Salvia Divinorum comes from the remote regions of the Sierra Mazateca mountains of South America. Among the indians that live in this region, Salvia divinorum is considered a sacred plant that has been used in shamanic rituals.
Maria Sabina, the best known Mazatec curandera or shaman, dedicated her life to the healing work with psilocybin mushrooms and Salvia divinorum. She once famously remarked that when the mushrooms are not available, she resorts to the use of salvia. She noted that salvia doesn’t have as much strength as the mushrooms, but that could also have been due to the fact that she prepared an infusion with the leaves. While a salvia tea produces psychoactive effects, it is not nearly as strong as a the quid method, for example.
Although it is theorized that Salvia has been used for centuries, it was not “discovered” by the Western world until the famous ethnobotanist, R. Gordon Wasson researched the psychoactive nature of the plant. R. Gordon Wasson is most notably the botanist who introduced psilocybin containing mushrooms to the West.
But also among the native Mazatec the discovery of salvia could possibly have been a rather recent event. What points to this is that the Mazatecs do not actually have a native name for the plant, and refer to it as “hojas de María Pastora”, translating into “leaves of Mary the shepherdess”. It is still not entirely clear, how far back the use of salvia among the native tribes goes. Since the plant is endemic only to a small region of Mexico, it could have well been missed by many indians. And those who lived in the area might have lost knowledge about it during the turbulent times of the spanish invasion. It remains a mystery wether the plant was without name only for the generation that Wasson encountered, or if the psychoactive powers of the plant indeed were unknown to previous generation as well.
As a result of this, Wasson went onto suggest that salvia could possibly be what the Aztecs called “Pipiltzintzintli” – meaning “purest little prince”. This was referenced in a 17th century writing, and would help explain the potential origins of the plant; however, many believe this old reference to be cannabis, and not salvia.
In Western society, research into Salvia did not start until the 1930’s, where it was described by Jean Basset Johnson as he was researching the Mexican use of psychedelics. Johnson described the leaves of the plant as being used as part of psychedelic rituals. This led to Wasson conducting further research into the plant in the 1950’s, when he confirmed that it contained psychedelic properties. In a collaboration with Albert Hoffman (the inventor of LSD), and Robert G. Weitlaner, a living sample of saliva was brought back to the West for study and classification in the early 60’s.
The pharmacological side of the plant remained somewhat clouded until the 90’s when Daniel Siebert began research into the plant again. Since then, the main active compound of saliva - Salvinorin A - has been identified, although there is still much to be discovered about the plant.