Introduction - What is Syrian rue?
Syrian rue (Peganum harmala) is a desert plant that grows from the Eastern Mediterranean, throughout the Middle East and up to India, Mongolia and Manchuria. The seeds have a long history of ritual and medicinal use, mainly as an incense. The smoke is widely believed to ward off the evil eye.
The brown, triangular seeds contain a high amount of harmala alkaloids that have an MAO-inhibiting effect. For this reason, Syrian rue became popular among western psychonauts as an ayahuasca analogue.
Syrian rue (Peganum harmala) belongs to the family of Zygophyllaceae - also known as the Caltrop family. The plant has many folk names, like for example harmel, harmal, aspand, esfand, and peganon.
Peganum harmala is a perennial succulent shrub, that will grow 1 meter in height at most. The leaves have a fragile appearance. White flowers appear on the end of each stalk. They have five petals and ten pistils each. In July the flowers transform into round, deeply lobed fruits, that turn red while ripening. They contain a large amount of black/brownish seeds that have a triangular shape and are about 3mm in length.
Syrian Rue is often confused with ‘ordinary’ rue (Ruta graveolens). Although this plant has similar looking leaves and branches (and a bitter taste as well), it’s from a different family (Citrus). Caltrop (Tribulus terrestris) is a family member of Peganum harmala that contains high amounts of harmala alkaloids as well.
Syrian rue has been known since ancient times. Around 60 CE it’s described by Dioscorides in his botanical De materia medica. According to him: ‘wild rue mixed with honey, wine, chicken gall, saffron and fennel juice is useful for weak vision.’ Dioscorides equates Syrian rue with ‘moly’, the mythic herb that Hermes brought to Odysseus. It protected him from the spell of Circe, a witch who had transformed his comrades into swine.
Peganum harmala is also mentioned by the Greek-Roman physician Galen (2nd century A.D.) who classifies the herb as ‘warm and dry in the 3rd degree’. Medieval Arab herbalists used it as an aphrodisiac and to treat epilepsy. Syrian rue was further known to relieve pain, to induce the flow of urine and menstruation, and to cause intoxication and sleep.
Dioscorides already notes that the plant is used to ward off the evil eye. Another folk name of Syrian rue was besasa or ‘plant of Bes’. Bes is an ancient Egyptian dwarf-god that protects people against all kinds of evil. Small statues of Bes were fumigated with Syrian rue seeds. Up till the present day, the burning of harmala seeds remains a popular custom in the Near East and North Africa.
The evil eye
The evil eye is a malevolent glare, often unconsciously, that is believed to cast a curse leading to misfortune or injury. The belief goes together with the idea that too much attention for the good fortune of a person will attract bad luck.
In this respect, Syrian rue is mostly utilized as a cleansing incense and sometimes as an amulet. In Turkey, the whole plant is hung in houses and other places for protection. In Iran, they bind together the fruit capsules for this purpose and In Morocco, the seeds are carried in amulet bags against djinns. In Iran, the seeds are also burned in great quantities during Nowruz, the spring and new year’s celebration on 21 March. The entire house is cleansed with smoke to keep away misfortune. At weddings, the seeds are scattered over glowing coals as a protection against evil.
In Pakistan, the seeds serve to neutralize enchantments of a djinn and to banish evil spirits in general. When someone’s diagnosed as bewitched, he or she should inhale as much smoke as possible. Similar customs can be observed in India and in North Africa, where the seeds are often combined with other herbs.
In the Quran Syrian rue is mentioned as a sacred plant: ‘Every root, every leaf of harmel, is watched over by an angel who waits for a person to come in search of healing.’ Avicenna, the famous 11th-century Persian physician, describes harmel as ‘hazaian’. This is an archaic word meaning ‘drunken or hallucinogenic, like the Sufi drunkenness’. The dervishes of Buchara were known to ritually use harmel seeds for their inebriating effects.
A similar custom has been observed by the Hunza shamans from the Himalaya (currently Pakistan). They drink the blood of a goat and dance on music while they burn different types of incenses. Besides Syrian rue, they utilize drooping juniper (Juniperus recurva). Through inhaling the smoke they enter a clairvoyant trance in which they are able to consult the pari, a kind of fairies, on any kind of problem there might be.
As the plant ‘enjoys a high esteem in folk medicine’, Schultes, Hofmann and Rätsch (2001; 1992) argue this may ‘indicate a former semi-sacred use as a hallucinogen in nature religion and magic’. It has been speculated more often that ‘haoma’, the sacred plant of Zoroastrianism, could be identified as Peganum harmala.
However, if we look at the text sources of this tradition, mainly the Avesta, it seems more likely that Haoma refers to ephedra (Ephedra gerardiana). The method of preparation (pressing out the juice from the branches), the location where it appears (mountains instead of desert) and linguistic evidence (ephedra is still called ‘hom’, ‘hum’ or ‘homa’ in Persian and related languages) are all in favour of the small stimulating herb.
Haoma has the same linguistic root – sauma - as the Vedic soma: that other mythical brew surrounded by speculation. It might as well that both were names of a broader category of ‘magical plants’, like the word ‘entheogen’ is nowadays.
Love, birth and other traditional (medical) applications
Syrian rue is further known as aphrodisiac. Pregnant women, however, shouldn’t take it as it also has abortifacient effects. The seeds induce contraction of the muscles in the uterus. For this reason, they are applied to induce abortions, to induce labour and to promote menstruation. All throughout North Africa, the Middle East and India, the seeds are still used to treat a wide variety of ailments: from skin rashes to asthma and flatulence. Furthermore, the seeds can be used to make dye. A water extraction gives as fluorescent yellow dye. With an alcohol extraction, a red colour is obtained. The stems, roots and seeds can be used to make inks and tattoos. A nice-scented massage oil can be made from the herbage.
Psychonauts and therapeutical use
Harmaline was first isolated in 1841 and harmine in 1847 by German chemists. Later it was discovered that the ayahuasca vine Banisteriopsis caapi contains identical alkaloids, namely: harmine, harmaline and tetrahydroharmine (before the main alkaloid in B. caapi was coined ‘telepathine’.)
In the mid-60s Claudio Naranja tested the therapeutic effects of harmine and harmaline. Intravenous insertion led to physical relaxation. Participants tended to withdraw from their environment and preferred a minimum of stimuli. Half of the subjects experienced nausea or vomiting. Some described visions similar to those under influence of ayahuasca.
In the 80s Syrian rue was discovered by western psychonauts that are mainly interested in its MAO-inhibiting effect. One of the earliest records this type of use is a publication by Gracie & Zarkov. They made a decoction from the seeds in order to orally activate synthetic DMT (Gracie & Zarkov, 1986). Likewise, the seeds are known to potentiate psilocybin, 5-MeO-DMT and other tryptamines.
In the wake of the popularisation of ayahuasca, Peganum harmala got known as an ingredient in ayahuasca analogues (anahuaca). It’s used as a substitute for the ayahuasca vine Banisteriopsis caapi. Syrian rue is often cheaper to get and easier to prepare. Sometimes an extract of Syrian rue is used in smoking mixtures like changa.
There are many ways to consume Syrian rue. The easiest way is to just chew upon the seeds. You have to hold them in your mouth for about two minutes, chew well and make sure they get in touch with your saliva as much as possible before you swallow them.
Unfortunately, the taste is very bitter. It’s, therefore, more comfortable to grind the seeds (for example with a pester and mortar or in a coffee grinder). You can either swallow the powder like it is or put it in a capsule.
It’s also possible to make a cold-water infusion. In that case, you grind the seeds and soak them in cold water. Filter the seeds out and drink the water. In a hot-water infusion some of the active ingredients will get lost, so you need a bit more (about 1 to 2 gram extra per person). Use 150 ml water and 50 ml lemon juice per person. Grind the seeds and put them on a low fire for about 15 to 30 minutes. A hot-water infusion is more gentle on the stomach and gives less dizziness.
Traditionally the seeds are dried and burnt as incense (for example on glowing charcoals). If the dosage is high enough this can also give an MAO-inhibiting effect, but for a shorter amount of time.
Rätsch notes that in Ladakh (India) the seeds are roasted on a hot plate, finely ground and smoked in combination with tobacco. If you want to smoke the seeds yourself he advises to boil 15 grams of the seeds and mix it with the juice of one lemon. In this way, a paste is created. You can smoke the paste with tobacco for ‘inebriating and aphrodisiac effects’ (Rätsch 2005, p.426). In Morocco, harmal wine is made by adding the seeds to wine. Take a slightly acidic one for optimal solvability of the alkaloids. The seeds are also pulverised and used as a snuff ‘for a clear mind’.
It’s possible to make a Syrian rue extract or isolate the harmala alkaloids with some simple acid extractions (see Erowid). This may, for example, be useful while preparing changa. Did you know Syrian rue extract glows under black-light? A user describes that smoking an extract ‘provides more of a cerebral effect and less of a body high’ compared to ingesting the seeds orally.
3 to 4-gram seeds are optimal to cause an MAO-inhibiting effect. This roughly equates to 1.5 mg harmala alkaloids per kilogram body mass. Increasing the dosage will mainly lead to a heavier bodily experience, but won’t intensify the potentiating effect on tryptamines like psilocybin or DMT. Dosages from 3 to 28-gram seeds have been taken for a psychoactive effect on its own. In general, it can be stated that nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and dizziness increase with dosage. Psychedelic effects seem to vary per person: some have visions, others don’t. Alexander Shulgin provides a detailed report of subsequently taking many – every time slightly increasing – dosages of both the seeds and the isolated alkaloid harmaline.
It takes between 15 and 60 minutes before the harmala alkaloids have effect. So when your intention is to potentiate the second substance, it’s best to wait a bit before ingesting it. The MAO-inhibiting effect lasts for at least 3 to 6 hours, sometimes longer. The psychoactive effects last 5 to 8 hours. Also, the effects of the combined substance will last longer than usual! The trip length of magic mushrooms may, for example, be extended 1.5 to 2 times.
In line with Naranjo’s observations, Shulgin - who took high experimental dosages - advices to plan the trip at night-time or do it in a dark space with fewer distractions. While lying down he was able to focus on the inner visionary journey instead of the heavy body load.
To prevent nausea you may use herbs like ginger, mint, chamomile, dill or fennel (for example in a tea). Smoking marihuana also helps with nausea, but obviously, it will alter the experience. Some users reported that mixing Peganum harmala with marihuana gives more visual distortions, a major body high and a stronger buzz feeling.
When the MAO-enzyme is blocked, endogenous tryptamines are prevented from breaking down. Depending on the dosage this can lead to psychedelic effects like auditory and visionary hallucinations and mystical experiences. The working is similar to that of Banisteriopsis caapi, sometimes also taken on its own for therapeutical reasons.
When taken in order to potentiate the second substance, the experience of this substance is not only intensified and lengthened, but also qualitatively altered. For mushrooms, it’s been observed that the trip is more intense, more ‘other’ and more ‘lethargic’ (an increased tendency to lie down). Gracie and Zarkov describe meeting the Syrian Rue spirit. According to them: ‘the plant teacher had a definite personality which was strongly male, very friendly, humorous, with an interest in story-telling bordering on the garrulous’.
Syrian rue has both stimulant and sedating characteristics. The seeds are mildly antidepressant. Other common effects are nausea, dizziness and vomiting. Furthermore, harmala seeds are uterotonic: they contract the muscles of the uterus and are applied to induce labour or abortion. They have further been classified as diuretic, lactagogue and emmenagogue, which means they stimulate the flow of urine, milk and menstrual blood. They also have been used as painkiller and narcotic, to induce sleep, as emetic and to expel worms.
The seeds of Peganum harmala contain several alkaloids, mainly the harmala alkaloids harmine and harmaline. Other beta-carbolines are harmalol, harmane, harmidine, dihydro harmaline, isoharmine, tetrahydroharmine, tetrahydroharmaline, tetrahydroharmol, and norharmine.
Harmine, harmaline and tetrahydroharmine also occur in the ayahuasca vine Banisteriopsis caapi. The concentration is slightly higher in Syrian rue: approximately 2-7% of the dry weight of mature seeds.
The harmala alkaloids are psychoactive and function as short-acting reversible inhibitors of MAO-A. This means they suppress the excretion of the endogenous enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO). This enzyme normally metabolizes certain endogenous neurotransmitters like serotonin, as well as foreign toxins (like tyramines in food) and tryptamines. When the enzyme is blocked, substances like N, N-DMT and 5-MeO-DMT become orally effective. The effect of others substances like mescaline, LSD and psilocybin is potentiated.
