The succulent herb kanna is indigenous to South-Africa. Before colonization this area was inhabited by two tribes: the Khoikhoi (formerly known as Hottentots) and the San (formerly known as Bushmen). Both were hunter-gatherers, but over time the Khoikhoi turned towards pastoralism.
Gericke and Viljoen (2008) write that plants of the genus Sceletium have been used for millennia ‘to relief thirst and hunger, to combat fatigue, as medicines, and for social and spiritual purposes’.
Their common background explains cultural similarities between the tribes that both associate the sacred ‘eland antelope’ with Sceletium tortuosum and call it by the same name: ‘kanna’.
According to Paterson, a traveller at the end of the 18th century, the area where the plant was found was called ‘Channaland’ by its local inhabitants. Nienaber and Raper interpreted this as ‘a reflection of the fact that Sceletium and eland co-occurred in abundance.’
This image can be viewed in Kamberg Rock Art Center in Ukhalamba-Drakensberg Park in South Africa. The eland antelope was one of the main objects of hunt for the Khoikhoi and San and widely features in rock art. It was symbolically associated with fertility, marriage, rainmaking, divination, trance, dance and healing.
Conflicts with settlers, genocidal raids against the San, loss of land, the ravages of introduced diseases and acculturation are the main reasons for the disappearance of the oral tradition of knowledge about Sceletium tortuosum. Remaining historical reports come from colonists who started to settle in South-Africa in the 17th century.
Colonialist explorations into kanna
The first written report on kanna is from Dutch explorer and tradesman Van Riebeeck who found out about the plant’s effects and in 1662 bartered with local people for both Sceletium and sheep.
A couple of years later, in 1685 colonial governor of the Dutch Cape colony, Simon van der Stel, describes the local use of kanna in his journal: ‘They chew mostly a certain plant which they call Canna and which they bruise, roots as well as the stem, between the stones and store and preserve in sewn-up sheepskins. When we came to the Coperbergh in October, it was being gathered from the surrounding hills by everybody (to serve as a supply for the whole year).’
Because chewing was the main method of consumption, the Dutch came up with the name ‘kougoed’ for kanna, which literally means ‘good to chew’. The colonists prized the herb for its ‘ginseng-like qualities’.
An accompanying illustration in Van der Stel’s journal makes clear the plant considered was indeed a species of Sceletium. He writes: ‘This plant is found with the Namaquaas and then only on some of their mountains. (…) 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 the roots, mostly all day, and become intoxicated by it, so that on account of this effect and its fragrance and hearty taste one can expect some profit from its cultivation.’
In another report a century later, in 1773, Carl Peter Thunberg, a Swedish botanist and physician, describes a similar preparation method as Van der Stel: ‘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 the name ‘kanna’ probably referred to several Sceletium species, amongst which Sceletium tortuosum.
Thunberg, who’d 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’ for the quid. It was seen as a valuable substance and local inhabitants transported it over great distances to trade it for cattle and commodities.
Gericke and Viljoen (2008) suggest that around the mid-nineteenth century a number of trade centres arose around Sceletium. They describe kanna was sold `to treat insomnia in adults, diarrhoea in children, and also chewed as a mild narcotic or intoxicant’. Smith and his colleagues (1996) interpreted Thunbergs reports of the collective harvesting of the plants as evidence that the Sceletium species were used in a ritualistic manner, probably during seasonal gatherings.
Kanna as smoking mix
Thunberg was the first to report smoking as a way to consume kanna. In reference to the San he writes: ‘These people chew ‘Canna’ (Mesembryanthemum) 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.’
Some myths persist that kanna itself has hallucinogenic properties, but these can probably be derived from its combination with other herbs – among others cannabis sativa. Explorer Peter Kolben, for example, compared kanna in 1738 with the European Mandragora and described it as ‘the greatest Chearer of the Spirits, and the noblest Restorative in the World’.
Alkaloid isolations from kanna
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. Uneasiness and loss of appetite were recorded in the guinea pigs and some of the animals died.
In 1914 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. More current research gives a better overview of the range of alkaloids in Sceletium tortuosum, although its exact composition remains unclear up to this day.
Kanna in the 20th century
The indigenous use of kanna is mentioned in a range of reports from the 20th century. Meiring describes the local use of ‘one or two drops’ of Sceletium tortuosum in order to make children sleep easily. In a similar vein, Watt and Breyer-Brandwijk report in 1962 that Nama mothers chew the roots and spit the resulting saliva into a baby’s mouth. Rood (1994) reports the juice of the leaves of Sceletium emarcidum were mixed with milk and given to babies as a sleeping remedy. According to Rood it is also used to soothe teething in babies.
Apparently kanna is used for a broad range of purposes. In 1928 Laidler observed its use in dancing rituals. He writes 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: ‘if indulged in to excess, it robbed them of their senses and they became intoxicated.’ In 1960 Jacobsen reports Sceletium tortuosum being prepared as a tea and as a snuff instead of as chewing material.
Kanna’s current situation
Currently, kanna is rapidly gaining popularity as a recreational drug. It’s sold by smartshops and online vendors all over the world. Kanna is not listed in international drug treaties and, as far as we know, uncontrolled in all countries.
In 2001 a kanna extract containing mesembrin, mesembrenon and mesembrenol has been patented. In 2012 it’s been brought to the market as a prescription medicine by HG&H Pharmaceuticals under the name Zembrin®.
The local San population protested against kanna exploitation by foreign companies and in some cases agreements were made through which part of the profit flows back to the local population.
Several factors, like overharvesting, environmental changes and diseases have diminished the availability of Sceletium tortuosum in the wild. Nowadays the plants are mainly cultivated in South-African nurseries, before being processed and sent out over the world.