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. Additional images can be found here: (PDF)
Kanna originated from 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.
There was a lot of mystery surrounding S.Tortuosum 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 that was chewed or smoked, called kanna but they neglected to include any specific botanical information on its origin.
The first reports 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. As such, precise information about this plant remained anecdotal and spotty for the next 300 years. It wasn’t until 1996 when 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.
Michael Smith et al. 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; 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.
TRADITIONAL USE: Since prehistoric times the tribes of South Africa have revered the antelope for its grace and beauty, they incorporated this animal into their art and many of their 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 many of their ritual ceremonies for hundreds of years. They have employed this ‘magical’ plant in their rainmaking ceremonies, divination observances, healing rituals as well as in their communal trance dancing ceremonies. The Hottentot tribe reportedly combined Kanna with Dagga (Cannabis Sativa) to be smoked during their rituals and communal dancing ceremonies.
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: The Bushmen of South Africa have used several traditional methods to prepare the Sceletium so that the resulting material, called kanna, has an improved psychoactivity profile, as well as a reduced levels of unnecessary compounds, which can produce unwanted effects. One method used by the Khoisan tribe was to take the entire plant, roots and all, and macerate it until the internal plant juices began to ooze out. They then placed the plant material inside special bags made from animal skins and tightly sealed 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 would open the bags and give everything a good stir; they then left the bags outside for an additional five more days to continue the fermentation process. After the fermentation process was complete, they emptied the contents of the bag onto a flat surface and placed it under the sun to dry. When all of the plant material was completely dried they would either chop it into strips to be twisted into quids, much like modern day pigtail chewing tobacco, or they took the dried plant material and pounded it into a fine powder.
The African Bushmen also had an alternative method to quickly prepare the Kanna plant for their ritual ceremonies. When the Bushmen were pressed for time and did not have the luxury of allowing the plant to ferment for a week they employed the following method: they began 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 with 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 can then be pounded into a fine powder.
During their traditional ceremonies, the native South African Bushmen would place between two and five grams of the kanna powder mixed with alcohol between their lips or under their tongue to allow the compounds to be absorbed sublingually. They held this concoction in their mouth for about ten minutes and swallowed the resulting saliva. They also placed kanna between their cheeks and chewed it like chewing tobacco.
MEDICINAL USE: The Namaqua people of lower Namibia use this plant to make a tea that they use to suppress hunger pangs as well as quell minor aches and pains. 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, 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 potentials that S.Tortuosum has to offer.
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: The Bushmen of South African describe the effects of low doses, up to three grams of kanna powder, as producing feeling of tranquility, easing stress, reducing anxiety, producing a greater sense of self-confidence, lessening social inhibitions and improved meditative focus. At slightly higher doses the effects become more pronounced and produce feelings of euphoria, increased tactile sensitivity, as well as amplified libidinal desires. The aboriginal natives of South Africa routinely combined kanna with dagga (Cannabis Sativa) and reported positive synergetic properties between the two sacraments, which amplify the feeling and experience of both and produce mild visual hallucinations when smoked together. The Bushmen also reported that kanna lessened the effects of tobacco and alcohol when taken together.
Pharmaceutical compositions containing mesembrine and related compounds.U.S. Patent 6,288,104 (PDF)
Schultes, R.E. and Hofmann, A. 1979. Plants of the Gods: Originas of Hallucinogenic Use. Hutchensin, London.
Smith, Michael T., Neil R. Crouch, Nigel Gericke, and Manton Hirst. 1996. Psychoactive constituents of the genus Sceletium N.E. Br. and other Mesembryanthemaceae: A Review. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 50:119-30.
Smith, T.A. 1977. Tryptamine and related compounds in plants. Phytochemistry 16, 171-75.