COMMON NAMES: Abessinischer Tee, Abyssinian Tea, Arabian Tea, Bushman’s Tea, Cat, Chat Tree, Flower of Paradise, Jaad (Somali), Kafta (Arabic, ‘leaf’), Kat, Miraa, Muhulo (Tanzania), Muirungi (Kenya), Qaad (Somali), Somali Tea, Tschat
Catha edulis is an evergreen bush that can grow to the height of an oak tree in the wild. It is usually kept to about 10-25 feet in height in cultivation. The leaves are shiny and leathery, with serrated edges. Young leaves are light green, turning dark green with a reddish cast with age. The flowers are small and star-shaped, and the fruits are capsules with four chambers that open up like flowers when mature (Getahun & Krikorian 1971).
C. edulis most likely originated in Ethiopia, and spread to East Africa, Tanzania, Arabia, and Yemen. It thrives in many climates, and may be found in both tropical and mountainous regions. Khat grows wild in Ethiopia, and is cultivated in Arabia, Zambia, Somalia and Afghanistan (Getahun & Krikorian 1971).
C. edulis is best propagated through cuttings from young branches. The cuttings are placed in holes filled with water until they form sufficient root systems. Propagation is most successful in dry, hot climates, but can be done at any time as long as the plant receives plenty of water. Khat plants much prefer dry heat, but are hardy and can even tolerate a mild frost! (Getahun & Krikorian 1971)
TRADITIONAL USES: C. edulis leaves have been used as an entheogen for a very long time, certainly for much longer than coffee has been consumed as a beverage. It was most likely first recognized as a stimulant in Ethiopia, and was then spread throughout the region by Sufis and wandering dervishes who ingested the leaves ritually as a means to come to understand the sacred wisdom of God (Schopen 1978 cited in Ratsch 1998, 156).
According to one legend, two saints often sat up and prayed through the night, but found that it was sometimes difficult to stay awake and alert the whole time. They prayed that God would show them a way to stop falling asleep. An angel appeared and showed them the khat plant, which allowed them to stay up and pray all night with no trouble (Getahun & Krikorian 1971).
Scholars have suggested that khat was regarded as a divine food in ancient Egypt and was used ritually there. It is a candidate for the medicine that Alexander the Great once used to miraculously provide vitality and healing to all of his troops. It has even been suggested that the smoke that the oracle of Delphi consumed in order to go in to trance came from burning khat leaves as a psychoactive incense (Elmi 1983).
Most Muslims who use khat leaves regard the bush and its leaves as holy and offer prayers before consuming it. In Ethiopia, it is traditional for only older men to consume khat as part of religious rituals. They drink coffee and consume the leaves in order to stay awake all night and pray. Hashish is also often smoked at this time. Today, however, khat leaves are chewed by men and women of all ages for many purposes (Getahun & Krikorian 1971).
In Yemen, khat is chewed at engagements, marriages and burials. Most Yemenites chew khat daily in a ritual manner – men and sometimes women gather together in the afternoon to chew khat in a circle. Tobacco and hashish are also smoked in water pipes at this time. The participants often play music together and sing. As the effects of the khat come on, the members of the circle converse on various topics until the stimulating effects wear down some two hours afterwards, at which time the circle convenes. On Friday, more than 80% of adults in Yemen take part in a circle such as this, whereas on other days 50-60% do so. Businesses close down and streets are empty during this time (Schopen 1978 cited in Ratsch 1998, 158-159).
Khat is presently illegal in some countries, such as Australia and the US, but the negative impact of the plant on the societies in which it is prominent have been much exaggerated, and difficulties usually only stem from compulsive, excessive use, which is seen primarily in the poor and unemployed. Khat sessions are essential for social bonding and diplomatic negotiation in the countries in which they are held (Voogelbreinder 2009, 124). Khat chewing is very similar to the excessive coffee consumption so well accepted in Western countries, and any attempt to delegitimize or pathologize the practice may be seen for what it is – racist and close minded refusal to understand the practices and medicines of foreign peoples.
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: Fresh khat leaves are simply chewed, the sooner after harvest the better, and no more than two days after being picked. The leaves do not require any treatment or blending with other substances, although drinking water while chewing will help the alkaloids from the saliva more quickly enter the stomach, and thus the bloodstream. One takes as many leaves in the mouth as possible and chews for about ten minutes before spitting out or swallowing the plant matter. The longer the juice stays in the mouth, the stronger the effects (Getahun & Krikorian 1971).
