Huperzia is a genus of firmosses (also known as fir clubmosses and gemma fir-mosses) in the Lycopodiaceae Family (clubmosses), which was originally included in the related genus Lycopodium. In 1801 the species were differentiated by Johann Jakob Bernhardi who reclassified Lycopodium selago as Huperzia selago.
Huperzia plants are known as firmosses due to the their superficial resemblance to branches of fir (Abies), a conifer. “Gemma” or “gemmae” is after the bud-like structures which occur among the leaves.
The number of Huperzia species depends on the classification approach. The first method recognizes Huperzia as a broad genera, which then includes more than 300 species. According to this approach, Huperzia plants can be found around the world, except for North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and Western Asia.
The other approach divides the subfamily Huperzoideae to 3 genera:
- Phylloglossum drummondii (pygmy clubmoss) – a small plant superficially resembling a tiny grass plant, native to southwestern Western Australia, southern South Australia, Victoria and Tasmania, as well as North Island, New Zealand.
- Phlegmariurus – a tropical genus including more than 300 species, which grow on other plants.
- Huperzia – this classification leaves Huperzia with just around 25 species, which grow on the ground or on rocks in temperate, arctic, and alpine habitats, including mountains in tropical Asia.
In the following article I cover the most well-known species of Huperzia which may be psychoactive.
Huperzia selago (northern firmoss; fir clubmoss; devil’s claw) can be found in North America, Europe, and Asia. The Upper Tanana Indians of Alaska made a poultice from the whole plant which they used headaches.
It was also an ancient Celtic-Germanic magical plant used in druidic rituals.
Selago may have certain psychoactive effects, but may also cause the following side effects:
This and other club mosses indigenous to Europe are known by names such as Druid’s plant, Witches’ dust, and Disquiet, which suggest an ancient use in pagan rituals and strong associations with witchcraft.
In Nepal, Lycopodium clavatum and similar species are sacred to the Hindu god Vishnu and are used in garlands and other objects at his festivals.
In Chinese medicine it is known as Shen Jin Cao and used to treat tightness of the tendons involving difficulty of movement and painful joints as well as trauma-related pain.
It contains psychoactive alkaloids, such as nicotine.
Lycopodium spp. (Condor Plants)
In northern Peru, folk healers use club mosses as medicinal plants, bath additives, and amulets (e.g., for magical defense during healing rituals.)
One plant, Lycopodium magellanicum, also known as Austrolycopodium magellanicum or the Magellanic clubmoss, grows in the mountains of Latin America, as well as a number of islands in the antarctic and subantarctic oceans.
The plant appears to contain inhibitors of acetylcholinesterase (AChE), like Huperzia serrata (see below).
Lycopodium magellanicum is also sometimes used as a San Pedro drink additive, which makes the plant spirit appear to the shaman as a condor, which can then be sent on astral journeys and fulfill tasks. It is possible that it even augments the hallucinogenic effects of the San Pedro drink, for example by improving the visionary sight, and may even have hallucinogenic effects on its own.
Lycopodium gayanum (ngalngal or harina de los brujos) is used by the Mapuche of Chile as a sedative.
Huperzia serrata (toothed clubmoss; Chinese club moss; Lycopodium serratum), which is native to eastern Asia (China, Tibet, Japan, the Korean peninsula, and the Russian Far East), is the firmoss which interests me the most.
It contains the acetylcholinesterase inhibitor alkaloid, huperzine A, and is a traditional Chinese medicine (Herba Lycopodii Serrati).
Its Chinese name (Jin Bu Huan) means “will not exchange for gold.”
Other Chinese names for the plant include:
- Ju Bu Huan
- Qian Ceng Ta
- Qi Chun Jin
It is used for blood circulation problems and to relieve pain in conditions such as:
- traumatic injuries
- tendon and bone pain
- irregular menstruation
- lung abscess
- hemorrhoids or hemorrhoidal bleeding
It is believed to have sedative, analgesic, and antispasmodic effects and is also used as a sleeping aid and even for weight loss.
Side effects: Dizziness.
Huperzine A, an alkaloid extracted from Huperzia serrata, has been used as a neuroprotective prescription drug in China since the early 1990s with no reported serious adverse effects. It showed considerable benefit in the treatment of dementia and myasthenia gravis.
