The history of the first Salvia divinorum plants
cultivated outside of Mexico

Daniel Siebert

This work is protected by copyright.
It was first published in The Entheogen Review. 2003 Volume XII, Number 4.

The Salvia divinorum Research and Information Center
is created and maintained by
Daniel Siebert

SEVERAL YEARS AGO I began working on a comprehensive book about Salvia divinorum. The book, tentatively titled Divine Sage, includes a chapter that describes the history of the plant in extensive detail. In the course of my research I have spoken and corresponded with many of the people who were involved in establishing and distributing the plant in the United States during the early years following its introduction to this country. I have also had the privilege of examining R. Gordon Wasson’s correspondence and field notes.
        It has been generally assumed that S. divinorum plants were first introduced to the United States by Wasson. He collected several specimens of hojas de la Pastora between June of 1960 and October of 1962. In an effort to get the plant identified, he sent his specimens to Carl Epling, who was at that time the world authority on New World Salvia species. Dr. Epling had been teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) since 1924 and became Professor Emeritus in 1961. Much to Wasson’s frustration, the first few specimens that he obtained were, for various reasons, not sufficient for species identification. Finally, in October 1962, after much effort, Wasson obtained specimens that were sufficient. He obtained these specimens during an expedition that he made to the Sierra Mazateca with Albert Hofmann. Epling identified it as a new species and published his description in December 1962, together with a separate paper by Wasson in which he described the general role of the plant in Mazatec culture (Epling and Játiva-M. 1962; Wasson 1962).
        Many people, including myself, have assumed that Epling propagated a live plant from some of the material that he received from Wasson. This assumption was partly based on the knowledge that Epling provided a live S. divinorum plant to the UCLA botanical garden in 1963, just a few months after receiving Wasson’s final shipment of specimens. It has been generally assumed that all of the S. divinorum plants grown in the United States up until 1979 were propagated from cuttings that originated from the plant established by Epling (additional live specimens were introduced to the United States in 1979 by Leander J. Valdés III). This original strain has been distributed all over the world. It is commonly called the 'Wasson and Hofmann' strain—a name that identifies its presumed collectors. This name was first applied to the strain in 1992 by the now-defunct specialty botanicals company …Of the jungle. They began listing it in their catalog as the 'Wasson and Hofmann' strain to differentiate it from another strain that they introduced that year, the 'Palatable' strain, which was collected by anthropologist Bret Blosser in December 1991. As it turns out, the 'Wasson and Hofmann' strain is misnamed. This strain was not propagated from Wasson’s specimens—it was propagated from specimens that were obtained by another remarkable man, psychiatrist and ecologist Sterling Bunnell. It is quite clear from Wasson’s correspondence with Epling and others that he never brought live specimens of S. divinorum to the United States. The specimens that he obtained were all dried and pressed in Mexico.
        In June of 1962 Bunnell traveled to the Sierra Mazateca with poet, playwright, and essayist Michael McClure. The main purpose of their journey was to collect live cultures of psilocybin mushrooms for research that they were involved in at the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research (IPAR), at the University of California, Berkeley. Bunnell returned again with his newlywed wife several months later, in the fall of 1962. While visiting the village of Huautla de Jiménez, he obtained live specimens of hojas de la Pastora from the Mazatec curandero Isauro Nave—who was, by all accounts, a truly extraordinary individual. Bunnell brought the specimens back with him to California and planted them at his home. This was the first time that S. divinorum was grown outside of Mexico. He also deposited a pressed specimen at the Herbarium of the University of California, Berkeley [actually, this was first deposited at the UCLA herbarium, and then later relocated to Berkeley -DS]. Epling’s botanical description of the species had not yet been published, and so the identity of the species was at that time still unknown (except to Epling, Wasson, and a few of their close associates). Bunnell’s herbarium specimen, which was in full bloom, was collected on November 24, 1962, just six and a half weeks after the holotype specimen collected by Wasson. Epling’s description of the species was published together with Wasson’s ethnographic paper just a few weeks after Bunnell returned from Mexico. After seeing Epling’s paper, Bunnell traveled to Los Angeles to meet with him and to give him plants to grow at UCLA. An accession log of the UCLA Botanical Garden (now the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden) notes that a living specimen of S. divinorum entered the collection in 1963. The original accession number is UCLA 63-104. Bunnell also gave a specimen to Alexander Shulgin, who at that time was working for Dow Chemical in Walnut Creek, California. Bunnell’s plants were later propagated and shared with other botanical gardens and botanists, and those plants were further propagated. This strain, which should correctly be called the 'Bunnell' strain, was the first to become available commercially, and it remains the most common. Certainly it is the most widespread strain in cultivation today.

Daniel J. Siebert
Malibu, California
February 22, 2004

References cited:
Epling, C. and C. D. Játiva-M. 1962. A new species of Salvia from Mexico. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University. 20(3): 75–76.

Wasson, R. G. 1962. A new Mexican psychotropic drug from the mint family. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University. 20(3): 77–84.