Here begins a journey into knowing one of the most remarkable and most Sacred plants on the planet. Over the last 20 years I have been privileged to get to know this little plant known as Kanna (Sceletium tortuosum as the Latin binomial), and have been humbled by its profundity.
My learning and experience has been from both a theoretical perspective, by studying its history, traditional uses and its unique and highly complex chemistry, and practically by growing and using Sceletium in many forms – from sophisticated pharmaceutical extracts of full or partial alkaloid spectra, to the traditional whole fermented Kougoed (“chewing stuff”) of the Khoisan.
It has taken me many years to fully appreciate the depth and subtlety of this herb and I continue to learn and be amazed. As a dedicated lifelong student of ethnobotany and plant pharmacology I have come to see the unique niche that Sceletium and the Mesembrine alkaloids occupy. While there is a richly broad range of “effects” engendered by the thousands of pharmacologically significant plants, only Sceletium has the ability to open the heart (or emotional center) in the direct way that it does.
Not only does it regenerate the capacity for deep empathy and love, it also mediates the entire mind and nervous system in the direction of calm, clear centeredness and spacious feeling. Sceletium brings emotional and mental balance, provides connectedness and grounding, and allows the mind to find its natural equilibrium. And it does this with more power and consistency than any other plant I know.
In this age of sensory overload, stress, busyness, anxiety and disconnection that so many people suffer, Sceletium is the perfect ally, and a most precious treasure. Truly my respect for the wisdom of this plant only deepens as I get to know it more intimately.
We hope that you will enjoy the content on this site and find it useful (we have tried to make it the most comprehensive resource on the Web) – and (especially) that you will take the opportunity to get to know Sceletium by trying it for yourself.
While it has obvious benefits for dealing with any forms of anxiety, depression or obsessive-compulsive behaviour (for which it is unsurpassed in clinical efficacy), it is also of great use as a simple bodily relaxant and mental clarifier, engendering a state of deep calm and fullness. And personally, I consider its greatest gift to be the way it opens the heart, facilitates communication, heals relationships and enhances intimacy and loved-based sexuality.
Growing only in a small arid region of Southern Africa, this tiny succulent ground-cover has been used and revered by the San (Bushmen) and Khoikhoi (Hottentot) people of this part of the continent for longer than history records. This legacy, which they have lovingly stewarded since ancient times, is their gift to us, and a gift whose timing for the needs of the world today is perfect. It is truly the great plant of the Heart, enlivening the Heart where it is active and restoring the Heart where it has been lost.
We do not really know for how far back in time the knowledge and usage of Kanna extends, as our first written records begin only in 1662. It is likely however that its use by the San (Bushmen) and Khoikhoi (Hottentots) of Southern Africa extends way back into the ancient pre-history of the continent.
The San were predominantly hunter-gatherers and Khoikhoi developed a pastoral tradition over time. These ancient tribes are the true aboriginal people of Southern Africa. Sometimes collectively referred to as the Khoisan, they came into relationship with Kanna in the general regions of Namaqualand (in the westerly part of Southern Africa) and Kannaland in the south central part of the South Africa known as the Klein Karoo.
As traditional cultures, deeply in touch with the landscape and the plants of their biome, the Khoisan invariably came into relationship with Kanna, perhaps through investigating it as a food source, and clearly recongised its medicinal and magical value. And this knowledge has been held sacred and handed down through countless generations until the present day.
Very telling is that the Khoisan word for the great Eland (Taurotragus oryx Pallas), one of the largest antelope in the world, and a creature considered a power animal of deepest magical significance, is “Kanna”, the same word they use for Sceletium tortuosum.
Lewis Williams has drawn attention to the symbolic significance of the Eland in San thought as the “trance animal par excellence”. It is a predominant and widely recurring feature of San rock art in Southern Africa. Quite apart from its practical importance as one of the major objects of the hunt, the Eland was symbolically associated with fertility, marriage, rainmaking, divination, trance, dance and healing – its relationship with Sceletium thus being very intimate.
Earliest Colonial Discoveries
The earliest illustration of a Sceletium plant is a painting in the journal of Cape of Good Hope Governor Simon van der Stel’s expedition to Namaqualand in 1685. There are only two surviving copies of the painting, originally made by the apothecary, Hendrik Claudius, who accompanied this expedition – one in a collection at the library of Trinity College, Dublin and one in a volume of water colors known as the Codex Witsenii at the South African Museum in Cape Town. These paintings show the typical Sceletium flower as well as the characteristic skeletonised leaves from which the genus name Sceletium is derived.
The information accompanying the illustration has been translated from the original Dutch as “This plant is found with the Namaquas and then only on some of their mountains. It is gathered in October and is called Canna. It is held by them and surrounding tribes in as great esteem as the Betel or Areca with the Indians. They chew its stem as well as its roots, mostly all day, and become intoxicated by it, so that on account of this effect and its fragrance and hearty taste one can judge and expect some profit from its cultivation”.
In 1662, the Namaquas (a cultural group within the Khoikhoi) gave Kanna and sheep to the Dutch in exchange for gifts, and the Commander of the Cape of Good Hope, Jan van Riebeek, regarded Kanna as similar to Ginseng. There is also documentation of trade in Sceletium from the Castle in Cape Town.
