Peyote: The Divine Cactus is organized into nine chapters and three appendices, which provide data, from the sociocultural to scientific to federal laws issues. In addition, the book contains a long and important list of bibliographic references concerning past and current aspects of the taxonomy, systematics, pharmacology, and chemistry of peyote which can be used as an additional source for the avid reader and researcher. Some of the chapters are illustrated with fair quality black and white photographs, maps and drawings. The prose and writing style is clear, and typographical errors are rare.
The initial two chapters introduce peyote in Mexico and the United States respectively. From the botanical view point, these two chapters provide valuable historical information regarding early uses of drug plants with medical properties by the Aztec civilization. The narration on the use of this plant by Coras, Huichols, Tepehuanos, and Tarahumaras (peyote-using groups of Native Americans in Mexico for whom peyote was, and still is, a significant element in their social and religious life) is fascinating. In general, the author discusses the likely origins of peyotism, the widespread use of this plant and its ancient relationship for over 2000 years with New World humans.
Chapters three and four are exciting and mystical; they are related to the ceremonies and user's experience, and contain explicit data about the cultural and ceremonial rites which Native Americans have maintained over the years. Literally, the author transports the reader to the peyote's cultural and social realm and to a metaphysical world which few people have attempted to enter. He explores this world in an objective manner to investigate and clarify some of its enigmas. The description of ceremonial passages and user's experiences are also captivating and takes the reader on an imaginary trip to those mysterious and isolated lands where Native Americans venerate peyote as the plant of life and use it as an essential element in their rituals. This ancient tradition still persists in isolated tribes of Mexico, where Native Americans take advantage of peyote's chemical properties, and psychoactive and hallucinogenic effects to adore their deities. In addition, the book contains remarkable information regarding the phases of experience, effects and reactions caused by the consumption of peyote. The accounts of the physical symptoms and psychic manifestations caused by the influence of mescaline are intense, but well organized and documented with personal experiences from researchers in the neurological and pharmaceutical areas. Changes in perception and unusual hallucinatory responses are two of the effects produced by peyote. It is in part for these reasons, that there is substantial controversy regarding whether the peyote could be used as a drug in modem medicine and whether its use should be legalized.
The next three chapters of the book address the medical, pharmacological and chemical aspects of the plant respectively. The author covers practically most of the information, both past and present regarding the medical uses of peyote, including accounts of studies indicating the possible antibiotic actions of this plant. The chapter on pharmacology contains a list of peyote alkaloids for which the physiological effects have been studied; references are provided for every case reported. The main focus of this chapter is on the powerful mescaline, one of the major peyote alkaloids, for which physiological action, dosage, toxicity, and tolerance are discussed. At this point, the technicality of the book increases gradually with the use of both chemical compounds and scientific names, and becomes even a bit elaborated when it comes to the chemistry and biosynthetic pathways of some peyote alkaloids.
The chapter focusing on the botany of peyote deal with a wide range of topics, from botanical history, morphology, biogeography, ecology to a general section concerning the evolution of the peyote. Appendix A of the book includes the taxonomic treatment for Lophophora, which is based on an original article which was published by the author in 1969. Altogether, this chapter condenses all the previous information regarding the biosystematics of peyote, and provides an update of its current knowledge based on the most recent studies. Although conservation of biological diversity was not the objective of the book, I feel that the discussion on conservation, management and policy issues of this interesting cacti could have been expanded.
Technically, there are few minor criticisms. A glossary in Peyote: The Divine Cactus would have been a nice addition to facilitate the reader's full understanding of the terminology related to the pharmacology, chemistry and evolution of peyote. The inclusion of many scientific names of plants, excessive structural diagrams of peyote alkaloids (chapters six and seven, and Appendix B) and chemical compounds requires a general understanding of plant taxonomy and organic chemistry, even with the author's careful avoidance of excessive technical jargon.
In conclusion, this book contains actual experiences of the author about the natural history of one of the most important cacti in human culture. Because most of this information had been presented in the first edition, I think the second edition of Peyote: The Divine Cactus was premature. Although the book may not attract college students, it is a good reference and I recommend it to any library in the biological sciences and to persons in the ethnobotanical and cactological communities. - J. Hugo Cota, Department of Botany, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa