Cracking Cryptocacti

The Cactus of the Four Winds is rumored to possess supernatural curative powers. I searched for a wild specimen of the cryptocacti in Lima, Peru.

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 characterized by four longitudinal ribs that is rumored 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 homogenization. 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.”

Purple Trichocereus pachanoi

For all the lore the Cactus of the Four Winds has inspired, fully grown specimens are exceedingly rare, if they actually exist. It is not unusual for a commercial cactus cultivator to encounter the occasional immature four-ribbed Trichocereus bridgesii, and though even less common, the same can be said for immature San Pedro. Contemporary reports exist of four-ribbed Trichocereus scopulicola exceeding four feet in height, but none have been substantiated with photographs. I have observed a five-ribbed Trichocereus bridgesii that acquired the sacred four-rib configuration because of a drought that caused the diameter of its stem to shrink; however, I have never seen a fully mature four-ribbed Trichocereus of any species, and neither had the four commercial cactus growers I surveyed.

With only one week in Lima to find the cactus, I decided to visit Karel Knize, a Czech-born succulent dealer with the largest cactus farm in South America and what is likely the largest Trichocereus collection in the world. For decades, Knize (rhymes with sneez-ay) has been the primary psychoactive-cactus exporter to North America, and many ethnobotanical vendors base their business on cloning and reselling specimens that originated from the Knize collection. Among his international clientele, Knize has developed an unsavory reputation for shipping unlabeled, hybridized, or completely misidentified cacti in such large numbers that many specialists now feel taxonomic designations such as “Peruvian Torch” are nigh meaningless. 

On entering Knize’s cactus farm I feel weak with astonishment and steady myself with awe-palsied hands on a Cereus repandus. Countless cacti stretch into the distance—golden barrels the size of weather balloons—and long rows of stoic San Pedro prickly pears precariously balance their cladodes like Calder mobiles alongside grow rooms bursting with terrifying feats of Lophophora xenotransplantation. The cacti number in the tens of thousands, with millions of cumulative spines. 

I am greeted by Knize’s assistant, who leads me around to select specimens while taking notes on a Donald Duck clipboard. We scour the farm, counting ribs until we have located a number of four-ribbed Trichocereus bridgesii, four to be exact. The specimens are larger than any I have ever seen but are still immature. They are also for sale, so I pack the cacti to ship back to the US for chemical analysis and then am led into Knize’s private chamber to discuss payment. 

Immense stands of cacti eclipse the windows, casting Knize’s home in perpetual darkness. A third-generation cactus dealer, he tells me his family has been collecting cacti since the death of Napoleon. After giving me a cup of coffee, which he repeatedly offers to spike with whiskey (holding the bottle in a hand that is missing the terminal segment of its middle finger, which I can only imagine is the result of a cactus experiment gone terribly awry), we agree on a price for the four cacti, which may or may not qualify as bona fide specimens of the Cactus of the Four Winds.

White Lophophora williamsii

If the Cactus of the Four Winds does exist, there is every reason to believe it would be significantly less potent than its more heavily ribbed brethren. Ribs confer a number of advantages; they facilitate convective heat loss, allow expansion and contraction in accordance with seasonal variations in rainfall, and extend photosynthetic surface area. The latter is especially significant because it is the green photosynthetic tissue where the greatest concentration of mescaline1 is found. Assuming the reports by Davis, Polia, Sharon, et al. are correct, let us examine four possible explanations for this cactaceous paradox:

1. Anthropogenic extinction: Silphium, an ancient medicinal plant, was said by Pliny the Elder to be “one of the most precious gifts of nature to man,” but it is thought that humans drove it into extinction by the end of the first century, when the last documented stalk was presented to the Roman emperor Nero as a curiosity. Similarly, the human hand may be responsible for the disappearance of the Cactus of the Four Winds due to overharvesting for its psychedelic properties. Contrary to the symbiotic survival theory of psychedelic plants and fungi posited by Terence McKenna, our ancestors may have killed off some of the most valuable medicinal plants thousands of years ago. It’s certainly possible, especially when one considers the critically endangered populations of peyote in the American Southwest. 

