Mestizo shamans in the Upper Amazon maintain relationships with two types of spirits — the spirits of the healing plants, who appear almost invariably in human form; and the protective spirits, often powerful animals or birds or human beings, or the spirits of certain plants such as the spiny palms. The animals and plants that protect the healer are the same as those that carry out the destructive will of the sorcerer.

And, of course, the visionary world is filled with other-than-human persons of all sorts — visitors from other planets and galaxies in shining spaceships; denizens of vast sparkling cities; the beings who live in the deep jungle and beneath the dark waters; great teachers and healers of the past and future; silent denizens of infinite labyrinths of crystal rooms. I have seen dark-robed and faceless beings gathered to support me in my nausea; tall thin dark-skinned men in white shirts and white pants with black suspenders flitting on unknown errands among the participants at a ceremony; vast lines of Peruvian schoolgirls in blue and white uniforms ascending and descending a stairway by a radiant swimming pool.

The healing plants are doctores, teachers, healers; these are the vegetales que enseñan, the plants who teach. What they teach are their own secrets — what sicknesses of body or soul they heal, how to summon them with their songs, how to prepare and apply them. Don Roberto Acho and doña María Tuesta often call the spirit of a healing plant its genio, its genius or nature; shamans also speak of the plant’s espíritu, spirit, or its madre, mother, or — interestingly — its imán, magnet; and I have heard don Rómulo Magin speak of its matriz, womb, probably in the sense of its matrix, its archetype.

The plant spirits almost always appear in human form. There are exceptions: the spirit of the uña de gato vine (Uncaria guianensis), which has small hook- or claw-like appendages along its length, has appeared to doña María as a tigrito, a small jaguar, the spirit of lobosanango (Tabernaemontana spp.) as a wolf. Doña María says that the plant spirits often appear to her first as plants, and then transform into humans.

It is worth emphasizing that the plant spirits do not always appear in the same way to different people, or even to the same person on different occasions. For example, the spirit of ayahuasca can appear as a human, either male or female, or as an anaconda. Indeed, the spirit of ayahuasca has appeared to doña María as two genios at the same time, one male and one female, who stood on either side of her — the woman dressed in beautiful clothing, the man ugly, with bad teeth. The spirit of the uña de gato vine has appeared to her not only as a small jaguar but also as a strong, muscular man on whose arms were claws.

I have encountered ayahuasca in the form of a little blonde girl wearing a golden crown, and of a teenage Indian girl with a dazzling smile. The spirit of maricahua (Teliostachya lanceolata) has been said to appear as an Indian man surrounded by little children; but the spirit came to me as a beautiful dark lady with raven hair. Spirits may appear as either male or female on different occasions; as poet César Calvo puts it, “on some days a plant is female and good for some things, and on other days the plant is male and is good for the opposite.”

Former shaman Pablo Amaringo has painted several pictures of various plant spirits as they have appeared to him. In one ayahuasca vision, for example, the spirit of the pucalupuna tree (Cavanillesia umbellate) appeared as a dark woman with cat’s eyes and a gold chain around her neck; in another vision, the spirit of pucalupuna appeared as a dark man with many heads, covered with snakes, and holding a knife and a skull. Similarly, in one vision the spirit of the ajosquiro tree (Cordia alliodora) appeared as a very small curly-haired man wearing a red cape and red clothes; and, in another, as a blue-skinned man with red hair, surrounded by birds.

There is sometimes a correlation between the nature of the plant and the appearance of its spirit. A striking example is the ayahuma tree (Couroupita guianensis). Huma is the ordinary Quechua word for head; thus ayahuma means spirit head or head of a dead person. The tree’s large, hard, globular fruit falls to the ground and cracks open with a loud sound; once cracked open, the inner pulp rots and smells like decaying flesh. The spirit of the ayahuma thus often appears as a woman without a head.

