Untangling Vines of the Amazon: A guide to Yage Vines

By / 28th October, 2015 / Cultivation Database /

World Seed Supply has become known for offering a wide selection of yage vine seeds.  There is a wide array of different aya vines that grow throughout the Amazon. In this article, we will refer to the name yage or caapi to refer to all different vines, not just banisteriopsis caapi.  Originally, all of these were considered to be different strains of banisteriopsis caapi. But there are a variety of different strains and clones of “caapi” vine in addition to many different species that are not even caapi, or not even in the genus, banisteriopsis. These vines have been known only to natives until relatively recently, and the natives themselves tend to be familiar only with the vines that grow in their native regions.  So perhaps for the first time historically, we’re collecting these plants together and trying to draw on different information to sort out the differences between these plants.

We’re constantly being approached by customers who are confused. They want to know the differences between all these names. Are these just different names for the same vines?  In consulting with other experienced collectors and ethnobotanists, it appears the confusion extends even to them.  Some things are clear cut, while others are debated.  We’ve learned a lot over the past several years in dealing with the seeds, plants and vines of many aya vines. This is by no means the definitive guide on yage vines.  We still have some questions. But the following information is a summary of many of the different forms of yage vine out there, and we hope this guide will help clear up some of the confusion.

Caapi vine is often divided into different colors, namely red, black white and yellow. Yellow caapi vine typically refers to the traditional banisteriopsis caapi. The wood of banisteriopsis caapi is brownish yellow. Caapi seeds start out green but change to yellow with age. Banisteriopsis caapi has the most established traditional history of the yage vines and is what most people expect when they refer to caapi or yage. Banisteriopsis caapi is apparently divided into two distinct groups: Caupuri and Tunkunaca (also spelled Tuncunaca).  The basis for the distinction here is regarding the stems. This is a scientific basis for classification. Cauprui Caapi is characterized by especially knotty stems. Tunkunaca caapi, on the other hand, has smooth stems.  Based on that distinction, it’s reasonable to then assume that the other known strains are simply different strains or clones of either Tunkunaca or Caupuri.  Meanwhile, any Caupuri or Tunkunaca would be examples of yellow by color.

Caapi strain or clone names can derive in a variety of different ways. It could be possible for a strain to be named and passed on from a native population as it comes to the U.S.  It seems that Cielo caapi is an example of this phenomenon that traces back to Iquitos, Peru. Cielo is reportedly one of several types of yage that natives in Peru recognize …along with others that seem to be different species.  Cielo caapi was one of the original strains brought to the U.S. from Peru by Terrence Mckenna.  Cielo is now a commonly traded and sold variety in the U.S. that we can seemingly classify as, a strain of a yellow caapi  that derives specifically from natives in Peru.  There must be other strains named indigenously, although we are not aware of any other examples that are commonly found in the U.S. at this time.

Most often you find different caapi plants or seeds classified by the country or region they come from.  For example, Peruvian yellow caapi is a yellow caapi type that originates in Peru.  Brazilian Tunkunaca is a Tunkunaca strain (which makes it a yellow caapi) that is from Brazil. This type of naming is applied by non-native people to distinguish the vines by locations similar to how kratom strains are often distinguished by region.  Ourinhos is another common caapi strain. Although it may sound like something exotic made up by natives, Ourinhos is a municipality in the capital of Brazil, so it is likely that this name is just another example of a strain being named after the origin of that strain.   There is also caapi vine grown in regions where it is not native, such as Hawaiian caapi. This says nothing about the origin of the genetics.

A number of caapi strains are also distinguished by color. Perhaps the most confusing of the colors is white yage. There are apparently two plants that fall under the name “white yage”. One type of white caapi actually appears to be a form of banisteriopsis caapi. The leaves of the plant are the same as that of other banisteriopsis caapi plants, so we can at least say that it is a banisteriopsis species that is most likely banisteriopsis caapi.  But there is also another white yage vine. The leaves have some resemblance to banisteriopsis caapi leaves, but the two plants can easily be distinguished when compared side by side. Most notably, the leaves do not come off the stem in even pairs as they do with banisteriopsis caapi. The leaves on this white yage alternate, and they tend to be shinier with a slightly velvety underside.  The seeds of these two white yage varieties look nothing alike.  Judging by the seeds, it is appears this plant is not even in the genus, banisteriopsis.  The dark brown (almost black) seeds have a papery layer on both sides, and the entire structure has the shape of a spade if you consider the stem. As of yet, we have been unable to find anyone who can identify the exact taxonomy of this plant. It comes from Peru named simply as white yage. Most people are not aware that there are two plants under the same common name. But that just goes to show how taxonomy translation can be difficult and perhaps misleading when you have plants that are originally only known to native cultures by common names and then you try to fit that into a scientific system. Perhaps it also points out why scientific labelling is useful.