2. Predatory goats: When I asked the esteemed cactologist K. Trout what he thought became of the Cactus of the Four Winds, he replied, “It seems to have been wiped out from the wild. Maybe by goats.” In the 16th century, Spanish colonists sailed to Mexico carrying a most precious cargo––the goat. With urine-soaked beard and cloven hoof, these alien ruminants gnawed their way across the Americas, flourishing in domestication and establishing feral populations in the wild. Like the mongoose and the snake, the cactus and the goat are sworn mortal enemies. Goats are voracious cactophagists, responsible for decimating wild populations of Browningia candelaris, Trichocereus pachanoi ssp. riomizquiensis, and the awe-inspiring Opuntia echios of the Galapagos. Should an isolated population of four-ribbed cacti have found itself in close proximity to a pack of feral goats, there is no telling what carnage could have ensued.

3. Recessive trait(s): One four-leaf clover occurs in approximately 10,000 trifoliate clover. It is thought that the trait is expressed only in clover that are homozygous recessive at multiple genetic loci; even then it seems certain environmental conditions are required for phenotypic expression of the four-leafs. Similarly, the four-rib cactus configuration may be mediated by a combination of recessive genes and particular environmental requirements, giving it a slim chance of phenotypic expression. Unlike clover, which experience annual genetic recombination, many Trichocereus spp. are propagated clonally by man and in nature, hindering the development of morphologically diverse populations.

Dermatological-disease-inducing 45' Trichocereus pachanoi

4. Value is symbolic, not chemical: Among Peruvian curandero, seven-ribbed cacti are vastly preferred over six-ribbed cacti, which are considered to be evil. This is assuming a four-ribbed cactus is not available, which seems to be a constant. Long-spined cacti are said to be strong and male, while short-spined cacti are gentle and female. Does the trait dictate the effect or does the effect dictate the trait? Even among placebos, the color of the capsule impacts the nature of the experience. It is possible that these external traits are linked to the chemical composition of the cactus, but it could also be that their power is purely symbolic. The Cactus of the Four Winds could be rooted in pre-Columbian symbols: the four roads, the four cardinal points, the four seasons, or Christian symbols such as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse or a passage from Revelation in which four angels stand at the four corners of the earth and hold the four winds to prevent them from blowing. Among the Huichol Indians, the most precious specimens of peyote are those that possess five ribs. A mature peyote cactus often has eight or more ribs, so five-ribbed peyotes are almost invariably young. One would think more value would be assigned to larger, more heavily ribbed “grandfather peyotes,” which contain higher concentrations of psychedelic alkaloids, yet that is not always the case. Likewise, the only four-ribbed cacti to be found with any degree of regularity are young Trichocereus specimens. Perhaps the Cactus of the Four Winds is simply immature ipso facto. 

There is very little primary-source information identifying the exact significance of mature four-ribbed cacti. Two ceramic bottles, respectively crafted by the pre-Columbian Chavín and Chimú people of modern-day Peru, as well as a Chavín temple engraving of a mythical beast clutching a section of columnar cactus, are frequently cited as evidence of the existence of this type of cacti and its traditional use as a psychedelic. Ultimately, the rib count in the engravings is ambiguous,2 and in either case we can’t be certain of the role these plants have played. Such is the case for the other cryptocacti, each of which could warrant an article of its own detailing possible explanations for its elusive nature. 

When I returned from Lima, I patiently waited for my four four-ribbed cacti to arrive in the mail, but they never came. Later I discovered that I had sent payment during the height of a Peruvian postal strike, and so both my cash and my four-ribbed cacti were “lost.” Perhaps, somewhere, a Peruvian mailman has my package and is learning the source of the religious impulse.

1 Doses of cacti are traditionally measured by length, a questionably useful metric. Potency can be estimated with greater accuracy by calculating surface area. Assuming a consistent core radius, additional ribs result in a linear increase in surface area, which can be modeled by this equation:

Where r2 = distal-rib radius, r1 = proximal-rib radius, and  = cactus length.

2 Depending on which of many ways one can interpret five parallel lines in a two-dimensional engraving, the Chavín beast could be holding a two-, three-, four-, five-, six-, eight-, or ten-ribbed cactus.