils, tachycardia [excessive rapidity and irregularity of the heart-beat] followed by dizziness, mental confusion, muscular incoordination and weakness, and convulsions; in addition respiratory paralysis may occur leading to death by paralysis, according to Martindales Extra Pharmacopoeia p 1746.
Parents and teachers should warn children of the dangers of these tempting beans, which often fall from their pods onto sidewalks and backyards. If a young child ate even one bean, it could be fatal. Seeds contain the highly toxic narcotic alkaloid sophorine, or cystisine; don’t be fooled–they do not contain mescaline and have no relation whatsoever to the alcoholic drink called mescal. If you suspect someone has ingested mescal beans or Mountain Laurel, take that person to the hospital emergency room immediately.
Archeologists theorize that ancient people in the Lower Pecos used this drug in ceremonies to cleanse the bodies and souls of the participants (though severe vomiting) before undertaking other trials such as vision quests. Ancient mescal beans have been found in a number of dry rock shelters that were occupied by people in that area 4000 or more years ago, and the plants are common in the area today. The beans were included in charms and amulets, made into necklaces or other adornments, or used as parts of other shamanistic regalia.
In a 1957 issue of American Anthropologist, James Howard described mescal bean cults among the Apache, Comanche, Delaware, Iowa, Kansa, Omaha, Oto, Osage, Pawnee, Ponca, Tonkawa, and Wichita tribes. The bean was regarded as a powerful fetish and used in ceremonies similar to those for peyote. One Apache man said “Go ahead, eat that bean. You can do miracles, jump right up and out the top of the tipi.” You probably will jump up if you try this–but you will run to the toilet instead of through the smoke hole of the tipi.
Alanson Skinner described the effects of the mescal bean on participants in 1926. He said that “everything looks red to the drinker for a while, then he vomits, and evacuates the bowels.” The toxic effect also causes a feeling of stupor, which some have confused with hallucination. The majority of literature on mescal beans, however, does not indicate much in the way of hallucinations. Many of us have suffered a hangover at some time in our lives. It is not the same thing as “tripping” back in the 1960s.
Among the Wichita, medicine men used to administer mescal beans to spiritual novices, causing them to throw up and become unconscious. The sharp jaw of a gar fish was then raked across the novice’s naked body to test his ability to withstand pain. This ceremony also served to ritually remove evil influences and promote good health, long life and general prosperity (Dorsey, 1904).
Native plants were used in many ways by ancient peoples, but this is one plant better admired from afar.