“White yage” is not the only yage vine that falls into a totally different genus than banisteriopsis.  Black caapi is botanically classified as alicia anisopetala. There seems to be one or more species of alicia that could have been yage vines.  In the U.S., black caapi is sometimes labelled as banisteriopsis caapi, but this appears to be a misclassification that began when black yage first appeared in the U.S. Again, this may go back to the notion of literally trying to translate common names into scientific names. When one says black caapi or black yage, there is a tendency to classify it as a black variety of what we know yage to be, which happens to be banisteriopsis caapi in this case.  So many vendors began listing it this way. With little other information out there, people based their knowledge on this, which has led to a rather widespread confusion in the ethnobotanical community.  To date, we have not found any black yage that is actually banisteriopsis caapi, so it appears we do not have to worry about distinguishing two types of black caapi as we do with the white caapi vine.

Alicia anisopetala has black wood, with a lighter cross section. Looking at the dried vine on the outside, it may be easy to think that black yage is just a variety of b. caapi. But if you look at the cross section of black caapi (Alicia anisopetala), you can see the shape and color is different than that of yellow caapi.  This cross section is one feature we have used to determine that there is no black banisteriopsis caapi.  The leaves of the plant are also very different, tending to be more slender, especially when the plant is young. Alicia anisopetala seeds are also unmistakably different than those of any banisteriopsis seed. This is an easy feature to confirm that black yage is not even a species of banisteriopsis. Alicia anisopetla seeds have papery wings, and the entire seed structure makes the seeds look a lot like black papery butterflies.

Black yage is also known as “Trueno” caapi, which translates to Thunder in Spanish. Trueno appears to be another example of a strain or clone name that was given by natives. So when you see the name Trueno caapi, it is the native name for what we would call black caapi or what would scientifically be known as alicia anisopetala. These are all the same vine.

Red caapi is another primary variety of yage vine. As the name suggests, red yage wood (and seeds) are both red.  Red caapi is actually in the genus banisteriopsis, but it is a different species.  Known botanically as banisteriopsis muricata, you can also distinguish red yage by its seed structure. Red yage seeds feature the typical banisteriopsis wing. However, red yage seeds tend to be smaller and lack the dimple on the seed end that banisteriopsis caapi has. As mentioned, red yage seeds are red in color. But it is more of a red brown. Nonetheless, it is easy to distinguish them by color if you know what banisteriopsis caapi seeds look like. Since the two plants are closely related, it may be difficult to tell the plants apart without looking at the wood. Banisteriopsis muricata has leaves that look pretty much identical to those of banisteriopsis caapi to the average person.

There is misinformation about red yage to be aware of. Red yage is sometimes listed online as Trueno, but it is important to realize that this is a falsehood. As mentioned previously, Trueno refers to black yage (Alicia anisopetala). This is a simple reversal of the facts.

There is also a specific clone of red yage known as McKenna Red. The Mckenna Red clone should be the exact clone from Dennis Mckenna’s farm in Hawaii. It is unclear whether there is any physical or alkaloidal difference with this specific clone.  One would imagine that it is a good example of the strain.  But it could be the result of one or multiple different specimens that happened to make it back from the Amazon into Mckenna’s collection. Regardless, there is a certain “collectable” value to having this strain because it is tied to Terence and Dennis Mckenna.  As a buyer, it is important to beware when sourcing this strain if you intend to specifically have Mckenna Red.  Considering the confusion in general with naming caapi, it is likely that vendors and people have accidentally assumed this is a general nickname for all red yage. In some cases, they may have labelled different red caapi as Mckenna Red. It may not mean much in the end.  But as a collector, if you intend to have this particular strain you might want to focus on dealing with sources that have knowledge of the full lineage of their plants, so they can be assured it came from the Mckenna farm at one point.

Aside from the yage varieties that are named for their colors, two others worth mentioning are sky blue and boa yage. We have very little experience with boa yage, but it is a Peruvian vine that seems to be quite windy in tight coils.  Boa seems to be more of an admixture plant. It is almost certainly not banisteriopsis caapi, and it appears to be a plant is a different genus.

Sky blue yage DOES appear to be in the banisteriopsis genus. However, the seed structure indicates it is not banisteriopsis caapi or muricata. The seeds do have the characteristic banisteriopsis wing. But sky blue yage seeds have a much more rounded tip than either banisteriopsis caapi or muricata. Sky blue seeds are also smaller than those of banisteriopsis caapi, and they come in groups of 3 connected at the edges of their wings all the way down to the seed tip. Sky Blue yage seeds somewhat resemble lawn darts when they’re still connected in groups.  It seems some people wonder if sky blue caapi was the same as cielo, but it is not. You know now that the two are not even the same species.  With sky blue yage seeds now in the U.S. for the 2015-2016 season, we look forward to gaining more information and experimenting with this particular variety.

Although this is certainly not a complete list of all the yage vines known in the Amazon, it covers the most significant ones, and those which are likely to be available in the U.S. There are several widespread misconceptions that we’ve addressed, and hopefully this helps avoid confusion in the future. Having dealt with these seeds and plants in a business capacity, we are able to offer a bit of perspective. Our perspective incorporates not just what we’ve read, but our own experiences dealing with the seeds, live plants and dried vine as well as those shared with us by our suppliers and customers.  It is a cumulative vantage point. We still have much to know about the secrets of the Amazon’s plants. This is a learning process. But we hope to be able to add and revise as we learn so we can all see things a little more clearly.