Thursday, January 06, 2005

Juul's Giant Cactus (aka Jewel's Giant)

Dear Dr. Shulgin:

I received a jewel's giant cactus a while ago and it is about 2 years old. Can you tell me more about it? -- Brad

Dear Brad:

You have a sample of one of the most understudied and controversial cacti that I am aware of. What is the origin of its name, its botanical classification, the alkaloidal composition and its possible psychopharmacological activity? Let me put together what I can from Trout's notes from his Sacred Cacti book, and a small amount of unpublished analytical lab work that I did a few years ago.

The correct spelling of the name is Juul's Giant, or Tom Juul's Giant. He was a butcher in San Francisco, originally from Denmark, who was a serious collector of rare cacti. One frequently sees the name in cactus collections written as Jewel's Giant or Jules' Giant, but once in a while the spelling of his name comes across as Jull's or Juels'. It is thought by some botanists to be a variety or hybrid of either Trichocereus pachanoi (San Pedro) or T. peruvianus, but there are a few who firmly believe that this plant should be named as a separate species. The fruit is very different from that of the San Pedro, in that it lacks the usual wooly covering of hair.

I am aware of three reported bioassays, with psychedelic effects stated to be inactive, weak, or twice as potent as San Pedro. I have personally not tasted this cactus. However, I have run gas chromatography mass spectroscopy (GCMS) analyses on extracts from five samples of dried specimens from three different sources. All five showed the presence of mescaline (one as a trace component only) but all five samples displayed totally different composition portraits. Two samples had obvious indicators of tetrahydroisoquinolines being present but I did not have reference synthetic samples of anything that had exactly the same fragmentation pattern. This major compound had three oxygens and four methyl groups, but I have no idea how they were arranged.

This is the frustrating aspect of plant analysis. One has to be reasonably competent in chemistry, in botany and in pharmacology, all at the same time. If you hope to identify new alkaloids in a plant, you have to take a decade or two, to synthesize reference samples of a few hundred tetrahydroisoquinolines with one through four oxygens on the aromatic ring, with any or all of them having methyl ethers or methylenedioxy ethers attached. And then each of these should be modified from the di-H material to the N-methyl, the 1-methyl or the N, 1-dimethyl homologues. And let's make all the N-oxides. Then the preparation of the dihydro and the aromatic analogues will triple the number of spectra posted up there on the wall. Now, one can take a cactus cutting into the lab, make an extract, and shoot it into the monster GCMS and make a good guess as to the structures of the strange compounds that are present. But, how do you do the same plant twice? You have a second documented sample of the same name, and the contents are totally different. Are they really the same plant? How do I know that two plants are the same plant? DNA? Morphology? Retainer samples alive there in the greenhouse? The professional opinions of experts? One should take a decade or two to develop some confidence in the area of botany.

And of course, the bottom line is the area of pharmacology. Is the plant active? You are not sure just what is in the plant. And you are not sure just what the plant is. And, if the plant is not a psychoactive thing, do you really want to spend time and effort on the analysis of pharmacologically inactive things that are in it? So you have to grow it, name it, synthesize its possible components, and eat it, to begin to understand why this sacred plant of an almost unknown tribe of Indians, in the upper deserts of Bolivia, worshipped it. That is a lot of dedication and a lot of decades.

There is no easy answer.

-- Dr. Shulgin