SPECIES: Africana, Bracteata, Dregei, Grandiflora
COMMON NAMES: Voacanga
The various species of the Voacanga genus are evergreen trees. They grow to a height of 6 m with a spread of 2 m, but are usually kept smaller in cultivation. The stem is erect and branching, the leaves are broadly oval and up to 30 cm long. The berries contain several brown seed which are irregularly shaped, and grow in a cluster that sometimes can resemble a brain. The various species of the genus are very similar to one another, featuring yellow or white flowers with five united petals. The bark contains latex (Hofmann et al. 1992, 60).
A native of the West African rainforests, V. africana prefers well composted, rich soils in protected sunny to part shade areas, and is tender to drought and frost. Propagation is from fresh seed or cuttings. Sterilise the seed in 6% hydrogen peroxide for 10 minutes, then plant about 10 mm deep in sterilised sand or seed raising mix. Application of a systemic fungicide may be needed to control fungal infections, which readily spread from unviable seeds. Fresh seeds germinate much more quickly than older seeds.
TRADITIONAL USES: As a close relative of Tabernanthe iboga and many other psychoactive members of the Apocynaceae family, Voacanga is generally ingested to increase endurance and stamina and for magic and religious purposes. In West Africa, the bark of Voacanga africana is often used as a stimulant and an aid for hunting. It is also reported to be a potent aphrodisiac. The bark of Voacanga bracteata is reportedly used in Gabon as a marijuana substitute (Puiseux et al. 1965 cited in Ratsch 1998, 588).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: Voacanga africana is one of the well guarded secrets of the African Magic Healers. Little is know about the actual use of the seeds and the bark of the various Voacanga species (including V. africana), other than that the plant is held in high esteem for ritual purposes. The use of seeds for visionary experiences has been documented (Ratsch 1998, 589).
Ground seeds are sometimes consumed at as little as .7 grams of plant material to produce psychoactive effects. It is suggested that blood-sugar levels and antioxidant levels must be kept high to minimize unpleasant side effects. Tinctures of V. africana root bark have been used to produce mild, long lasting stimulation (Voogelbreinder 2009, 349).
MEDICINAL USES: The milky latex of the plant is applied to wounds in Nigeria and Senegal. Tea made from the leaf is said to be a strengthening potion that relieves fatigue and shortness of breath. It is also used to prevent premature childbirth and to treat painful hernias and menstruation. It is used in many areas of Africa to treat heart troubles. The seeds of Voacanga spp. are used in Europe due to their high tabersonine content. This is used as a precursor for vincamine, which is used to treat neural deficiencies in the elderly (Vooglebreinder 2009, 349).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: The seeds of Voacanga africana contain up to 10% indole alkaloids similar to iboga, including voacamine, voacangine and many related compounds. The same alkaloids are found in the bark, but in much lower levels (~2%). This group of indole alkaloids, when ingested, cause a mild to strong stimulation lasting several hours. Higher doses have a strong hallucinogenic effect (Bisset 1985).
The bark of Voacanga bracteata contains 2.46% alkaloids (voacamine, voacamine-N-oxide, 20-epi-voacorine, and voacangine) that resemble the compounds found in Tabernanthe iboga. However, this bark only causes mild depressent effects. Schultes also mentions that Voacanga dregei may produce hallucinogenic effects (Ratsch 1998, 588).
In animal studies, the root bark alkaloids of Voacanga species cause CNS-depressant, hypotensive, spasmolytic and cardiotonic actions. The alkaloids seem to be well tolerated and cause few side effects. The seeds are suspected to be neurotoxic on some level, which may be due to the action of the major seed alkaloid tabersonine (Bisset 1985).
Bisset, N.G. “Phytochemistry and Pharmacology of Voacanga Species.” Agricultural University Wageningen Papers 85, no. 3 (1985): 81–114.
Hofmann, A., Ratsch, C., Schultes, R., Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers. Rochester: Healing Arts Press, 1992.
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.