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Piperaceae (Pepper Family); Pipereae Tribe

Forms and Subspecies

It is possible that there are varieties, forms, or

subspecies that may be distinguished on the basis

of their leaves. However, the taxonomy of the

neotropical Piper species is quite confusing.


Piper auritum Kunth

Piper umbellatum 1.

Piper sanctum (Miq.) Schl. may also be a synonym;

Martinez 1987 (page 1188) lists practically

the same Mexican names for the two species.

Folk Names

Acoyo, acuya, acuyo, aguiyu, alahan, bakanil a iits'

(Huastec), cordoncillo, cordoncillo blanco, corriemineto,

coyoquelite, gold pepper, goldpfeffer,

hierba anis ("anise herb"), hierba de Santa Maria

(Spanish, "the herb of Saint Mary),279 hierba

santa, hinojo sabalero, ho'ben (Lacandon, "the

herb of the five"), hoja de anis, hoja de cancer, hoja

santa (Mexico, "sacred leaf"), homequelite, ixmaculan,

jaco, jinan (Totonac), maculan, ma'haw,

ma'j60, mak'ulan, mecax6chitl (Nahuatl), momo,

mumun, mumun te' (Tzeltal), omequelite,

omequilit-dos quelite, Santa Maria,2so tlampa,

tlanepa, tlanepaquelite, tlanipa, totzoay, tzon tzko

ntko, wo, woo, xalcuahuitl, xmaculan (Mayan/

Quintana Roo), x-mak-ulam, xmak'ulan, x'obel

(Mayan/San Antonio [Belize]), yerba santa


Gold pepper is an ancient traditional Mayan

remedy that was mentioned as a medicinal plant

in the few sources from the colonial period (e.g.,

the Motul dictionary and the Relaci6n de las casas

de Yucatan) (Roys 1976, 263*). In contemporary

Mexico, the primary use of the plant is as a

seasoning; fish and other seafood are wrapped in

the large, aromatic leaves and braised (Bye and

Lianres 1983,6*; Cioro 1982, 143*).

In Panama, the leaves were or still are used to

catch fish. Apparently, their scent attracts a food

fish known as sabala pipwu (Gupta et al. 1985).

In Brazil, the leaves were used in the industrial

production of raw safrole for the international

market (Rob Montgomery, pers. comm.).


Gold pepper is found from Mexico through

Central America and into South America. It is very

common among the tropical flora of Mexico (Chiapas), Belize, Panama, and Brazil and has

been carried into other tropical areas.


The plant is most easily propagated through

cuttings (approximately 15 to 20 cm long) taken

from the lower stems. In tropical areas, it can very

easily go wild and can displace other pepper plants

(e.g., Piper methysticum), thereby causing some

ecological damage (e.g., in Hawaii).


This evergreen perennial bush, which can grow to

a height of 4 to 5 meters, develops branched green

stems that do not lignify on their lower ends until

quite late. The leaves are opposite, oval, and

tapered at the end and project straight out from

the stem or droop slightly. The green-white, very

thin inflorescences extend straight up and can

attain a length of more than 10 cm.

Gold pepper is easily confused with the very

similar species Piper sanctum (possibly a synonym),

which is also known as haja santa and is also

rich in safrole (Martinez 1994, 185*). However,

Piper sanctum grows to a height of only 1.5 meters

and does not occur in the southeastern lowlands

(Argueta et al. 1994,813*).

The closely related and similar, but generally

smaller, species Piper amalaga 1. (see Piper spp.)

also contains safrole and is used ethnobotanically

in very similar ways (Arvigo and Balick 1994,

64 f. *). Some Maya regard this species as the

"female" counterpart of the «male" gold pepper.

Gold pepper is almost identical in appearance

to Piper methysticum; most laymen can distinguish

the two species only by the scent of the leaves.

Psychoactive Material

- Fresh leaves

- Dried leaves

- Essential oil

Preparation and Dosage

Shade-dried leaves may be smoked by themselves

or in combination with other herbs (see smoking

blends). Fresh leaves are added to alcohol (aguardiente

=sugarcane alcohol, mescal; see Agave spp.)

(Argueta et al. 1994,49*).

The essential oil, which is easily obtained

through steam distillation (Gupta et al. 1985), is

suitable as a precursor for the synthesis of

amphetamine derivatives (e.g., MDMA; cf. herbal


An orallyRoute of administration in which the subject swallows a substance. administered dose of 9 g/kg of plant

extract did not have any lethal effects upon rats. When administered via Injection, the LDso is

calculated as 2g/kg (Argueta et al. 1994,50*).
Ritual Use

Today in Belize, the large leaves are smoked, most

likely as a marijuana substitute (cf. Cannabis

indica) and for hedonistic purposes. To date, we

know of no traditional rituals in which gold

pepper has been used for its psychoactive


The natives of the West Indies (or Mexico) are

said to have once used Piper plantagineum Schlecht.,

a species found throughout the Caribbean region,

as a narcotic in a manner similar to the way kavakava

(Piper methysticum) is used. It is possible

that this species is synonymous with Piper

auritum. Unfortunately, almost nothing is known

about it.