Kolben noted in 1738 that Kanna was the “greatest Chearer of the Spirits, and the noblest Restorative in the World” and also compared it with the European Mandragora. In 1924, Lewin noted that under the name Kanna or Channa, Kolben was referring to a plant whose root was used by the Hottentots as a means of enjoyment, which they “chewed, kept in their mouth for some time, thus becoming excited and intoxicated”.
In another report, in 1773, Carl Peter Thunberg, the respected Swedish botanist and physician, describes a similar preparation method as Van der Stel did, that “The Hottentots come far and near to fetch this shrub with the root, leaves and all, which they beat together, and afterwards twist them up like pig-tail tobacco; after which they let the mass ferment and keep it by them for chewing, especially when they are thirsty. If chewed immediately after fermentation, it intoxicates”. Thunberg himself identified the plant as Sceletium emarcidum, a close relative of Sceletium tortuosum. His editor noted that the name Kanna probably referred to several Sceletium species, amongst which was Sceletium tortuosum.
Thunberg, who had also been a student of the famous botanist Linneaus, made two journeys to the Eastern Cape between 1772 and 1774. According to him, local Hottentots used the name kon to signify a quid of Sceletium. It was seen as a valuable substance and local inhabitants transported it over great distances to trade it for cattle and commodities.
Thunberg was also the first person to report the smoking of Kanna. In reference to the San he writes that “These people chew Canna and afterwards smoke it”. In 1789 traveller Paterson noted Kanna being part of a smoking mixture including other herbs: “They make use of it both in chewing and in smoaking; when mixed with Dacka is very intoxicating, and which appeared to be of that species of hemp which is used in the East Indies by the name of Bang”.
Following the above, and given the recognised synergy and potentiation that occurs between Dagga (Cannabis sativa L.) and Kougoed, it seems clear that these two herbs would have been smoked together on occasion by the Khoisan.
Later Traditional Use
The Afrikaans vernacular name Kougoed, derived from kou (to chew) and goed (stuff) was first recorded for Sceletium tortuosum in about 1830. Kauwgoed was reported to be the leaves of a species of Sceletium. Pappe included Mesembryanthemum tortuosum (Sceletium tortuosum) in his Florae Capensis Medicae Prodromus. This book was a commentary accompanying a “choice collection of Cape medical drugs sent by Messrs S.H. Scheuble & Co. to the Great London Exhibition of 1851”. According to Pappe, “This native of the Karoo appears to possess narcotic properties. The Hottentots, who know it as Kauwgoed, are in the habit of chewing it and become intoxicated, while the farmers use it in the form of a decoction or tincture, as a good sedative”.
According to Meiring in 1898, Sceletium tortuosum was reportedly widely used for its soporific effect on young children, including quieting them when suffering from “acidity”. One to two drops of the fresh juice from green plants was given to a child, who would enjoy a deep, quiet rest for a few hours. In 1914, Hartwich and Zwicky concluded their scientific communication on Sceletium by stating that “the indigenous people undoubtedly used the plant more for enjoyment than as a medicine”.
In 1962, Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk stated that Kanna had been chewed for the relief of toothache and abdominal pains, and is used by Nama people (related to the Khoikhoi) for the relief of pain and hunger, while Nama mothers have been reported to chew the roots and spit the resulting saliva into their baby’s mouths. San mothers are reported to have used Sceletium anatomicum (Sceletium emarcidum) in the same way.
Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk also cited the observations of a mining engineer who stated that “The Nama peoples had a universal addiction to the use of Kougoed which produces visions and led to a serious degree of moral degeneration particularly with regard to veracity and sex”. We take this as a most positive historical affirmation of what has been observed with regard to Sceletium’s excellent pro-sexual properties!
Palmer, in 1966, reported that the juice of Sceletium strictum was used for teething in babies, and that Sceletium anatomicum had once been the most popular member of the genus for the Khoikhoi. Rood, in 1994, includes the Afrikaans name tandtrekbos under the entry for Sceletium anatomicum, which is translated as “tooth-pulling bush” and quotes a report that if enough plant is eaten it can anaesthetize the lower jaw so that teeth can be pulled painlessly. He also states that “the juice of the leaves of Sceletium anatomicum mixed with a little milk is given to babies as a sleeping remedy, while chewing the leaves has a calming action, and is an excellent remedy for stomach problems”.
In 1898, Meiring was the first to isolate an alkaloid from Sceletium tortuosum. It was called mesembrine by Hartwich and Zwicky a couple of years later. Meiring tested the substance on frogs and guinea pigs and noted a ‘rapid physiological response’ in the frogs.
Twentieth Century Developments
In 1914 the German pharmacist, analytical chemist and botanist, H.W.R. Marloth wrote a dissertation on Kanna in which he grouped different alkaloids of the plant under the term “mesembrin”. Current research gives a better overview of the range of alkaloids in Sceletium tortuosum, although its exact composition continues to be progressively uncovered.
The work of Zwicky in 1914, isolated several alkaloids including mesembrine and mesembrenine. It is believed that plant material of Sceletium tortuosum and Sceletium expansum was sent by Dr. Marloth in South Africa to Prof. C. Hartwich in Zurich. The material was requested for E. Zwicky, a student of Prof. Hartwich who produced a dissertation called “Über Channa” in 1914.