There is also some internal consistency in the identification of spirits. For example, the spirits of hardwood trees often appear to doña María as strong or large men — the spirit of the remocaspi tree (Aspidosperma excelsum) as a very muscular man dressed as a doctor; the spirit of the machimango tree (Eschweilera spp.) as a tall gringo man wearing a white shirt. The spirit of the capinurí palm (Maquira coriacea), the ends of whose fallen branches look remarkably like erect penises, has appeared to her as a large heavy pale gringo, like a weightlifter, wearing the white clothes of a doctor.

The spirits of other plants have often appeared to her as doctors wearing surgical scrubs — ishpingo caspi (Amburana cearensis), chullachaqui caspi (Remijia peruviana), caña brava (Gynerium sagittatum). The bright red latex of the sangre de grado tree (Croton lechleri) is used to treat wounds, ulcers, and skin infections; the spirit of this tree has appeared to doña María as a man whose whole body was blood red, and as a doctor carrying a tray of medicines.

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6 Responses to “How Plant Spirits Appear”

  1. little lightening bolt says:

    from an animist point of view, especially in teaching new animism its been a concern to me to express the phenomena of how other-than-human-persons apear in spirit form to human-persons in human form. many years ago i witness wolf appear to me walking across my yard and standing in front of me on the deck. wolf then turned into a human looking person and sat in side of me to communicate with me… this left me with some questions a went and found a friend who i felt was wise in these matters and he mentioned to me that the spirits change shape. i thought on this for some time… after looking at harveys work it made me ponder further the tendancy to anthropomorphize other-than-human-persons and how this was not in affect what animism is about… animism is not a form of anthropomorphising… so in respect to the phenomena that i have observed and which you have spoken of which i have experinced my self ive come to understand that the other than human persons we commune with as animists and shamans will take on shapes for the ease of communication with human persons. its not so much that our mind creates these beings or shapes them but that the other than human persons take on shapes that will allow them easier communication with human persons, this phenomena its self seems that it could possibly explain why human persons often think of animism as a sort of anthropomorphising.

  2. Debra Cortese says:

    Just searched my way to ‘Singing to the Plants’ as I’m always interested in learning more about the experiences of others with the plant and nature spirits.

    To me, the visual presentations come in a form that each seer can appreciate. We all share a core energy/spirit and are continually experiencing who we are through these relationships and adventures. I’ve been interested in and attuned with nature spirits for as long as I can remember, probably 3 or 4 yrs old) and the fascination and joy that I feel whenever I’m paying attention to this energy continues to inspire and move me closer and closer to home.

    I look forward to reading more of the information here and would like to share a few images of the devas that I have been privileged to see:

  3. Ahmad Wamba says:

    Hello Steve,
    I enjoined reading your article ” How plant spirits appear.” Since I have been reading many articles on herbs I have never come across an article that dealt with this topic like this one. Again I am a herbal practitioner but I have never knew the secret of inviting the spirits of a plant. Please I want you to give me the secret of inviting the spirit of any available tree in my Area,for instance Baobao tree or Mango tree or Mahogani tree.

    • Lee Driver says:

      Here’s a little something happened on a recent trip I made to Amazonia, that I thought fit in this conversation:

      We clamored up the bank into camp after a long boatride. Steps had been recently cut by someone and flat stones laid in.

      The last kilometer or so in the boat had been up a smaller river, almost invisible due to the hanging trees at the mouth, from the bigger, wider brown one until we nosed up in there. This waterway was narrow and dark, as we cruised up slow under motor power, easing over fallen trees, lifting branches out of the way as we went.

      As we came up the steps onto a flat cleared area there was a chicken there, a female chicken beautiful in variegated, iridescent plumage, that seemed to me for all the world to be guarding the place, challenging us our right to enter.

      “Fringe,” I ended up later on in my journal naming this chicken, because of the way she unvaryingly, impenetrably held her distance from any one or grouping of us. I feinted toward her more than a few times to check this out; it was literally like pushing the same-pole ends of two magnets together, with the same equal and opposite force manifesting precisely at every turn. Six feet was the perimeter she would allow, no more, no less. And she was a looker, regal by comparison to the half-dozen other chickens in the yard, who were relatively dull of color and just pecking around like normal chickens do, paying us no mind. “Fringe” I wrote, “elegant unapproachable chicken – Royalty?”

      Anyway, Fringe the chicken, startling plumage and unique demeanor not withstanding, would likely be wholly forgotten and never brought to mind were it not for something else happened later. But for now, onward.

      The mission we 15 brave souls were embarked upon in a thumbnail is something called a medicinal plant dieta, dieta being Spanish for diet. While it does involve in this particular case, the drinking and study of a variety of medicinal plants indigenous to the upper Amazon basin, it primarily concerns the master teacher plant and, in my experience, crown jewel of all psychedelics, the compound known throughout Amazonia, among other names, as ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is a vine that wanders along the jungle floor that can grow to thigh-thickness, and reaches by hanging on to trees, sometimes high into the canopy, but the brew that we have all come to this remote jungle setting to experience, which has the same name, is actually a combination of the vine and at least one other plant, cooked up into a thick purple-brown liquid for 8 hours or more in a big pot over an open fire. The other plant being in this case, chacruna which contains among other properties the hallucinogen DMT. There are numerous plants in the Amazon that contain DMT, and a few in other places too that would surprise you, and it is also found in the venom and skin secretions of a number of toads. Also, our own body manufactures DMT, which is released into the blood stream from the pineal gland at certain key times, like at birth, death, near-death, and during rem sleep.

      The knowledge in Amazonia of the combination of ayahuasca and one or the other of these DMT producing plants goes back thousands of years, and it has been learned over time that by manipulating one’s diet, mostly toward the low protein and very bland, the effects are significantly enhanced, and the more and moreso the longer one proceeds into it. Hence, la dieta.

      In this particular dieta, we spent 11 days in the jungle, far upriver and away from any of the trappings of civilization, drinking the medicine every other night in ceremony, and other plant medicines on the day off, under the guidance of a shaman, a Peruvian mestizo man in his late 40’s, we’ll call him Juan, who grew up in the ayahuasca tradition, studying the medicinal properties of many plants from a young age, through the experience of countless dietas involving ayahuasca, sometimes up to 30 days at a time, under the tutilage of, in that world, an acknowledged maestro. Each of us in the group, stay when not in ceremony in our own tambo, a roofed open-air structure containing simply a desk, a hammock a mosquito-net-covered bed and a handful of candles. We are admonished to, throughout the dieta, stay to ourselves, not socialize, to process what’s going on with us, in solitude.

      Ayahuasca is also a powerful purgative, there is a lot of throwing up goes on in these ceremonies, especially during the early stages, everybody has their own bucket. While most would consider this aspect to be a negative, it is actually not the case, but that is something one would have to discover on their own.

      Now, regarding the link Clement posted above about animal “spirituality” or not, I have the following anecdote from my sojourn in the jungle to relate:

      It was on the third or fourth night. There is a progression generally that occurs, the first couple ceremonies being a cleaning out of the dross of one’s being on many levels so to speak, after which for me anyway, the real fun begins. On this night, about three hours into the ceremony, Juan was readying to perform a personal healing on one of the participants, who was kneeling before him in the middle of the maloca. The maloca is an open-air circular post-and-beam affair with an intricately, beautifully woven conical thatch roof, and thick wood plank floor, with seat back-rests all around and cushions. What I am about to relate depends of course, pretty much entirely on my perception of events, which may be questionable and maybe not. I use the term “stepping into the box,” my own term, to describe a marked difference between the preparing to perform the healing, and the actual stepping up to the person and beginning to do it. Anyone familiar with baseball will get the reference.

      The sound of the jungle at night is a cacophony of a gazillion insect sounds, mixed up with birds, frogs and who knows what all. I didn’t realize the intensity of it til one night I laid my head back in the pool near my tambo to where my ears were submerged, and was literally deafened by the silence that crashed in around me.

      As Juan steps into the box, suddenly all the seemingly innocuous unconnected creature sounds, congeal, as if by this one act they have all been suddenly brought together as one, in concert, and morever, they are to me as if leaning forward, in excitement and anticipation. The feeling is one of great joy, exquisite joy I would even say, of all being called together and included, unified, in this way, for this purpose.

