Psychoactive Plants Traditionally Used in Madagascar-By Francesco Festi & Giorgio Samorini

The following observations refer to two plants used by some of the autochthonous peoples of Madagascar and are based on an article by a French researcher, Pierre Boiteau. The article is unmentioned in the specialist literature on psychoactive plants. Furthermore, the two plant species mentioned were unknown to us. The article, ‘Sur deux plantes autochtones de Madagascar utilisées à la manière de Chanvre comme stupéfiant’ (‘On two autochthonous plants from Madagascar used in the manner of Cannabis as a narcotic’), was published in 1967 in the Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences (Paris).

The first plant mentioned by Boiteau (1967) is known in Malagasy (Imerina, Bezanozan and Sihanaka dialects) as tsilaky and is used as a psychoactive drug above all in the eastern part of Imerina (subprefectures of Manjakandriana and Anjozorobe), in the Bezanozano region and in the region east of Lake Alaotra. This plant was identified as Lycopodium gnidioides L., a member of the Lycopodiaceae family. It would appear to be quite common in these regions and grows as an epiphyte on the trunks of forest trees at an altitude of 1000-1500 m. It is gathered and dried in the shade and has an aromatic fragrance and bitter flavor. The natives smoke it, thereby attaining ‘ebriety accompained by oneiric hallucinations similar to those produced by Indian hemp’ (Boiteau 1967).

Many Lycopodium species (club-mosses) are considered to be toxic. Christian Rätsch (1998) has recently examined a number of species which may have psychoactive properties. Many species of club-moss are used by healers as drugs, plants amulets and as an additive to San Pedro potions (Trichocereus pachanoi) as part of the practice of curanderos in Northern Peru. Lycopodium species may also enhance the psychoactivity of San Pedro potions. A plant-gatherer and trader at the ‘witches’ market’ of Chiclayo stated in June 1997 that condoro, which Rätsch identified as L. magellanicum, possessed psychoactive effects, especially in association with Trichocereus pachanoi. It is possible that club-moss is used for its psychoactive properties in Chile, or had been at one time (Rätsch 1998).

L. clavatum L. and other spontaneous club-mosses in Europe have various vernacular names which suggest ancient uses in pagan rituals.

These names allude to witchcraft: ‘spirit’ or ‘witch herb’, flour or powder; ‘snake moss’; ‘devil’s claw’; ‘devil ash’; ‘worry’. The spores are known as ‘witch four’, ‘spirit flour’ or ‘lightning’, straw or moss powder (Rätsch 1998). Since antiquity, L. clavatum plantules have been used in Europe as stomachic and diuretic remedies, as well as against rheumatism and liver and bladder complaints. The diuretic effect would appear to be owing to the presence of alkaloids (this explains the considerable toxicity of the infusion), its action is analogous to that of coniine (Negri 1979). In the East Indies, L. phlegmaria L. and L. hygrometricum L. are considered to be aphrodisiacs. In the West Indies, L. cernuum is used as a diuretic and is considered to be specific for the treatment of certain forms of dysentery. Various Lycopodium species produce a wide range of alkaloids, among which are annotine, lycopodine and clavatoxine (Willaman & Li 1970).

The second plant Boiteau described is known as riadiatra in the Betsileum language and maharaoka in the Bara language. It is used as a psychoactive plant above all in the Bara region near Betroka, Ivohibe and around Beraketa. Botanists have identified this plant as Myrothamnus moschatus (Baillon) Niedenzu (syn. Myosurandra moschata Baillon). This is a suffrutescent which grows on rocks and reaches a height of 40-50 cm. When fresh, it emits a pleasant and characteristic balsamic odor.  Boiteau states: ‘In this region, where every year violent grassland fires take place, the rock vegetation is often also scorched, and dries. The plant is gathered and smoked in this state. It is less aromatic than when fresh but still has a characteristic fragrance. The state of ebriety procured by this Myrothamnus is believed to be exhilarating and, above all at the early stage, will provoke unrestrainable fits of laughter. However, those who smoke this plant habitually will soon become taciturn, cut themselves off from others and enter a state of growing autism. This may even lead to a schizophrenoid condition accompanied by abnormal irascibility which can gradually degenerate into fearful fits of violence’ (Boiteau 1967).

In Tanganyika, the fruit of the congeneric plant M. flabellifolia Welw. – a well known medicinal plant used in various regions of Northern Africa – is smoked with tobacco or as a tobacco substitute (Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1962).

It is also worth noting that Indian hemp (Cannabis) has long been in use in Madagascar. The presence of Indian hemp, known in Malagasy as rongony – or vongony, according to Louis Lewin (1981: 142) – has been noted since the 1920’s, but it may have reached the island long before.



Boiteau P. 1967. “Sur deux plantes autochtones de Madagascar utilisées à la manière du Chanvre comme stupéfiant” Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences, sér. D, 264: 41-42.

Lewin L. 1981 (1924). Phantastika. [3 vols.] Savelli, Milano.

Negri G. 1979 Nuovo erbario figurato. Hoepli, Milano.

Ratsch C. 1998. Enzyklopädie der psychoaktiven Pflanzen. AT Verlag, Aarau, Switzerland.

WAtt J.M. & M.G. Breyer-Brandeijk 1962 Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Southern and Eastern Africa. Livingstone, Edinburg & London.

Willaman J.J. & H.L. LI 1970. Alkaloid-Bearing Plants and Their Contained Alkaloids. Lloydia Suppl. vol. 33. Originally published in Eleusis, new series, vol. 2, 1999, pp. 90-92


Reprinted with permission from Eleusis, vol. 2, 1999, pp. 90-92