In 1928 Laidler observed Kanna’s use in dancing rituals. He writes of Kanna being “chewed and retained in the mouth for a while, when their spirits would rise, eyes brighten and faces take on a jovial air, and they would commence to dance”. However, he adds that “if indulged in to excess, it robbed them of their senses and they became intoxicated”. In 1960 Jacobsen reported that Sceletium tortuosum was being prepared as a tea and as a snuff instead of as chewing material.
In 1967 Popelak and Lettenbauer assembled all the research on the Sceletium alkaloids in their book chapter dedicated to mesembrine alkaloids. In this comprehensive publication they elaborate on the isolation and synthesis of mesembrine, mesembrenine (=mesembrenone) and mesembrinol (=mesembranol). Jeffs and co-workers, based at Duke University in North Carolina, USA, worked extensively on the isolation and structural elucidation of Sceletium alkaloids and reported several novel structures between 1969 and 1982.
Since the mid-1990’s, Sceletium has been coming much more widely into prominence around the world, firstly amongst dedicated ethnobotanists and other plant lovers, and spreading from there. This is in no small measure due to the excellent work of Smith et al. in a 1996 review article in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology as well as a follow-up 2008 review article by Gericke et al. published in the same journal (both of which publications have been drawn upon for the development of the information on this site).
As more people are recognising Kanna for the treasure that it is, it is enjoying both wider clinical and ludible use (following Jonathan Ott’s use of the term) in South Africa and the rest of the world.
Sceletium’s rarity and vulnerability to over-harvesting has led to the clear requirement that it be widely cultivated in order protect existing wild stocks. Furthermore the recognition of its heritage as founded in the wisdom-traditions of the Khoisan has led to wide-ranging and comprehensive (and necessary) benefit-sharing agreements with various representative bodies of both the San and Khoikhoi people.
A number of companies have also developed standardised extracts based on the mesembrine alkaloids. In addition there has also been a revival in the ancient practice of fermenting carefully developed Kanna cultivars to make the traditional Kougoed of old.
All in all we are certainly on the cusp of a great revival of the Kanna-based healing traditions of the Khoisan, and that is indeed something to celebrate!
USAGE & BENEFITS
Sceletium is one of the most usable and functional herbs for mental and emotional wellness that exists in the world today. It has wide and profoundly efficacious application in many areas, and is a unique botanical treasure.
We cover Sceletium’s various pharmacological actions in rich detail in the Chemistry & Pharmacology section, and give some insight into how it was used traditionally by the Khoisan in the History section. But here we want to address its direct human benefits and specific areas of application in modern times.
Sceletium is an excellent broad-spectrum mood enhancing and emotion-mediating herb. It integrates mind, emotion and body and allows for deep bodily and mental relaxation. It calms obsessive thinking, is emotionally grounding and supports freer expression of thought, feeling and speech. It is altogether healing on the psyche and the heart, and engenders a profound integration of mind, body and emotion.
There is no better natural mood enhancer than Sceletium – let’s just say it! Much more effective than commonly used botanicals such as St. John’s Wort, Rhodiola, Ginkgo Biloba, Mucuna, Valerian, Gotu Kola, Kava, Passiflora and L-Theanine etc, which while all usable, do not have the directness and reliability of action that Sceletium does. Sceletium greatly enhances serotonin function in the brain (more than any other herb known) and does so more effectively than L-Tryptophan, 5-HTP and Griffonia (without causing the drowsiness that is often associated with these serotonin precursors). While compounds like L-Phenylalanine and L-Tyrosine cause some increase in circulating dopamine, it is serotonin that has become acknowledged to be the primary mediator of mood and overall good feeling.
Nearly all clinical anti-depressants prescribed these days are of the SSRI-class (Selective Serotonin Re-Uptake Inhibitors) and sometimes of the SDRI-class (Serotonin-Dopamine Re-uptake Inhibitors). Their primary mode of action is to increase serotonin in the brain, and this does of course happen to a degree, but the side-effects, which are very well documented, are universally unpleasant, undesired and best avoided. Sceletium accomplishes its action primarily by being an SRA (a Serotonin Releasing Agent), coupled with a small amount of SSRI activity. Releasing Agents in general have always been found to be more effective, balanced, humanly profound and in harmony with natural neuronal function than Re-Uptake Inhibitors (which are nearly always problematic). In addition, there are none of the harsh side-effects of chemical SSRIs.
Sceletium is THE model anxiolytic (anti-anxiety agent). Millennia of traditional Kanna usage confirms this, as do the experiences of anyone today who has used Sceletium. Anxiety has multiple associated causes, but a central theme among them is a racing hyperactivity of the mind and a subsequent and consequential hyperactivity of the autonomic nervous system. Sceletium works directly, in an adpatogenic way, to mediate the “pace” of the mind, slowing a racing mind and bringing a calm centeredness to the being. It is unmistakable and anyone who suffers from anxiety readily attests to this.
