The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Mesembryanthemum spp.


Ice Plants




Aizoaceae (Ice Plant Family)248

It is likely that the ancient Assyrians used a species of the genus Mesembryanthemum (which they called dilbat) in combination with Indian hemp (Cannabis indica) as a medicine for “suppressing the spirits” (Thompson 1949, 222*).

In northern Peru, one Mesembryanthemum species is known in the local Spanish as hierba de la señorita, “plant of the maiden.” Folk healers of the San Pedro cult (see Trichocereus pachanoi) use its fleshy leaves in herbal amulets (known as seguros, “insurances”), especially for love magic (Giese 1989, 252*).

Today, two or more species are known in South Africa as kanna (also channa or kougoed). It has been suggested that the kanna or channa that was described some 250 years ago as a plant that the Hottentots chewed for its inebriating effects was a Mesembryanthemum species. More recently, a plant used as kanna was identified as Sceletium tortuosum.

Mesembryanthemum crystallinum L. [syn. Cryophytum crystallinum (L.) N.E. Br., Gasoul crystallinum (L.) Rothm.], an ice plant from the foothills of the Cape of Good Hope, is cultivated for use as a vegetable and in salads. In 1785, Liebig suggested it for use as a medicine in Germany, where the species became known by the name Hottentot fig. Around 1900, it was said that the flowers of the plant (flores candiae) were being used for “superstitious purposes” (Schneider 1974, 2:322*). It has been claimed that the Hottentots of the Kalahari Desert chewed or sniffed the roots (snuffs), and there have been reports that this ice plant, which contains mesembrine and oxalic acid, has induced (psychoactive) intoxications (Festi and Samorini 1995, 32f.).

The Bantu use the roots of Mesembryanthemum mahonii N.E. Br. to brew a potently inebriating beer. In South Africa, the closely related species Trichodiadema stellatum (Miller) Schwantes is used as a yeast substitute for baking bread and brewing beer. The roots purportedly possess potent inebriating properties (Festi and Samorini 1995, 31).


The ice plant, Mesembryanthemum crystallinum, received its name because its leaves appear as though they are covered with ice.



South African species of Mesembryanthemum are sometimes called midday flowers because their flowers are often open only during that time.



Some Mesembryanthemum species may once have been used for psychoactive purposes.



The inebriating ice plant Mesembryanthemum expansum is now known by the botanical name Sceletium expansum. (Woodcut, eighteenth century)





It is very likely that mesembrine is present in another closely related species that is also known as Hottentot fig, Carpobrotus edulis (L.) N.E. Br. [syn. Mesembryanthemum edule L.]. The plant has sedative properties and may be psychoactive (Festi and Samorini 1995).

Tribal peoples of South Africa used another species in the same family, Rabaiea albinota (Haw.) N.E. Br. [syn. Nananthus albinotus N.E. Br.], as an additive to smoking and sniffing tobacco (Nicotiana tabacumsnuffs) (D. McKenna 1995, 101*).

The alkaloids mesembrine and mesembrinine and six additional derivatives are known to occur in the genus (Frohne and Jensen 1992, 125*; D. McKenna 1995, 101*). They have analgesic effects and stimulate circulation (Tyler 1966, 280*). Mesembrine has both sedative and cocainelike properties (Scholz and Eigner 1983, 75*). According to information provided by the chemist K. Trout, some members of the genus contain N,N-DMT.

The alkaloid mesembrine has also been detected in several other species of the Family Aizoaceae: Drosanthemum hispidum (L.) Schwantes [syn. Mesembryanthemum hispidum L.], Sceletium anatomicum(Haw.) L. Bolus [syn. Mesembryanthemum anatomicum Haw.], Sceletium tortuosum (L.) N.E. Br. [syn. Mesembryanthemum tortuosum L.], Trichodiadema barbatum (L.) Schwantes [syn. Mesembryanthemum barbatum L.], Trichodiadema bulbosum(Miller) Schwantes [syn. Mesembryanthemum stellatum Miller], and Trichodiadema intonsum (Haw.) Schwantes [syn. Mesembryanthemum intonsum Haw.] (Festi and Samorini 1995, 32).



See also the entries for Sceletium tortuosum and kanna.


Bodendorf, K., and P. Kloss. 1961. Über Abbau und Biogenese der Alkaloide Mesembrin und Mesembrenin. Archiv der Pharmazie 66:654–61.


Festi, Francesco, and Giorgio Samorini. 1995. Carpobrotus edulis (L.) N.E. Brown in Phillips (Fico degli Ottentotto/Hottentos Fig). Eleusis 2:28–34.


Herre, H. 1971. The genera of the Mesembryanthemaceae. Cape Town: Tafelberg Publishers.


Popelak, A., E. Haack, G. Lettenbauer, and H. Spingler. 1960. Zur Konstitution des Mesembrins. Naturwissenschaften 47:156.


Popelak, A., G. Lettenbauer, E. Haack, and H. Spingler. 1960. Die Struktur des Mesembrins und Mesembrenins. Naturwissenschaften 47:231–32.