The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Sceletium tortuosum (Linnaeus) N.E. Br.





The South African Hottentots (Khoikhoi) once chewed a variety of plants known as channa, kanna, or kougoed—including Sceletium tortuosum—as agents of pleasure and inebriation. (Copperplate engraving from Meister, Der Orientalisch-Indianische Kunst- und Lustgärtner, 1677) [The Oriental-Indian Art and Pleasure Gardener]




Aizoaceae (Ice Plant Family) (Mesembryanthemaceae); Subfamily Mesembryanthemoideae (cf. Bittrich 1986)

Forms and Subspecies





Mesembryanthemum tortuosum L.

Folk Names


Canna, canna-root, channa, gunna, kanna, kauwgoed, kauwgood, kon (“quid”), kou, kougoed, tortuose fig-marygold



Some three hundred years ago, it was reported that the Hottentots (Khoikhoi) of southern Africa chewed, sniffed, or smoked an inebriant that was said to be known as kanna or channa (Schleiffer 1979, 39 ff.*). The enthusiasm with which the Hottentots smoked was noted by all the early travelers to the region. Unfortunately, most of them neglected to provide any information about the botanical source of the “tobacco” (e.g., Meister 1677, 31 f.*). And so it was not until the end of the nineteenth century that it was suggested that the inebriant must have come from Mesembryanthemum spp., for these species were then still known by the name kanna in South Africa. The effects that were experienced at that time, however, were not nearly as dramatic and inebriating as had been hoped (Meiring 1898). Around the same time, Carl Hartwich was already suggesting that the species in question was Mesembryanthemum tortuosum (1911, 810*), which (following a taxonomic revision) is now known as Sceletium tortuosum. However, the first ethnobotanical evidence of the psychoactive use of Sceletium tortuosum as kougoed was obtained only a few years ago (Smith et al. 1996).



The plant occurs only in South Africa, in the so-called kanna land. Sceletium tortuosum and other species (Sceletium strictum) have become rare in South Africa and are increasingly difficult to find (Smith et al. 1996, 128).



Propagation occurs through the seeds, which must be treated in the same manner as cactus seeds. The best method is to scatter them onto cactus or succulent soil, press them down slightly, and water (Schwantes 1953). Both the cultivation and care are similar to that for the Cactaceae, which is the most closely related family.



This herbaceous plant, which resembles a leaf succulent, can grow as tall as 30 cm. It develops fleshy roots, a smooth and fleshy stalk, and low-growing branches that spread laterally. The thick, angular, fleshy leaves do not have stalks but are attached directly to the branches. The pale yellow flowers are 3 to 4 cm across and are attached to the ends of the branches. The plant produces angular-shaped fruits with small seeds.

Kougoed is easily confused with other members of the genus Sceletium (as well as with Mesembryanthemum spp.). Those species that not only look similar but also have similar effects and contain the same active constituent (mesembrine) were presumably also referred to as kougoed and used in the same manner (Arndt and Kruger 1970; Jeffs et al. 1970, 1974; D. McKenna 1995, 101*):


Sceletium anatomicum (Haw.) L. Bolus [syn. Mesembryanthemum anatomicum Haw.]

Sceletium expansum (L.) L. Bolus [syn. Mesembryanthemum expansum L.]

Sceletium joubertii L. Bolus290

Sceletium namaquense L. Bolus

Sceletium strictum L. Bolus

Psychoactive Material


—Entire plant with root

Preparation and Dosage


The method for preparing kougoed has only recently been discovered and described in great detail. The plant material—which should be collected in October, when the plant is most potent—is harvested, crushed between two rocks, and allowed to “ferment” for a few days in a closed container. At one time animal skins or hemp bags were used for this purpose, but plastic bags are now used in their place. The first step entails setting the bag containing the plant material in the sun. During the day, the plant will exude its juice, which condenses on the plastic and is later reabsorbed by the plant material. During the night, the material cools. After two or three days, the bag is opened and the contents are stirred well. Then the bag is sealed and placed outside again. On the eighth day after this procedure was started, the kougoed is taken from the bag and spread out to dry in the sun. It can be used as soon as it has dried. According to informants, the fresh leaves do not have any potency; only the “fermented” plant is psychoactive. The kougoed is now either chopped or powdered. This process presumably helps to substantially reduce the high content of oxalic acid that is characteristic of the genera Sceletium and Mesembryanthemum. Oxalic acid can produce severe irritation and allergies. A more hurried method involves simply toasting a fresh plant on glowing charcoals until it has completely dried and then powdering the result (Smith et al. 1996, 126).

The powder usually is taken orally with some alcohol and held in the mouth for about ten minutes. The saliva that collects can be swallowed. Two grams of the powder produces a “tranquil mellowness” in about thirty minutes; approximately 5 g of the powder is a dosage sufficient to relieve anxiety, and higher dosages can lead to more profound effects (euphoria, visions) (Smith et al. 1996, 126 f.).

The chopped plant material can be smoked alone or in combination with Cannabis sativa (cf. smoking blends). The finely ground powder purportedly also can be sniffed, either alone or mixed with tobacco (cf. snuffs).

This and other species were used as psycho-active additives to beer or to induce fermentation (Smith et al. 1996, 127).

Ritual Use


The South African Bushmen (San) use the same name for Sceletium tortuosum as they do for the eland antelope (Taurotragus oryx Pallas): kanna. The eland is regarded as the “trance animal” par excellence; since prehistoric times, it has played a central role as a magical ally in many ceremonies and was closely associated both with the rain-makers and with divination, healing, and the communal trance dances (Lewis-Williams 1981). Kanna appears to have been used as part of these rituals (cf. also Ferraria glutinosa).

The Hottentots (Khoikhoi) apparently chewed Sceletium for their ritual and healing dances or smoked it together with dagga (Cannabis sativa). They also use the name kanna for the magical eland antelope (Smith et al. 1996, 120).

In contemporary South Africa, kougoed is now used primarily as an agent of pleasure; it is used as a party drug in the same way that Cannabis sativa is used in Western society.


A cultivated South African kougoed (Sceletium tortuosum).


“And so it should be known how these clean mountain nymphs [the Hottentot women] are so unashamed that they even pass their maiden water in the presence of Europeans and are even accustomed to answering the call of nature . . . . Because they are also excellent lovers of the noble weed nicotianae or tobacco [a presumed reference to kougoed], then these brave women probably show to a curious, lewd lover everything that he asks of them before a pipe of tobacco.”






(1677, CH. 4, P. 4*)







It is possible that a great deal of the rock art of South Africa, some of which appears to be extremely visionary, was inspired by kougoed (Lewis-Williams 1981).

Medicinal Use


The natives of Namaqualand and Queenstown (southern Africa) drink a tea made from the leaves as an analgesic and to suppress hunger (Smith et al. 1996, 128).



The leaves and stalks of the plant contain 0.3 to 0.86% mesembrine (empirical formula C17H23NO3), along with some mesembrinine and tortuosamine (Smith et al. 1996). The leaves appear to also contain oxalic acid (Frohne and Jensen 1992, 125*). It is possible that tryptamines may occur in the plant as well. Methyltryptamine (MMT) and N,N-DMT have been detected in a Delosperma species, a close relative from the same family (Smith et al. 1996, 124).



The South African users describe the important effects of small dosages of kougoed as relief from anxiety and stress, deepening of social contact, increase in self-confidence, and dissolution of inhibitions and feelings of inferiority. “Some reported euphoria as well as a feeling of meditative tranquility. Several users felt that the relaxation induced by ‘kougoed’ enabled one to focus on inner thoughts and feelings, if one wished, or to concentrate on the beauty of nature. Some informants reported heightened sensation of skin to fine touch, as well as sexual arousal” (Smith et al. 1996, 127f.).

Higher dosages, especially when combined with Cannabis sativa and alcohol (whiskey), produce mild visions. Chewing kougoed shortly after smoking Cannabis can considerably potentiate the effects of the hemp. Kougoed suppresses both the effects of tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) and the desire for nicotine.


Sceletium tortuosum, as shown in an eighteenth-century woodcut.


Commercial Forms and Regulations


Seeds of Sceletium tortuosum and other Sceletium species—usually under the synonym Mesembryanthemum—are occasionally available through flower shops and ethnobotanical specialty sources. Living members of the genus are sometimes offered by cactus dealers and shops.



See also the entries for Mesembryanthemum spp. and kanna.


Arndt, R. R., and P. E. J. Kruger. 1970. Alkaloids from Sceletium joubertii L. Bolus: the structure of joubertiamine, dihydrojoubertiamine and dehydrojoubertiamine. Tetrahedron Letters 37:3237–40.


Bittrich, V. 1986. Untersuchungen zu Merkmalbestand, Gliederung und Abgrenzung der Unterfamilie Mesembryanthemoideae (Mesembryanthemaceae Fenzl). Mitteilungen aus dem Institut für Allgemeine Botanik (Hamburg) 21:5–116.


Bodendorf, K., and K. Krieger. 1957. Über die Alkaloide von Mesembryanthemum tortuosum L. Archiv für Pharmazie 62:441–48.


Jeffs, P. W., G. Allmann, H. F. Campbell, D. S. Farrier, G. Ganguli, and R. L. Hawks. 1970. Alkaloids of Sceletium species III: The structures of four new alkaloids from Sceletium strictumJournal of Organic Chemistry 35:3512–28.


Jeffs, P. W., T. Cappas, D. B. Johnson, J. M. Karle, N. H. Martin, and B. Rauckman. 1974. Sceletium alkaloid VI: Minor alkaloids from Sceletium namaquense and Sceletium strictumJournal of Organic Chemistry 39:2703–9.


Laidler, P. W. 1928. The magic medicine of the Hottentots. South African Journal of Science 25:433–47.


Lewis-Williams, I. D. 1981. Believing and seeing: Symbolic meanings in southern San rock paintings. London: Academic Press.


Meiring, I. 1898. Notes on some experiments with the active principle of Mesembryanthemum tortuosumTransactions of the South African Philosophical Society 9:48–50.


Schwantes, G. 1953. The cultivation of the Mesembryanthemaceae. London: Blandford Press.


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. (Good bibliography.)

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