Social phobia and anxiety are intimately linked, as social phobia is essentially a particular type of anxiety experienced in social situations. As described in the Anti-Anxiety paragraph above, Sceletium is directly indicated here. The increase in synaptic serotonin associated with Sceletium use engenders a relaxed, open-hearted and socially convivial state, where communication is easy and self-reflexive concern is greatly lessened. In fact, those suffering from social phobia tend to do much more than simply “manage” these situations, they generally find them enjoyable while taking Sceletium. A key point here is that one actually learns from the Sceletium-mediated state that it is naturally possible to enjoy those kinds of social situations, and that one actually has the capacity to be at ease in them. And from that perspective Sceletium serves authentic long-term transformation rather than being simply a palliative treatment.
For similar reasons as outlined in the Anti-Anxiety paragraph above, Sceletium has found incredible efficacy in treating Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. By allowing the mind to settle and integrate with the body and heart in a deep way, it grants a centered peace and fundamental sense of acceptance to the one who was otherwise suffering this condition – and this state is essential to non-obsessive and non-compulsive behaviour.
Grey Weather Syndrome / SAD affects many people worldwide, especially in the Northern hemisphere, and while the causes are invariably complex, the primary factor is due to low serotonin levels in response to decreased sunlight in winter. And people who spend a lot of time indoors working can have the same issues whether it is summer or winter. Studies have shown that a decrease in sunlight can, in susceptible individuals, cause an increase in the activity of the Serotonin Transporter (SERT) which recycles serotonin and removes it from active synaptic function. In addition, low serotonin can also be associated with low melatonin (due to serotonin metabolizing to melatonin), which both impairs sleep and daytime alertness. As Sceletium is both a Serotonin Releasing Agent (SRA) and Serotonin Re-Uptake Inhibitor (SRI) it greatly increases levels of active serotonin as well as melatonin, and is thus a first choice treatment for these disorders.
The scourge of modern living… there are few who do not suffer from the stress that comes from information overload, complexity, time scarcity and the necessary multi-tasking we must all engage to survive in the busy world we now live in. A key to managing stress with aplomb is calmness and the ability to be grounded and centered in the midst of the storm of our modern lives. Sceletium, taken at sub-threshold doses, allows us to take a breath and see the world from a more spacious vantage, and thus use what would otherwise be “stressful”, as energy and inspiration.
A calm mind is an intelligent mind. When we are relaxed, creativity springs freely and unbidden, memory performs when it is needed and overall cognition is improved. Mesembrenone, a key component in Sceletium, is a known PDE4 Inhibitor. PDE4 Inhibitors are known to have strongly pro-cognitive (including long-term memory improving), wakefulness-promoting and anti-inflammatory effects. A high-mesembrenone strain or extract of Sceletium would thus be an effective component of a CILTEP-style Nootropic stack in place of luteolin (derived from artichoke extract).
As in the Cognitive Enhancement paragraph above, PDE4 Inhibitors also possess strong neuro-protective qualities, protecting the brain from excitoxic, hypoxic and inflammatory damage. Sceletium is generally protective of our brains and nervous systems from many of the various brain-damaging causes that may be inflicted upon us in our modern lives.
As was ably demonstrated by the San hunters of old, Kanna allows long periods of focused concentration without mental fatigue, and in the case of traditional usage, also allowed the San to endure long periods of activity without food or water and without suffering physical fatigue. The careful application of Sceletium to the treatment of ADD and ADHD is clearly indicated here, though the latest cutting-edge research indicates that a dopamine enhancer, such as Mucuna, in conjunction with Sceletium, would do better as a treatment for ADD/ADHD than Sceletium alone.
Sceletium, especially when used in a single high dose, opens the heart, dissolves emotional armoring, and removes relational fear. And it does so more reliably than any other known medicinal herb or psychoactive botanical. With the natural human trust that is opened and expanded in this state, there is the opportunity for a profound deepening of love, communication and intimacy between lovers.
For the same reasons as stated in the Intimacy Enhancement paragraph above, Sceletium taken in a single, but lower dose, would be found to be very useful in a formal therapeutic context – assuming the therapist’s skill, professionalism and experience of working with people in heightened states of awareness, and of course, their own personal experience with Sceletium as well.
Because Sceletium enhances intimacy as described in the Intimacy Enhancement paragraph above, it will also be found to have a profound and authentic aphrodisiac and pro-sexual effect, and one that is based on emotional responsiveness rather than mere physically generated changes in the body. Bodily relaxation is deepened, tactile sensitivity (for both men and women) is enhanced and men find they can last longer. In fact men who struggle with premature ejaculation find Sceletium to be their greatest ally in this regard. Recent unpublished research is also suggesting that ∆7-mesembrenone may additionally function as a mild PDE5 Inhibitor thereby enhancing and strengthening erection and enhancing blood flow in the pelvic area for men and women. Additionally, women who suffer from psychologically-caused dyspareunia or vaginismus (painful intercourse or the inability to allow penetration) will find the deep physical-emotional grounding and opening effects of Sceletium will ease these conditions, and potentially totally transform them, allowing full sexual function and expression.
Kanna has significant benefits for those wishing to stop smoking. Apart from significantly reducing the severity of nicotine withdrawal, it also greatly alleviates the craving and desire to smoke. The greatest challenge, as all those who have tried to stop smoking can attest to, is the tendency to compulsively and obsessively think about smoking. As one of Sceletium’s central effects is to mediate the obsessive tendency of the mind, this quality has been been found by many to make the required difference in successfully stopping smoking.