Reversible means the inhibition is temporary: it’s brought about through competition at the binding site. Pharmaceutical anti-depressants are mostly irreversible (permanent) MAOIs: they destroy the receptor where the enzyme binds. Combining irreversible MAOIs with tryptamines is very dangerous: the effects may continue for weeks or even months. Read more about MAO inhibition (including a list of prohibited foods and substances) here. Tetrahydroharmine, typically only present in trace amounts, is a serotonin reuptake inhibitor. Harman is shown to be a vasodilator and a hypotensive agent in animals. It interacts directly with DNA and may affect its structure.
Harmala seeds further contain the quinazoline compounds vasicine, vasicinone, pegaline and deoxyvasicinone, that have uterotonic effects. The seeds also contain vitamin C and fatty acids.
Syrian rue thrives in a desert climate. In the 1930s the plant has been introduced to the United States, where it now occurs naturally in the arid regions of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. A fairly warm climate is necessary for cultivation, like that of southern Europe or California. It hardly ever grows in central Europe.
In spring you can spread the seeds on normal moistened potting soil and gently press them in. Warm air and a bit of sunlight are necessary for germination. When the roots have grown strong enough the seedlings can be repotted.
The seeds can germinate indoors as well, on a sandy soil. Be moderate with water and put on a sunny spot of at least 20°C. Once fully grown the plant can stand both drought and frost. This will put the plant in hibernation modus, but in spring it will start growing again.
It’s also possible to cultivate the plant from roots preserved from the previous year. In this case, you have to pack the roots in damp sawdust and store them in a cool place. In the early spring, you can plant the roots in the ground or in pots.
Syrian rue is unscheduled in most European countries. Only in France both Peganum harmala and harmala alkaloids are listed as controlled substances. In Finland, the plant is on the medicinal plant's list, which means a doctor's prescription is required for legal import.
The plant is unscheduled in the United States, meaning it is legal to possess and sell. However, it is listed as a ‘noxious weed’ in several states including Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon. This means it’s considered a threat to agriculture or the natural ecosystem. It’s cultivation and import might, therefore, be controlled or prohibited in those states. In Louisiana, the plant is illegal if intended for human consumption.
Harmala alkaloids are scheduled in Australia, and harmaline is scheduled in Canada.
Be careful: whenever you ingest an MAO-inhibitor, you have to take precautions regarding your diet! The blocked MAO-enzyme normally breaks down toxic substances in food and certain medicines. In combination with an MAOI alcohol, meat, cheese and other dairy products may cause a headache and tiredness. Some other substances, particularly amphetamines and pharmaceutical antidepressants, could be downright dangerous. Read our article on MAOIs for full information. It’s best to start the MAO-diet at least one day beforehand and one day afterwards, and longer if possible.
Because of their uterotonic effects, the seeds should be avoided by pregnant women.
Peganum harmala is neither physically nor psychologically addictive but should be avoided when emotionally or mentally unstable or by people prone to mental illnesses. Do not drive or operate heavy machinery while under influence.
- Albert Most. Peganum Harmala pamphlet. Peganum Harmala: The Hallucinogenic Herb of the American Southwest. Venom Press, 1985.
- Alexander Shulgin. Tihkal, chapter 13: Harmaline.
- Alice Dee, Inky, Bomberman. Comments on Combining Syrian Rue with Psilocybin Mushrooms. Erowid, 1996.
- Christian Rätsch. Encyclopaedia of Psychoactive plants. 2005 (1998). Inner Traditions International.
- Dale Pendell. Pharmakognosis. Plant Teachers and the Poison Path. 2010 (2005). North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California.
- Erowid. Notes on Smoking Syrian Rue Extract. Erowid, 1996-2001.
- Erowid: Syrian Rue vault.
- Flattery D, Schwartz M. Hoama and Harmaline. 1989.
- Gracie and Zarkov. Peganum harmala. An Indo-European Plant Teacher. . . a technical note from the underground - Number 10. 1986.
- Schultes, Hofmann and Rätsch: Plants of the Gods. Their Sacred, Healing and Hallucinogenic Powers. 2001 (1988). Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont.