Psychotropic Plants

Kanna | A Succulent with Antidepressant Effects

Kanna (Sceletium tortuosm) is a low-growing succulent that’s native to countries within Southern Africa. Other common names in field guides and literature include Channa and Kougoed. Like kratom leaves or the controversial Areca nut, Kanna is chewed to produce a mild, mood-boosting, euphoric high.

It’s been valued as a medicinal plant for thousands of years by local people, but what effect does it really have?

What are the active compounds in Kanna?

Kanna plants contain several psychoactive alkaloids that produce a relaxed and mild euphoric high. The most potent being mesembrine and mesembrenone.

New succulent leaves, tinged red, are emerging from the ground.
Kanna plant | Photo by H Brisse on Wikimedia Commons

What effect does Kanna have on the body?

Mesembrine and mesembrenone both help to increase serotonin, which is a chemical messenger linked to happiness and mood stability. Because of this, Kanna is often viewed as a natural antidepressant.

Does Kanna have medical benefits?

Kanna has shown positive benefits as an ethnomedicine. Modern studies have proven its effects as an antidepressant and its gaining traction around the world for its benefits. Today, its stress-relieving and anti-anxiety tendencies have encouraged further research into its potential.

A small pile of gold coloured powder on a white surface.
Powdered Kanna | Photo by DMTrott on Wikimedia Commons

The cultural uses of Kanna

The antidepressant effects of Kanna were well known by indigenous peoples in Africa. It was frequently chewed as a cure for stress, depression, and even for pain relief.

This low-growing succulent has been used for thousands of years by the San and Khoi people of South Africa. The San people were hunter-gatherers who would use Kanna as a water source. They also used it to lessen their appetite if a hunt was delayed or unsuccessful. But both groups valued the Kanna as a plant of healing and also of spiritual purpose.

A Dutch colonist in Africa known as Jan van Riebeeck is the first to have created a written record of Kanna. He noted that it was usually dried and chewed, and the saliva swallowed, unlike the Areca nut which is spat out instead. His notes also mention that it was smoked and also used as a herbal snuff.

A Kanna plant sits in a shallow terracotta pot on a windowsill. A single flower can be seen on one of the trailing stems.
A Kanna house plant | Photo by Tommi Nummelin on Wikimedia Commons

Today some people prepare Kanna in various teas and tinctures to make use of its antidepressant effects. You can even buy them as houseplants, but be wary that their wild populations are declining because of this trade. Like the African Devil’s Claw plant, which is a popular pain relief supplement, some local people harvest unsustainably. It’s best to only buy from reputable sources where you can trace exactly where the plants are being grown.

What does Kanna look like?

As a succulent, Kanna has small, thick, fleshy leaves. It tends to form very low, creeping ground cover which creates a dense leafy spread. The flowers are extremely attractive with thin petals radiating from a yellow center. 

The petals resemble mini fireworks and range from white and yellow to bright pink. In full bloom, the flowers coat the entire plant with a wispy, soft layer of petals.

A close up of a white Kanna flower with its yellow center.
Flower of Sceletium tortuosum | Photo by Tommi Nummelin. on Wikimedia Commons

Where does Kanna grow?

Kanna can be found growing in semi-arid deserts within Southern Africa. It can handle periods of drought because of its succulent leaves but also survives well through the rainy season.

Conclusion

As such a valued medicinal herb, wild Kanna populations have recently decreased. Regulation is an important step that will stop over-harvesting and protect the future of this valuable ethnomedicine. It’s a very attractive plant, and it holds exciting medical potential as a natural antidepressant.

Featured Image: A young Kanna plant emerging from the soil | Photo by H Brisse on Wikimedia Commons

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