For very similar reasons as in the paragraph about stopping smoking above, Sceletium has been found to be highly efficacious in respect of all drug addiction (including tobacco and alcohol). Again, symptoms of withdrawal are profoundly relieved, particular in opiate and other CNS depressant addiction. Furthermore, mesembrenone, as a significant PDE4 Inhibitor, has powerful neuro-regenerative effects, which is very useful for healing brain trauma caused from excessive use of CNS stimulants such as cocaine, amphetamine, methamphetamine and methcathinone. Additionally, the negative effects of excessive high-dose MDMA usage, which can cause damage to the serotonin receptors in the brain, is healed by regular Sceletium usage (though Sceletium should not be used concurrently with MDxx style drugs).
Again, for similar reasons as in the Stopping Smoking and Drug Addiction sections above, Sceletium serves as a very good treatment for alcoholism as well as pre-alcoholic behaviours that would tend to lead to full-blown alcohol dependency. In addition to Kanna’s various modes of anti-addictive effect, it can also serve as an effective (and safe) replacement for alcohol – indeed it has even been referred to as “onse droë drank” (meaning “our dry drink” in certain Afrikaans speaking Khoi-descendent cultures in South Africa). A common reason for excessive alcohol use is to quell feelings of anxiety or tension, and Kanna does this much more effectively than alcohol while also being safe to use and non-toxic to the liver.
Aside from increasing melatonin levels as a consequence of enhanced serotonin function, Kanna is simply a profound, if not the most profound, relaxer of body and mind. And this state of psycho-physical relaxation greatly supports falling asleep and remaining asleep. Reports from Kanna users indicate enhanced sleep and better morning function. In addition there is anecdotal evidence of a decrease in both muscle cramps and night sweats.
Sceletium has been noted as an excellent adjunct to various bodywork therapies, including massage, deep tissue work and fascia release therapies such as Rolfing / Structural Integration. Due to Sceletium’s softening and opening of the emotional body there is a consequent relaxation of the fascia, which allows greater response to touch and a deeper range of movement as the body transforms. Physical therapists have reported greater ease in accessing deep tension in the body and clients have reported a longer enduring of effects.
The traditional San hunter-gatherers, the oldest users of Kanna, made particular use of the herb when engaging in long hunting trips. It allowed them to endure the heat of the Kalahari desert, extremely low levels of hydration, and the long distances that were travelled on foot, often for many days at a time. Kanna also provided a means for them to remain vigilant and calm during long periods of waiting and stalking. In modern endurance sports, Kanna has been found to increase endurance, mitigate muscle cramps, and also provide a gentle analgesic effect which allows elite athletes to safely extend their pain threshold.
Enhancing social interaction is possibly one of Kanna’s greatest benefits. When taken at slightly higher doses than are generally used clinically, Sceletium induces an open-hearted euphoria, a profound ease of conversation and a socially gregarious climate altogether. All ancient cultures have traditionally used some kind of drug to enhance tribal cohesion and group bonding. And in the modern Western world we are no different, with alcohol (and sometimes cannabis) being almost universally present when people gather together to socialize or celebrate. The “sociabiliser” drugs (a term coined by Swiss biologist Claude Rifat) are a class that includes Alcohol, Cannabis, GHB, Kava and Kanna. Their shared characteristics are physical and mental relaxation, humour, emotional catharsis, disinhibition, levity and ease of communication. They are all effective to varying degrees in this regard, with their individual subtleties, nuances and pros and cons in various contexts. We do not propose to compare them here or pass any judgement as to their use – those who are familiar with them invariably are comfortable with their preference and familiar with usage and effects. However we will point out that in terms of potential for emotional depth and profundity of communication, Sceletium is a most excellent tool in our collective “ice-breaking” toolbox.
For those involved in yoga practice, whether as advanced students or beginners, Sceletium will be found to be a very useful ally. Because of Sceletium’s combined actions of relaxing and releasing the fascia, as well as allowing a more body-centered awareness altogether, yogis will find more presence in their ability to enter into and stably hold asanas. And as the fascia, and therefore the entire body structure, is softened and opened by Sceletium, the poses that are held will be able to more consistently transform the dynamic structure of the body over time. Depth of breathing is also enhanced by Sceletium, so pranayama practice will be deepened.
The challenge of the meditator is not only the busyness of the mind itself, but the tendency for attention to become bound to the stream of thoughts. Sceletium enhances body and breath based awareness. It allows the mind to calm and, most importantly, shifts attention from the mental realm to the domain of body, breath and feeling. By abiding more easefully as the body and more integrated with one’s breath, mediation practice is enhanced. Additionally, larger doses of Sceletium have a marked empathogenic effect, leading to deep stillness and open-hearted feeling. By revealing our innate capacity to feel and love more deeply, Sceletium reveals a facet of that central quality of our being to which the practice of meditation is ultimately proceeding. And having this experience is clarifying, aligning and motivating in spiritual terms.
FORMS & DOSAGE
Sceletium was originally fermented, dried and chewed. And we can certainly presume that before that even, it was eaten both fresh and naturally dried on the plant.
Since then there has been much development, and raw Sceletium is available (in both fermented and unfermented forms) as a dry milled powder, in tea and smoking cuts, as well as the whole dried herb. It can also be found as capsules and tablets as well as in tea bags. The raw herb is also extracted in alcohol to make tinctures and is also available as a concentrated paste produced from fermented fresh herb that has not been dried.
Sceletium has been extracted and concentrated to produce a variety of extracts, both standardized and unstandardized, and these extracts are available in various capsule and/or tablet based nutraceutical formulations, beverages, liquid herbal tonics,and even as snuff and e-liquid for smoking in electronic cigarettes.
Traditionally when Kougoed was chewed by the Khoisan, an amount anywhere from 100mg to a couple of grams could be consumed over the course of a day, and this variability would also be affected by the potency of the herbal preparation. The dosage range for our top-shelf artisan Kougoud sold on this site would be from 50mg to 1g, with the effect from 1g being classed as strong.
In modern herbal capsule and tablet-based preparations, doses as low as 50mg taken twice per day are available, and found to be efficacious, though 100mg to 200mg per capsule is more common.
In real terms, in the open Sceletium market, we have found up to a four-fold general variability in alkaloid levels of the raw herb, ranging from about 0.4% to about 1.6% of dry material,with the average being around 0.8%, and this will of course affect the applicable and efficacious dose of any consumer product.
This natural variability has necessarily led to the development of standardized extracts, the two most well known being Trimesemine™ and Zembrin®.
Trimesemine™ is standardized for mesembrine (≥65%), mesembrenone (≤20%) and ∆7-mesembrenone (≤10%) and supplied at a concentration of 3% total alkaloids. This extract is available in commercial products at dosages varying from 5mg to 25mg per capsule. By comparison, Zembrin® is standardized for mesembrenone, mesembrenol (combined ≥60%) and mesembrine (<20%) and supplied at a concentration of 0.35–0.45% total alkaloids. This extract is commonly available at a dose of 25mg per capsule in commercial products.
Pastes, snuffs, herbal smoking mixtures and e-liquids can be produced and distributed in varying potencies and concentrations and as such it would be difficult to provide general dosing guidelines for these here. For these kinds of products it would be best to follow the manufacturer’s directions in each case – which we will ensure are provided on this site.
As with all herbs and herbal products, it is useful to explore and test for quality, potency and efficacy among various manufacturers in order to determine what works best for you.
Kanna is technically known as Sceletium tortuosum. It is a member of the Aizoaceae (the Fig-Marigold or Ice Plant family) which is a family of flowering plants containing 135 genera and about 1900 species. The genus is part of the subfamily of Mesembryanthemoideae. They are commonly known as stone plants or carpet weeds. Species that resemble stones or pebbles are sometimes called Mesembs.
Recognised synonyms are Sceletium compactum L. Bolus, Sceletium framesii L. Bolus and Sceletium joubertii L. Bolus. [Please note: We are dealing predominantly with Sceletium tortuosum here, though some of the products sold on this site are based on hybrids developed from S. tortuosum and S. expansum.]
The genus Sceletium (derived from the Latin Sceletus) was determined by N.E. Brown in 1925, who defined the succulent plant by its characteristic skeletonised leaf venation pattern visible in the dry leaves. On the fleshy, thick leaves little “bladder cells”, also called “idioblasts”, are visible. The flowers of Sceletium tortuosum can be recognised by their threadlike petals that are usually white to yellow, but occasionally pale orange or pink as well. The fruit capsule contains kidney-shaped seeds which are brown to black in colour. Sceletium tortuosum is a creeper plant that reaches up to 15 to 20cm in height and is often found covering the ground in the shade of larger shrubberies.
The succulent leaves grow in pairs during the winter. In summertime the leaves die off, thereby skeletonising the lower stem in order to protect the plant from adverse environmental conditions. As a succulent, Kanna is well equipped to deal with scarce water resources. By minimising evaporation and using an excellent water storage ability, Sceletium tortuosum is able to survive in low rainfall areas.
Plants are climbing or creeping. The slender branches become thick and only slightly woody with age. Water cells are conspicuous on the leaves that have recurved tips and 3 to 5 major veins. The flowers are very shortly pedicellate (almost sessile) and of medium size (20 to 30 mm diameter). Petals are white to pale yellow, pale salmon or pale pink. The calyx has four or five sepals. Fruit are 10 to 15 mm in diameter and open when wet (hygrochastic). The species is readily distinguishable by the imbricate leaves with incurved tips.
Distribution and Climate
Most of the approximately 1000 species of Mesembryanthemoideae are endemic to the arid and semi-arid regions of Southern Africa. Sceletium tortuosum mainly grows in the areas of South Africa known as Namaqualand and Kannaland (where rainfall can be as low as 100ml per year). This region is situated in the Western Cape province in the south of the country. Sceletium is also found in other hot and dry areas of the Western, Eastern and North Cape provinces of South Africa.
Kanna ranges from Namaqualand to Montagu through to Aberdeen and commonly occurs in quartz patches and is usually found growing under shrubs in partial shade. The plants are insect pollinated. Seed dispersal occurs during rain events by means of hygrochastic fruit capsules that open when wet allowing seed to escape.
In 1986, Bittrich argued for a broader circumscription of Phyllobolus which included Sceletium as one of five subgenera. Since Gerbaulet was unable to find a synapomorphy (a unique derived character) for Bittrich’s broad concept of Phyllobolus, she reinstated Sceletium as a genus (Gerbaulet, 1996).
CHEMISTRY & PHARMACOLOGY
Sceletium has possibly the most complex chemistry of any ethnobotanically significant plant in the world with at least 32 known alkaloids (including a number of terpenes and saponins) isolated from the genus to date. As follows:
The range of phenolic alkaloids in Sceletium tortuosum belong to the crinane class of compounds and fall into four distinct structural categories defined by their alkaloid skeletal type:
(1) The 3a-aryl-cis-octahydroindole class (e.g. mesembrine) (2) The C-seco mesembrine alkaloids (e.g. joubertiamine) (3) Alkaloids containing a 2,3-disubstituted pyridine moiety and 2 nitrogen atoms (e.g. sceletium A4) (4) A ring C-seco Sceletium alkaloid A4 group (e.g. tortuosamine).
The dominant, and clinically significant, alkaloids in Sceletium tortuosum are mesembrine, mesembrenone, ∆7-mesembrenone, mesembrenol and tortuosamine, though the minor alkaloids undoubtedly play important roles in the overall pharmacological effect too.
There is great variability in the distribution and concentration of both major alkaloids and minor alkaloids due to factors such as cultivar, season, geographical and climatic factors, growing conditions and age – and differences have even been noted between two plants growing right next to each other in the wild. Alkaloid levels are generally considered best in the late spring to early summer when the plants are fruiting.
Furthermore the process of bruising and fermentation alters the alkaloid profile, which we will deal with in some detail below. All that said, total alkaloid levels can range between 0.3% and 2.3% of dry weight. The average for cultivated material is generally around 0.8% total alkaloids, though there are certain high-yield strains that have been developed that can average double that.
Some, including ethnobotanist Christian Rätsch, believe that it is possible that tryptamines may occur in Sceletium tortuosum. However, we believe this to be unlikely as (a) it has never been demonstrated, (b) the general chemical profile of the plant does not suggest this possibility and (c) careful bio-assay does not indicate the presence of tryptamines.
In traditional usage by the Khoisan, Sceletium has always been fermented in the process of producing the original Kougoed, and there has been much speculation, even among researchers in this field, as to the reasons, usefulness and efficacy (or not, as the case may be) of this process. Hopefully the following information will shed some light on the matter.
In the traditional context, the freshly harvested Kanna, would be bruised (normally by crushing between two stones) and then placed in a gourd made from animal skins, or, in more recent times, in a plastic bag or glass jar. This would then be left out in the sun and allowed to ferment for a period of somewhere between 5 and 8 days. After this fermentation process, the Kanna would then be placed out in the sun to dry to produce the traditional Kougoed. It has also been stated that without this fermentation there is no power in the plant (which is not entirely true).
A number of critical papers address the matter of fermentation:
“The distribution of mesembrine alkaloids in selected taxa of the Mesembryanthemaceae and their modification in the Sceletium derived Kougoed” by Smith et al., published in the Journal of Pharmaceutical Biology in 1998. “Investigation of the phytochemical content of Sceletium tortuosum following preparation of Kougoed by fermentation” by Patnala et al., published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in 2008. “Forensic analysis of mesembrine alkaloids in Sceletium tortuosum by nonaqueous capillary electrophoresis mass spectrometry” by Roscher et al., published in Electrophoresis in 2012.
Together, these papers show clearly some of the effects that fermentation has on the alkaloid profile, and further independent research subsequent to this has also verified these findings.
In summary, the fermentation of Kanna accomplishes the following primary outcomes:
Lowers oxalic acid Lowers 4′-O-demethylmesembrenol Significantly converts mesembrine to mesembrenone and ∆7-mesembrenone May increase total alkaloid levels (by a very small measure)
(For reference, the traditional fermentation process which leads to this, as described verbatim by a local informant from the Namaqualand area (Smith at al. 1996) was “Leave the bag of crushed Kougoed in the sun to get warm; it’s not necessary to put it in the shade, it gets shade at night, and the sun doesn’t harm it. The plant is left to sweat. After 2 to 3 days the bag is opened, the Kougoed is mixed around, and then the bag is tightly closed again. On the eighth day after the crushing, the bag is opened and the Kougoed is spread out to dry in the sun, as when you dry raisins. You leave it out until it is dry. If you don’t do the whole thing, the plant won’t have power. If you eat the fresh plant nothing will happen – it doesn’t have power. I learned to prepare it from my father”. In the experiments referenced in these papers this process was mimicked under controlled laboratory conditions.)
It is also evident from studying the above research that this is not all that is going on, and that there is a complexity, beyond our full comprehension at this stage, related to all the alkaloidal transformations that occur during the fermentation process.
It also appears from the Journal of Pharmaceutical Biology paper that the mere act of bruising and crushing the plant, followed by drying at 80°C produced a very similar alkaloid profile to that which developed during full fermentation. This suggests, quoting directly from that paper, that “It is possible that, on crushing, enzymatic reactions may take place following cellular decompartmentation, these reactions may explain the modification of the alkaloid ratio and concentration that is observed in crushed plant material dried at 80°C; a temperature at which these reactions may be greatly amplified. From the results of this experiment it would seem that the essential step in the production of Kougoed may not entirely revolve around fermentation but that the crushing of the plant material and consequently the mixing of cellular material may be equally essential”.
