This page is about the traditional preparation method of Sceletium tortuosum. Commercially available kanna is already prepared and ready for consumption. For ways of administration see How to use kanna?
The traditional way to prepare ‘kougoed’ from fresh kanna is by fermentation. According to ethnobotanist Christian Rätsch, the plant material is ‘crushed between two rocks’ right after harvest. Subsequently it’s ‘allowed to ferment for a few days in a close container’. The whole kanna plant can be used, but sometimes the roots are removed first.
Traditionally animal skin bags or canvas (hemp) bags were used for the fermentation process. They have been exchanged by plastic bags nowadays.
The bag is put in the sun in order to make the plant material ‘sweat’. During night time when it’s cooler, the liquids will be reabsorbed by the plant material. After two or three days the bag is opened and its contents are stirred. Afterwards it’s closed again and placed back in the sun so that the fermentation process can continue.
After eight days in total the bags are opened and the plant material is spread out in the sun to dry. A modern alternative would be to use an oven with a temperature of 80°C. After it’s been dried it can be chopped or powdered. Then your ‘kougoed’ is ready to use!
Quick method for fermenting kanna
In order to speed up the fermentation process it’s also possible to heat up fresh Sceletium tortuosum plant material for a short while. Traditionally this was done by making a wood fire in the sand. After the fire dies, an excavation is made and the plant as a whole is buried in the hot sand. After an hour it can be recovered. The plant material still has to be crushed and powdered, but can be used immediately.
Rätsch reports a comparable method: ‘simply toasting a fresh plant on glowing charcoals until it has completely dried and then powdering the result’.
Oxalic acid in kanna
There seems to be a scientific explanation for the fermentation process. Both the crushing of plant material and the fermentation process afterwards most likely reduce the levels of oxalic acid. Oxalic acid is – although present in small quantities in a lot of vegetables – a harmful substance that may cause irritations and allergic reactions in humans.
Gericke and Viljoen (2008) write: ‘Oxalic acid is a simple dicarboxylic acid, and considerable sublimation is likely to occur at temperatures above its melting point of 101-102°C’. As mesembrine only boils between 186-190°C the method probably doesn’t harm any of the active alkaloids. Unprepared Sceletium tortuosum is reported to contain between 3.6% and 5.1% oxalate.
Smith and colleagues (1998) compare three batches of kanna. The first is not crushed, only heated in an oven at 80°C. The second batch is prepared according to the traditional 8-day method. The third batch is crushed and heated at 80°C. They report the level of mesembrenon highly increases in both crushing methods (2 and 3). By crushing the plant material, the cell wands are destroyed which makes an enzymatic reaction possible. The level of mesembrin is highest in the first batch.
Which method is better?
The researchers find no big difference between alkaloid levels in the traditionally prepared batch and the one subjected to the quick method. However, another study from Patnala and Kanfer (2011) does suggest the traditional method yields the most favourable alkaloid profile. Most likely sunlight is needed for some of the alkaloid conversion processes.
Do it yourself
When preparing your own kanna you could also use a glass jar instead of a bag. Crushing the material beforehand is essential: you can use your hands, scissors or a knife. When you lack sunlight, you can try the quick method in an oven with a temperature around 100-110°C. After fermentation the plant material should be dried, preferably in the sun. But again: an oven with a temperature around 80°C will do as well.
Depending on how you plan to consume the kanna you may want to grind the plant material more or less. Use as a snuff requires the finest powder, followed by smoking. For use as a tea or chewing material powdering is not necessary: a rough crushing will do. 100 gram fresh Sceletium tortuosum will yield about 4 grams of finished product.