Huperzine A is also used as a nootropic dietary supplement said to promote cognitive function and improve memory and learning performance.
How does it work?
The neurotransmitter acetylcholine is thought to play a major role in memory. Low levels of the neurotransmitter in the brain may result in the memory problems seen in Alzheimer’s disease, which is characterized by cholinergic dysfunction.
Huperzine A works by inhibihiting acetylcholineesterase (AChE), the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine in the brain. With less AChE available to breakdown acetylcholine, levels of the neurotransmitter go up, specifically in the basal ganglia (which plays a role in working memory), manifesting in an improvement of memory.
Other mechanisms by which huperzine works to treat seizures and dementia and improve cognition include:
- interfering with beta-amyloid deposition, which, according to the amyloid hypothesis, are the fundamental cause of the disease.
- inhibiting N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors in the cerebral cortex (other NMDA receptor channel blockers include dissociative hallucinogens such as dextromethorphan, ketamine, tiletamine, phencyclidine, methoxetamine, and methoxphenidine).
- decreased neurotoxicity leads to less neurodegeneration which along with increased GABAergic transmission leads to less seizures and thus less cognitive decline.
- an adrenergic mechanism may also be involved (since it can improve yohimbine-induced memory impairments)
The acetylcholinesterase (AChE) inhibitors currently used in conventional medicine, such as physostigmine, tacrine, and donepezil (Aricept), are more toxic to the liver than huperzine A, which is significantly more selective in its sites of action.
Moreover, huperzine A was more effective in inhibiting AChE than tacrine and galantamine, and has greater bioavailability and penetrates the blood–brain barrier more easily than donepezil.
Huperzine A may be an effective and well-tolerated agent to both suppress seizures and improve memory, cognitive function, and behavioral factors in Alzheimer’s disease by enhancing cholinergic and GABAergic signaling and mitigating Alzheimer’s disease-related neurotoxicity.
Alzheimer’s disease dosage: 400 mcg huperzine A, twice a day.
Huperzine A for Lucid Dreaming and Astral Projection
One of the most popular and scientifically studied substance which can induce lucid dreams is galantamine. Huperzine A and galantamine both have a similar mechanism of action. By inhibiting AChE, they cause higher levels of acetylcholine, and therefore an improved memory and attention, making it much easier both to retain awareness within the dream state and to recall the experience upon returning to the regular state of consciousness.
The fact that huperzine A may be a mild dissociative may make it even more interesting in the induction of altered states of consciousness which involve dissociation from the physical body, such as out-of-body experiences.
A single huperzine A pill may contain 50-300 mcg. It is recommended to not exceed the 300 mcg dose (or perhaps up to 600 mcg maximum; but start with a low dose and increase it if necessary.)
For the purpose of inducing altered states of consciousness such lucid dreaming and astral projection, take huperzine A about 10 minutes before you begin your induction technique.
Do not take Huperzia or huperzine A without consulting with your doctor first, especially if you are taking medications such as:
- other acetylcholinesterase inhibitor drugs (e.g., donepezil, galantamine, rivastigmine)
- dopamine D2 receptor blockers
- calcium channel blockers
- beta adrenergic antagonists
Side effects of huperzine A are generally mild and may include:
- gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, or loss of appetite
- nervous system symptoms such as insomnia, excitability, hyperactivity, or drowsiness
- other symptoms, such as dizziness, thirst, sweating, slow heart beat, nasal obstruction, or edema.
Several cases of acute and chronic hepatitis have been described in the literature after 4-5 months of regularly ingesting Huperzia serrata (as a whole herb; not purified huperzine A), which are resolved 2 months after discontinuation of the herb.
In general, it is not recommended to take this powerful herb regularly, especially not for such long periods of time. While using the herb, it may be wise to conduct regular liver function blood tests and blood count (high eosinophil count may be a symptom) as well as look out for the following symptoms:
- abdominal pain
- constitutional symptoms (e.g., weight loss, fever, headache, excessive sweating, chronic pain, fatigue, shortness of breath, or a general sense of being unwell)
- yellowing of the skin and/or eyes
- enlarged liver