During the early seventeenth century, reports from missionaries and explorers in southern Africa described how the Khoikhoi, an indigenous tribe native to the region, also known colloquially as Hottentots to white colonists, would chew, sniff or smoke an inebriant that was locally known as kanna. The fervor with which the Hottentots smoked kanna was noted by all the early travelers to the region. It was only speculation that this “tobacco” identified as kanna by the Hottentots was Sceletium tortuosum since, unfortunately, most of the reports on its use neglected to provide any actual information about the botanical source of the substance.
It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that it was suggested that kanna may have been prepared from the plant Mesembry anthemum, for this species was also referred to as ‘kanna’ in South Africa. However, early reports of experimentation with this plant by pioneering psychonauts did not reveal effects that were particularly interesting or exciting.
At around the same time, other individuals were suggesting that kanna came from Sceletium tortuosum. It was only as recently as the early 1990s that the first actual ethnobotanical evidence of the psychoactive use of Sceletium tortuosum was attained. Kanna is now identified as Sceletium tortuosum, and is also known by other popular names such as kougoed, canna, canna-root, channa, gunna, and tortuose fig-marigold, depending on its region of origin within South Africa.
The plant grows only in South Africa, in the so-called ‘kanna land’. Sceletium tortuosum and other Sceletium species have become more and more rare in South Africa, and are increasingly difficult to find for indigenous tribes. In contemporary South Africa, kanna is now used primarily as an agent of pleasure; it is used as a party drug in the same way that Cannabis sativa is used in Western society.
Kanna is the same name used by the South African Bushman to refer to the Eland Antelope. The eland, or the kanna, is regarded as a “trance animal” of extraordinary abilities. Since pre-historic times, the eland antelope has played a central role as a magical ally in many ceremonies and is closely associated both with the rain makers and with divination rituals, healing practices, and communal trance dances. The plant kanna, or Sceletium tortuosum, appears to have been used as part of these rituals.
The Hottentots apparently chewed kanna for ritual and healing dances, or smoked it together with dagga (Cannabis sativa). Like the South African Bushmen, the Hottentots also used the name kanna to refer to the magical eland antelope, which they also incorporated in numerous rituals.
The herbaceous kanna plant, which closely resembles the modern-day leaf succulent house plant ‘chicks and hens’, grows as tall as six inches. It has fleshy roots, a smooth and thick-set stalk, and low-growing branches that spread out laterally. The thick, angular, fleshy leaves do not have stalks but are attached directly to the branches. The pale yellow flowers are approximately one to one and one-half inches across and are attached to the ends of the branches. The plant produces angular-shaped fruits with small seeds.
Kanna is more popularly known as Kougoed, and is easily confused with other members of the genus Sceletium. Those species that look similar, have comparable effects, and contain the same active constituent (mesembrine) as kougoed are also referred to as kougoed and used in the same manner.
The leaves and stalks of the plant contain mesembrine, along with lower levels of mesembrinine and totuosamine. The leaves also appear to contain oxalic acid. It is also possible that tryptamines may occur in the plant.
The traditional method for preparing kougoed has only recently been discovered and described in detail. The plant material – which should be collected in October, when the plant is at its most potent – is harvested, crushed between two rocks, and allowed to ferment for a few days in a closed container. At one time, animal skins or hemp bags were used for this purpose, but plastic bags are now used in their place.
The first step entails setting the bag filled with the plant material in the sun. During the day, the plant will excrete its juices, which condense on the plastic and are later reabsorbed into the plant material. During the night, the material cools. This process is repeated for two to three days. On the last day of this stage of the process the bag is opened before the plant’s juices are reabsorbed, and the contents are stirred well. Then the bag is then resealed and placed outside again for another five days.
On the eighth day after this procedure begins the kougoed is taken from the bag and spread out to dry in the sun. It can be used as soon as it is dry. Finally, the kougoed is chopped or ground into a fine powder. According to informants, the fresh leaves do not have any potency; only the fermented plant is psychoactive.
This process presumably helps to substantially reduce the high content of oxalic acid that is characteristic of the genera Sceletium and Mesembryanthemum. Oxalic acid can produce severe irritation and allergies. A more hurried preparation method involves simply toasting a fresh plant on glowing charcoals until it has completely dried and then grinding the plant material into powder form.
The powder in usually taken orally, combined with a small amount of alcohol, and held in the mouth for about ten minutes. The saliva that collects during this time can be swallowed. Two grams of the powder produces a sense of serene calm in about thirty minutes; approximately five grams of the powder is a dosage sufficient to relieve acute anxiety. Users of kougoed describe the significant effects of small doses as relieving anxiety and stress, deepening their sense of social connection, an increase in self-confidence, and a dissolution of inhibitions and feelings of inferiority. Higher doses can lead to more intense effects such as euphoria and hallucinations.
The chopped plant material can be smoked alone or in combination in combination with Cannabis sativa. The finely ground powder ostensibly can be also be sniffed, either alone or mixed with tobacco. Higher dosage levels, especially when combined with Cannabis sativa and alcohol can produce hallucinations and enhanced visual acuity. Chewing kougoed shortly after smoking Cannabis can considerably potentiate the effects of both plants. Kougoed suppresses both the effects of tobacco and the craving for nicotine.
Some other reports confirm that kougoed induces feelings of euphoria and deep meditative tranquility. Subjects report that the relaxation induced by kougoed enables one to focus on inner thoughts and feelings, and enables one to concentrate on the beauty of nature. Some subjects describe elevated sensations of the skin to fine touch, as well as increased sexual arousal.