COMMON NAMES: Canna, Channa, Kanna, Kauwgoed, Kougoed, Mesembryanthemum tortuosum L.
Sceletium tortuosum is a herbaceous plant that resembles a succulent; it has fleshy light green leaves that are 1.5 inches (4 cm) wide, and small flowers with thin spindly petals ranging in color from white and light yellow to light pink and shades of light orange. The plant only grows about 12 inches (30 cm) high and spreads out across the ground. There are five other closely related plants in the Sceletium genus which make distinguishing the S. tortousum species a little difficult (Ratsch 1998, 468). (More images of S. tortuosum).
Kanna originated in a narrow band of land in South Africa, primarily in the Western Cape province, but ranging as far east as the Eastern Cape province. This plant has become increasingly difficult to find in the wild due to unscrupulous profiteers striping the land of most of the naturally growing plants (Smith et al. 1996).
TRADITIONAL USES: There has been a great deal of mystery surrounding the Sceletium tortuosum plant due to a lack of systematic investigation over the past several centuries; many of the first people to explore South Africa observed and took note of the native Bushmen’s preparation of and use of an intoxicant called kanna that was chewed or smoked but they neglected to include any specific botanical information on its origin (Ratsch 1998, 468).
The first European reports of the plant date as far back as 1662, when the Dutch colonist and founder of Cape Town, South Africa, Jan van Riebeeck, observed the native Bushmen gathering and trading large quantities of an intoxicating plant that they fermented and chewed as a quid. Precise information about this plant remained anecdotal and spotty for the next 300 years. It wasn’t until 1996 that Michael Smith et al. published a comprehensive investigation on the psychoactive constituents of the Mesembryanthemaceae genus and S. Tortuosum in particular, in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology.
This paper proved once and for all that the Mesembryanthemaceae genus and S. tortuosum contained at least eight distinctive psychoactive alkaloidal compounds: Mesembrine, Mesembrenine, Mesembrenone, Mesembranol, Sceletenone, Tortuosamine, Hordenine, and Dehydrojoubertamine (Smith et al. 1996). earlier studies conducted by T. A. Smith in 1977 showed that another subspecies of the Mesembryanthemaceae genus, namely, Delosperma may also contain the Methyltryptamine and Dimethyltryptamine compounds (Smith 1977).
Since prehistoric times the tribes of South Africa have revered the antelope for its grace and beauty. They incorporated this animal into art and many traditional rituals. They have even used the same word, kanna, to describe this antelope, as wells as S. tortuosum. The Bushmen of South Africa have used S. tortuosum in ritual ceremonies for hundreds of years. They have employed this ‘magical’ plant in rainmaking ceremonies, divination observances, healing rituals and communal trance dancing ceremonies (Lewis-Williams 1981).
The Hottentot tribe reportedly combines Kanna with Dagga (Cannabis sativa) to be smoked during rituals and communal dancing ceremonies. They also chew the leaf as a cure for toothache and abdominal pain. The plant has also been used by the Cape farmers as a sedative (Smith et al. 1996).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: The Bushmen of South Africa have used several traditional methods to prepare the Sceletium so that the resulting material, called kanna, will have an improved psychoactivity profile, as well as reduced levels of toxic compounds that can produce unwanted effects. One method used by the Khoisan tribe is to take the entire plant, roots and all, and macerate it until the internal plant juices ooze out. They then place the plant material inside special bags made from animal skins and tightly seal the bags to keep the precious juices inside and to prevent evaporation. The Khoisan Bushmen then placed the bags outside under the hot African sun to ferment for three whole days, at which point they open the bags and give everything a good stir; they then leave the bags outside for an additional five more days to continue the fermentation process. After the fermentation process is complete, they empty the contents of the bag onto a flat surface and place it under the sun to dry. When all of the plant material is completely dry they chop it into strips to be twisted into quids, much like modern day pigtail chewing tobacco, or take the dried plant material and pound it into a fine powder (Smith et al. 1996).
The African Bushmen also have an alternative method to quickly prepare the Kanna plant for ritual ceremonies. When the Bushmen are pressed for time and do not have the luxury of allowing the plant to ferment for a week, they employed the following method: they begin by making a fire directly on top of dry sand. The wood is allowed to burn until there is nothing left but ash and a few charcoals. Next the embers and coals are swept aside and a shallow hole is dug into the hot sand. Then, a recently harvested plant and its roots is placed into the hole and the hot sand is shoveled back on top. The plant is then allowed to bake in the ‘sand oven’ for an hour. After an hour has elapsed, the plant is removed from the warm sand and may be pounded into a fine powder (Smith et al. 1996).
During traditional ceremonies, the native South African Bushmen place between two and five grams of kanna powder mixed with alcohol between the lips or under the tongue to allow the compounds to be absorbed sublingually. They hold this concoction in the mouth for about ten minutes and swallow the resulting saliva. They also place kanna between the cheeks and chew it like chewing tobacco (Smith et al. 1996).
MEDICINAL USES: The Namaqua people of lower Namibia use this plant to make a tea that they use to suppress hunger pangs as well as to quell minor aches and pains (Smith et al. 1996). As recently as 2001, Nigel Gericke and Ben-Erik van Wyk patented several of the constituent compounds present in S. tortuosum to aid in the treatment of depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and alcohol and drug dependency, as well as to curb the compulsions experienced by people suffering from bulimia nervosa. There is still a lot research that needs to be done before we can truly comprehend and appreciate all of the healing potentials that S. tortuosum has to offer (U.S. Patent 2001).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: The Bushmen of South African describe the effects of low doses, up to three grams of kanna powder, as tranquility, easing stress, reducing anxiety, producing a greater sense of self-confidence, lessening social inhibitions, and improving meditative focus. At slightly higher doses the effects become more pronounced and produce feelings of euphoria, increased tactile sensitivity, and amplified libidinal desires (Smith et al. 1996). The aboriginal natives of South Africa routinely combine kanna with dagga (Cannabis sativa) and report positive synergistic properties between the two sacraments. The combination is said to amplify the feeling and experience of both medicines and to produce mild visual hallucinations. The Bushmen also report that kanna lessens the effects of tobacco and alcohol when taken simultaneously (Ratsch 1998, 470).
Pharmaceutical compositions containing mesembrine and related compounds. U.S. Patent 6,288,104 (PDF)
Hofmann, A., Ratsch, C., Schultes, R., Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1992.
Lewis-Williams, I.D. Believing and Seeing: Symbolic Meanings in Southern San Rock Paintings. London: Academic Press, 1981.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Smith, M.T., N.R. Crouch, N. Gericke, and M. Hirst. “Psychoactive Constituents of the Genus Sceletium N.E. Br. and Other Mesembryanthemaceae: A Review.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 50 (1996): 119–130.
Smith, T.A. 1977. Tryptamine and related compounds in plants. Phytochemistry 16, 171-75.