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What Is a Peruvian Torch?

By Ray Hawk
Updated: May 16, 2024

Peruvian torch, also known by its Latin names of Echinopsis peruviana or Trichocereus peruviana, is a type of cacti native to the Andes mountain regions of Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. It is known to grow at a fast rate for cacti of 1 to 2 feet (0.3 to 0.6 meters) per year and its native location is found at an altitude of 1,000 to 3,000 feet (0.3 to 0.91 kilometers). The torch cactus has a bluish-green color with reddish-brown spines and a columnar shape that grows up to a height of 16 feet (5 meters). It is often confused with another related variety of cacti known as the San Pedro cactus, or Trichocereus pachanoi, which has shorter spines than the Peruvian torch, but otherwise looks identical.

Torch cacti are hardy varieties of plants, and the Peruvian torch is known to have been cultivated by the native Inca people of Peru and their predecessors as far back as 900 BC for religious purposes. Among cacti in general, it is considered the most psychoactive, containing the compound mescaline in concentrations of about 0.5% once completely dried. Mescaline is a hallucinogenic drug used by many Native American tribes in the Americas, as it is also found in a cactus variety widespread throughout the desert regions of the US state of Texas as well as in Mexico, known as Peyote.

Mescaline causes visual hallucinations and altered states of consciousness that can be either pleasant or emotionally disturbing depending on the unique reactions of the user. The drug is not known to be physically addictive, but can cause side-effects such as severe nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting, or heart conditions. Some Native American tribes have taken these side-effects to be beneficial, and see them as a special type of bodily cleansing that is incorporated into rituals with the drug.

Due to the hardy nature of the Peruvian torch cactus, it is easy to grow from seed or cuttings. It can also be watered regularly despite the fact that it is a desert plant, and this will not harm it. Since it grows on the side of mountains, it is adapted to only a few hours of direct sunlight per day.

Several varieties of blooming cactus produce fruit from the flowers if left alone long enough. The Peruvian torch is known to produce large, white flowers that generate seed, but fruit is not known to occur in the species. A related variety of Cereus cacti will produce both flowers and fruit, however.

Cereus species of cacti strongly resemble the Trichocereus species that includes the Peruvian torch and others, such as the Cardon Grande, or Trichocereus terscheckii. Differences include that the torch cacti have a sort of hairy flower stalk and ribbed sides that are plump shaped, unlike the thin Cereus ribs. The Cereus varieties of cacti are also free of mescaline, so they tend to have a wider distribution on the market to locations that restrict the sale of Trichocereus strains.

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