      I pause here a second to say, another thing that happens as Juan steps into the box is that his face disappears, is in my vision blurred out. I had noticed this before in other ceremonies and had concluded, had catalogued it in my mind, with no one telling me so I might add, as a visible difference that takes place when the shaman is functioning on the one hand as a man, and on the other as spirit. It’s my own conclusion but who knows. I have asked others if they notice such a similar thing and none have said so.

      Now, as all the animal, bird and insect sounds change entirely and incredibly in an instant, from the many to the one, Juan seems to notice as well, and steps back out of the box. As his face reappears and the sounds resume to ‘normal,’ he tips his head back and turning it side to side, smiles broadly. As do I. He steps back into the box. All is brought forward again in concerted, heightened, gleeful anticipation. He steps out it and it goes back, he steps in, out. It’s like being caught up in the whoosh of a vortex, and then not, and then in again. It’ll make your ears pop.

      Finally Juan steps in to begin work in earnest. But this time, right above my head, presumably in the thatch, one particular insect unheard from up til now, shrieks loudly, raaenck! Juan steps out, almost jumps out. He looks up to from where the sound emitted, then slowly lowers his gaze directly to me, grins widely, and shakes and points his leaf rattle at me.

      I must pause again to say that things happen in these ceremonies time and again, that make perfect sense at the time, that in the context and in that realm, you understand without question, but in retrospect are difficult to describe satisfactorily, definitively, to the uninitiated.

      What Juan was communicating when he shook his rattle at me, what he was acknowledging I have absolutely no doubt, and what the bug by squawking right above me was remarking on too, was, “way to go dude,” re my cognizance of the phenomenon taking place.

      And the healing proceeded on apace, with the whole Amazon jungle leaning forward…

      A couple days later after all the ceremonies were over and done and the dieta had been pronounced complete, we were all sitting around the kitchen area, breaking our culinary and social fasts with salt and vinegar and other exploding flavors, talking up a storm. As I was in the midst of struggling to impart to the group what I had seen and heard in ceremony, what I just described above, and had gotten to the part about the vortextual shift I experienced when Juan stepped into and out of the box, was spirit and was not, the chicken “Fringe,” which unbeknownst to me had gotten up on the top back rail of the bench I was sitting on and had walked over to behind me, hopped onto my shoulder.

      I stopped talking, leaned slowly back, and gestured minimally with my thumb toward said bird, and said, “see?”

      Juan fell off his chair.

  4. ayahuma says:

    I have kept looking for others who have experienced the mystery of plant spirits. I appreciate the post (altho two years old) of Lee Driver and his experience with the “seeing” of the magical shamanic shift of “Juan” in the Amazon- the way the chicken he called “Fringe” verified his story in such a synchronous way. I also enjoyed the story of a talking wolf. The plant spirit section itself was interesting because it spoke of the different appearances that plants may take, and many are clearly human forms.
    My own experiences with spirits- especially one with a tree spirit- the aforementioned Ayahuma tree showed me a spirit in a slightly different form. Altho “limbs ” were apparent, and a humanoid shape,it was green and glowing, and holding the “hand” ( which looked more like a vine) of a smaller version of itself- sort of like mother and child. I was told by a jungle shaman I shared the experience with that this was the Madre of the Ayahuma. I had NOT shared with him that I had chosen the “name” for myself FROM A PASSED around hat,of AYAHUMA……….and the mystery continues.

    • Ivy/ayauma says:

      Hello, Ayahuma,
      I was shocked, stunned and amazed, because your vision of the Ayahuma plant IS EXACTLY what appeared to me in the jungle, and altho a shaman TOLD me it was the Ayahuma(and I had taken that name,) I NEVER heard anyone else describe it- I saw EXACTLY the same, a glowing green ” plant person”, sort of ‘swaying’, and holding the hand of a smaller ‘childlike ‘ version, of itself.
      I have searched for YEARS to find accounts of plant spirits I could correlate with what I saw, and I have read that Ayahuma ‘presents’ as a headless woman, NOT what I saw at all.I don’t even know if you will get this.Please contact me if you do.Thanks, Ivy

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