This gives scientific credibility to another traditional method of Kougoed production referenced in the 1996 Journal of Ethnopharmacology review article on Sceletium in which it is stated that “A second informant described an alternative preparation technique, employed when the user seeks to rapidly prepare Kougoed. A small fire is made over sand, and when it dies down, the ashes are scraped aside, and a hollow made in the sand. A freshly picked, whole Sceletium plant is placed in this excavation, and covered with hot sand. An hour later the baked plant product is recovered, reputedly with acquired properties similar to the conventionally prepared material”.
It is also important to qualify the statement above that “fermentation converts mesembrine to mesembrenone and ∆7-mesembrenone”. This seems plausible, but what the data actually shows is that mesembrine levels decrease and that mesembrenone and ∆7-mesembrenone (double-bond isomers of each other) levels increase. So while this suggests “conversion” from the one alkaloid to the other as the “cause”, some other mechanism could be at play. Altogether very interesting stuff – and more detailed research into these phenomena are clearly called for.
Finally for the flavour aficionados, fermenting Kanna does some richly interesting stuff to the taste and aroma, which many smokers and chewers appreciate!
Oxalic acid is an organic compound commonly found at high levels in members of the spinach family, the brassicas (cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, kale, rocket), sorrel, rhubarb and umbellifers like parsley. It also occurs in green bell peppers, beet greens, chives, leeks, purslane, dandelion, almonds, chocolate and… Sceletium.
It is a colorless crystalline solid that forms a clear solution in water and is a slightly stronger acid than acetic acid (vinegar). It is normally contra-indicated for those suffering from kidney stones, renal insufficiency, gout and rheumatoid arthritis (though some modern research is already questioning this traditional point of view). Excessive oxalic acid can also be a gastric irritant and contribute to joint pain due to calcium oxalate deposists.
An analysis on unfermented dry Sceletium using the technique of Sutikno et al. (1987) has indicated levels of 3.6% – 5.1% oxalate. This falls within the median range for oxalates in crop plants reported by Libert and Franceschi (1987). By contrast, common high oxalate foods are parsley (1.7%), chives (1.5%), beet greens (1.0%), spinach (0.8%) and cacao (0.6%).
On the other side, oxalic acid is needed by the body and is important for colon health. When we do not get enough from our diet, the body makes it from ascorbic acid. All the foods that are high in antioxidants are also high in oxalic acid, and cancer is always associated with low levels of oxalic acid in the blood.
Observations and reports by Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk (1962), Kellerman et al. (1988) and Smith et al. (1996) regarding oxalates in Sceletium have suggested that the physical crushing of the plant and the fermentation process may, in some way, ameliorate the levels of oxalic acid. Free oxalic acid is likely to complex with cell-wall-associated calcium salts and precipitate as calcium oxalate when plant material is crushed.
Oxalates are degraded by microbial populations in the gastrointestinal tract of humans, ruminants and non-ruminant herbivores (Daniel et al., 1987). There is evidence that adaptive changes in microbial microflora may reduce oxalate absorbtion and toxicity (Argenzio et al., 1988). Allison et al. (1985) have proposed that these anaerobes be named Oxalobacter formigenes and it has been suggested that soils and lake sediments may serve as an inoculum for oxalate degrading organisms in the digestive tract of animals (Smith et al., 1985). Smith et al. (1996) suggest that the crushing process, prior to anaerobic fermentation would introduce oxalatedegrading microbes into the skin or plastic bag and so ameliorate levels of oxalic acid. The use of Mesembryanthemaceae to initiate fermentation for alcohol or breadmaking is well documented (Juritz, 1906; Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk, 1962), so that the microbiology of fermentation in Kougoed is likely to be quite complex.
The alternate preparatory method for Kougoed mentioned above involving burying plant material in hot sand may also have a scientific basis. Oxalic acid is a simple dicarboxylic acid, and considerable sublimation is likely to occur at temperatures above its melting point of 101-102°C; on the other hand, mesembrine only boils between 186-190°C (Merck Index). Hence the use of this simple physical technique may achieve the same result as the more traditional fermentation process by removing oxalates, and drying the material while retaining alkaloids.
In summary, it is evident that fermentation decreases levels of oxalates in Kanna. It is also evident that the level of oxalic acid in Kanna (given the daily or occasional dose that is used) compared to what is normally ingested from common founds, is negligible (500mg of unfermented Sceletium per day being the equivalent of 3g of spinach), and of no consequence at all except perhaps in the managing of severe cases of renal insufficiency.
Coming soon 🙂
The Sceletium Source has personal relationships with most of the dedicated Sceletium growers in Southern Africa – with the vast majority of cultivation taking place in various parts of South Africa and Nambia. We work with people who are serious about their work and who respect and honour this sacred plant. We carefully vet all our growers to ensure we only source the highest quality Kanna available. There are many cultivars of Sceletium, each having their own subtle and unique characteristics, and over time we will offer more diversity on this site for those who wish to explore the variety available. We ensure good alkaloid levels on all the material we source and will always provide the relevant assay data to our clients so that you know what you are buying. Most raw material is unfermented, but we also do supply fermented Kanna for those who specially request this.