The fresh leaves and branch tips may also be prepared as a tea. Ground khat leaves are mixed with honey or sugar to make candies. In Somalia, the leaves are dried in the sun and crushed, then mixed with cardamom, cloves, and water to make a paste that is formed in to quids for chewing. In Ethiopia, khat is used to make mead by fermenting a khat infusion with honey to make a brown, bitter beverage that is mildly inebriating (Schopen 1978 cited in Ratsch 1998, 158).
In Yemen, it is common to smoke dried khat leaves alone or with medicines such as hashish. Tobacco is often smoked with khat, as this enhances the stimulating effects of both medicines. Dried leaves are used as medicinal incenses. Pilgrims headed to Mecca sometimes eat balls made from ground dried khat leaves and various binding agents in order to give themselves strength on the long journey (Getahun & Krikorian 1971).
Only the leaf buds, young leaves, and branch tips contain sufficient alkaloids for stimulant effects. The psychoactive compounds break down significantly when the leaves are dried. However, if fresh leaves are frozen, they remain almost perfectly intact for months (Brenneisen & Mathys 1992 cited in Ratsch 1998, 158).
100-200g of khat leaves are considered an average dose. Ethiopian farmers may eat between 1/4 and 3/4 kg of khat leaves in one morning (Getahun & Krikorian 1971).
Although there is only one psychoactive species of Catha recognized, in the countries where it is cultivated there are a number of varieties for sale. Cheaper types, such as ‘red’ are said to be strong and cause more negative side effects, while more expensive types such as ‘white’ are said to be easier on the body system and more pleasant in effect (Voogelbreinder 2009, 124).
MEDICINAL USE: Arabic pharmacopoeias mention that khat may be used to sooth the stomach and treat depression. It is used to suppress appetite in Yemen, and the fumes of burning khat leaves are inhaled to alleviate headaches (Schopen 1978 cited in Ratsch 1998, 159).
In Africa, khat root is used to treat flu, upset stomach, and diseases of the chest region. In Ethiopia, it is said that khat cures 501 diseases. It is primarily used as an aphrodisiac and to treat melancholy and depression. Khat leaves are applied to the forehead to treat headaches. The Masai and the Kipsigi use khat to treat gonorrhea. Regular consumption may also protect against malaria (Voogelbreinder 2009, 124).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: The primary psychoactive stimulant in khat is cathinone, although other stimulating alkaloids are also found in the plant. Cathinone is three times less toxic than amphetamine. 2 grams of khat extract in alcohol per kg of body weight has proven fatal in lab mice (Brenneisen & Mathys 1992 cited in Ratsch 1998, 158). The amounts of constituents in the fresh leaves varies considerably based on growing condition, age, and quality of the specimen. Leaves from khat bushes grown in the United States and Europe contain next to no alkaloids, for some reason. Fresh leaves are rich in vitamins, minerals, tannins, and proteins (Voogelbreinder 2009, 124).
The primary effect of khat is a boost in energy. Chewing khat induces a good mood, euphoria and talkativeness. It stimulates the mind, relaxes the body, provides spiritual stamina, and increases confidence and alertness. This state diminishes within two hours after the effects come on. The effect has been compared to a combination of caffeine and morphine (Schroder 1991 cited in Ratsch 1998, 159).
Sufis and dervishes use khat to induce a state of ecstatic trance, although they say that this state will only come on when one takes set and setting in to account and approaches the experience with the correct intention to connect with the divine (Schopen 1978 cited in Ratsch 1998, 160).
Khat has an anti-diabetic effect, and long term excessive use may cause stomach problems, malnourishment, and anxiety. Long term use also leads to excess uric acid build up, which may cause gout (per. user comment). Ethiopians who are not Muslim say that long term khat use causes insanity in many khat-chewing Muslims. However, the World Health Organization has stated that physical dependence does not occur with khat, even when some tolerance to the effects has developed (Getahun & Krikorian 1971). Nevertheless, chewing too much khat at once can cause confusion, delirium, dizziness, and a feeling of insects crawling under the skin, symptoms very similar to those of amphetamine overdose or overuse (Voogelbreinder 2009, 124).
MORE ARTICLES ON CATHA EDULIS
Khat Out Of The Bag – On the worldwide legal status of Khat
Bibra, E., Plant Intoxicants: A Classic Text on the Use of Mind-Altering Plants. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1995.
Elmi, A.S. “The Chewing of Khat in Somalia.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology, no. 8 (1983): 163–176.
Getahun, A., and A.D. Krikorian. “Coffee’s Rival from Harar, Ethiopia. I: Botany, Cultivation and Use.” Economic Botany, no. 25 (1971): 353–377.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.