The Prickly Problem of the Cactus of the Four Winds
Illustrations By Martha Iserman
Four-ribbed Trichocereus pachanoi
There are many cacti that have risen to the status of legend: from Sahagún’s contentious white peyote and the fabled specimens of purple pachanoi to a sacred stand of San Pedro in Huancabamba that is said to inflict a measles-like plague that causes small bumps all over the body on anyone who dares harvest it. Some of these cacti can be readily found, like Ariocarpus retusus, a species the Tarahumara claim will induce madness and death when ingested by those with “impure heart.” Others have eluded the discerning eye of the modern taxonomist, going unseen for years and sometimes centuries. These are cryptocacti, confined to the margins of ethnobotanical literature, where they are discussed and debated but never observed. Of these cacti there is one that towers above them all in both its power and its elusiveness: the Cactus of the Four Winds, an ancient columnar cactus characterised by four longitudinal ribs that is rumoured to possess supernatural curative powers. On a recent trip to Lima, Peru, for a completely unrelated story, I took advantage of some downtime to search for wild specimens of these cryptocacti, hoping for a chance encounter with the Cactus of the Four Winds.
In order to successfully hunt Trichocereus (the reputed genus of the Cactus of the Four Winds), one must master the techniques used to detect taxonomic differences between species. Superficially similar green columnar cacti are distinguished on the basis of maximal height; width; rib count; spine length, girth, number and angle; where its flesh falls on the (vast) spectrum of green; the presence of a glaucous bloom of epicuticular wax and whether this bloom, if present, can be rubbed away; the sheen of the cuticle; the presence of small, V-shaped depressions above the areoles; the flexural responsiveness of the column when jiggled; and the mucilaginosity of the tissue following blender-assisted homogenisation. I am, of course, neglecting the painstaking attention required to differentiate the fruit, seeds and flowers – but still, no one could mistake the Cactus of the Four Winds.
In Richard Evans Schultes’s book Plants of the Gods, the Cactus of the Four Winds warrants its own chapter, its species identified as Trichocereus pachanoi, or San Pedro. The anthropologist Douglas Sharon wrote in his book Wizard of the Four Winds, “Four-ribbed cacti, like four-leafed clovers, are considered to be very rare and very lucky, they are believed to have special curative properties because they correspond to the ‘four winds’ and the ‘four roads,’ supernatural powers associated with the cardinal points invoked during curing rituals.” Italian historian Mario Polia said, “The San Pedro of Four Winds is very rare in nature and is a symbol of choice: It is believed that whoever finds it is a great shaman or destined to become one.” Wade Davis, one of the many ethnobotanists who have traveled to South America in search of the sacred cactus, wrote, “Here perhaps was the key to understanding… the source of the religious impulse that had swept the mountains 4,000 years before. The Cactus of the Four Winds, a plant so powerful that it could annihilate consciousness, transform body into spirit, crack open the sky.”