Medicinal Use

In Belize (San Antonio, Cayo District), the large,

fresh leaves are heated over a wood fire and laid

over painful areas of the back, especially around

the small of the back. The Yucatec Maya of

Quintana Roo use the leaves as a stimulant, as an

analgesic, and to treat asthma, bronchitis, dyspnea,

weak digestion, stomachaches, head colds,

erysipelas, fever, gout, rheumatism, and wounds

(Cioro 1982, 143*; Roys 1976, 263*). In Mexican

folk medicine, the leaves are used for ethnogynecological

purposes. A tea made from the

leaves and mixed with honey is used to treat

scorpion stings. Juice pressed from the leaves is

ingested to relieve asthma, coughing, and

bronchitis (Argueta et al. 1994,49*).

The fresh leaf buds and young shoots can be

eaten as mild stimulants. When eaten, a mild

numbness is produced in the mouth that feels very

similar to the anesthesia of the mucous

membranes that is caused by Piper methysticum.


The leaves contain 0.47 to 0.58% essential oil

(Martinez 1994, 185*). The essential oil is also

present in the stalks, although in much lower

concentrations (Oscar and Poveda 1983).

The essential oil has a characteristic safrole or

sassafras scent and consists of up to 700/0 safrole;

also present are some forty other substances,

including a-thujene, a-pinene, camphene, sabinene,

~-pinene, myrcene, ~-phellandrene, carene,

a-terpinene, limonene, 1,8-cineole, ')'-terpinene,

~-phellandrene, cis-sabinene hydrate, nonanon-2,

r-cymenene, terpinolene, linalool, camphor, borneol,

r-cymene-8-ol, bornylacetate, eugenol, Delemene, a-cubenene, muurolene, a-copaene, ~bourbonene,

paraffin, ~-caryophyllene, humulene,

myristicin, ~-bisabolene, elemicine, D-cadinene,

cadina-1,4-dien, spathulenole, ~-caryophyllene

oxide, and n-hexadecane (Gupta et al. 1985;

Argueta et al. 1994, 49*).

The leaves have been found to also contain the

flavonoid 3'-hydroxy-4',7-dimethoxyflavone, ~sitosterol,

and the diterpene trans-phytol. Various

phenoles are also present in the leaves (Ampofo et

al. 1987). The roots contain isoquinoline alkaloids,

phenylpropenoids, and safrole (Argueta et al.

1994,49*; Hansel et al. 1975; Nair et al. 1989).


The pharmacological effects of the leaves are

clearly the result of their high safrole content (cf.

Sassafras albidum).

Commercial Forms and Regulations

Although the plant is not subject to any

regulations, it is not available as a living plant or as

dried raw plant material. Because it is a precursor

for the synthesis of MDMA and closely related

amphetamine derivatives, safrole is subject to

registration (cf. herbal ecstasy). In some areas,

trade in safrole or in preparations with a high

safrole content is regulated or even prohibited.


See also the entries for Piper betle, Piper methysticum,

Piper spp., and essential oils.

Ampofo, Stephen A., Vassilios Roussis, and David F.

Wiemer. 1987. New prenylated phenolics from

Piper auritum. Phytochemistry 26 (8): 2367-70.

Collera ZUfiiga, Ofelia. 1956. Contribuci6n al estudio

del Piper auritum. Mexico City: Tesis, Facultad de

Ciencias Quimicas.

Gupta, Mahabir P., Tomas D. Arias, Norris H.

Williams, R. Bos, and D. H. E. Tattje. 1985.

Safrole, the main component of the essential oil

from Piper auritum of Panama. Journal of

Natural Products 48 (2): 330.

Hansel, Rudolf, Anneliese Leuschke, and Arturo

Gomez-Pompa. 1975. Aporthine-type alkaloids

from Piper auritum. Lloydia 38:529-30.

Nair, Muraleedharan G., John Sommerville, and

Basil A. Burke. 1989. Phenyl propenoids from

roots of Piper auritum. Phytochemistry 28 (2):


Oscar, C. C., and A. 1. J. Poveda. 1983. Piper auritum

(H.B.K.), Piperaceae Family: Preliminary study

of the essential oil from its leaves. Ing. Ciencias

Quimicas 7 (1/2): 24-25.

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