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ELSEVIER Journal of Ethnopharmacology 50 (1996) 141-146

Some ethnopharmacological notes on African hallucinogens

P . A . G . M . D e Smet
Drug Information Center, Royal Dutch Associationfor the Advancement of Pharmacy, Alexanderstraat 11, 2514 JL The Hague,
The Netherlands

Received 21 November 1994; accepted 16 August 1995


This paper provides a short overview of ritual African hallucinogens. In addition to examples already listed by
Schultes and Hofmann in their classic text books, Boophane distieha, Alehornea floribunda, Monadenium lugardae,
Mostuea spp. and Voacanga bracteata are identified as African botanicals with proven or alleged hallucinogenic po-

Keywords: Botanicals; Hallucinogens; Africa

I. Introduction periences by means of hallucinogenic plants than

many peoples of the Old World (La Barre 1970).
The aboriginal use of botanical hallucinogens However, these proportions between American
has been nowhere more extensive and varied than and African hallucinogens may also reflect to
in the Americas. This is well underscored by the some extent that Professor Schultes and his
book 'Pflanzen der G6tter' which was compiled by followers at Harvard University did most of their
two eminent experts in this field, Schultes and ethnobotanical field work on the American side of
Hofmann (1980a). Of 91 reviewed plants with pro- the Atlantic Ocean. It would therefore be
ven or alleged hallucinogenic potential, two-thirds understandable if their publications would provide
have been applied only or mainly in the Western the most comprehensive coverage for this part of
Hemisphere, and 8 of the world's 14 major the world. As a result, the ethnobotany of African
hallucinogens are completely rooted in Amerin- hallucinogens could be more varied than has been
dian tradition. These figures contrast sharply with assumed so far.
the listing of just one established hallucinogen and
four possible hallucinogens that have been used 2. Boophane d/st/cha
exclusively on the African continent (Table 1). A
major reason for this difference may well be that One African plant which should definitely be
American Indians retained the fundamental recognized as a hallucinogen is Boophane disticha
shamanism characteristic of hunting societies and (L.f.) Herb. (Amaryllidaceae). Although its bulb is
thus more actively sought mystic visionary ex- usually portrayed as a means of suicide, arrow

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142 P.A.G.M. De Smet / Journal of Ethnopharmacology 50 (1996) 141-146

Table ! Table 1 (continued)

The ritual African botanicals with proven or alleged
hallucinogenic potential listed by Schultes and Hofmann
(1980a and 1980b) According to a Russian report, trispheridine, tacettin, hip-
peastrine, pancratin, galanthamine, lycorine, hordenine, and
Established ImHucinogens two unidentified bases were isolated from the bulbs with roots.
Unfortunately, no quantitative information about the individu-
Cannabis sativa L. (Cannabaceae) al levels of these alkaloids was provided (Munvime and Murav-
Ubiquitous plant with well-known psychoactive properties. jova, 1973). The bulb of a related species, P.maritimum, yields
lycorine as major alkaloid (Vazquez Tato et al., 1988; Sener et
Datura species (Solanaceae) al., 1993). Of the alkaloids found in P. trianthum, galanthamine
has been studied most intensively in humans, because its
Ubiquitous plants with well-known deliriant alkaloids.
anticholinesterase activity might make it a potentially useful
Tabernanthe iboga Balllon (Apocynaceae) drug in patients with Alzheimer's disease. In one study, patients
The root of this shrub contains the indole alkaloid ibogaine tolerated 5 or 10 mg doses given three times daily, whereas 15
mg three times daily resulted in central agitation and
as its major principle. This alkaloid basically acts as a potent
central stimulant. Published experimental evidence for its sleeplessness (Thomsen et al. 1990).
hallucinogenic potential in man seems to be limited to a single
observation (cf. Pope Jr. 1969).

Possible hallucinogens

Cymbopogon densiflorus Stapf (Gramineae) poison and traditional medicine (Watt and Breyer-
Brandwijk, 1962), it is also capable of producing
According to a herbarium annotation, the flowers cause profound hallucinations.
foretelling dreams when smoked alone or with tobacco by Laydevant (1932) described its use in initiation
Tanganyikan witch doctors.
Among the constituents of the essential oil in the flowers are
ceremonies of the South African Basuto. At the
limonene, cineole, and diosphenol (Da Cunha 1972), as well as commencement of the initiation period, Basuto
ocimene and dihydrotagetone (Koketsu et al. 1976). boys were given food mixed with the bulb and
other ingredients. They were taught that such a
Helichrysum species (Asteraceae) remedy would imbue them with the qualities of
According to herbarium annotations, H. foetidum and H.
their ancestors and that it would tend to make men
stenopterum are used by Zulu witch doctors for inhaling to get
their trance. of them. The signs of intoxication were regarded as
The aerial parts of H. stenopterum contain various phloro- a token that the spirit of manhood had entered
glucinol derivatives (Jakupovic et al. 1986). their bodies.
Early investigations in the beginning of this cen-
Mesembryanthemum species (Aizoaceae)
The Hottentots of southern Africa once chewed and smoked
tury demonstrated that the bulb of Boophane
a plant called kanna or channa for enjoyment and stimulation. disticha contains alkaloids with similar bioactivity
In the present time, such names refer to certain species of as Datura alkaloids (Lewin 1912; Tutin 1912).
Mesembryanthemum, especially M. expansum and M. tortuosum Later research by Hauth and Stauffacher (1961)
(syn. Sceletium expansum and S. tortuosum), but there is no showed that eleven different alkaloids are present,
direct and indisputable evidence that this is a correct idenflca-
with a total yield of 0.31% from the fresh bulb.
tion of the ancient Hottentot drug.
Mesembryanthemum species contain the alkaloids, mesem- Buphanidrine, undulatine, buphanisine, buphan-
brine and mesembrenine, but there are no convincing data that amine and nerbowdine emerged as major alkaloids
these alkaloids have hallucinogenic properties. In one (Table 2). The hallucinogenic efficacy of Boophane
volunteer, an oral dose of 150 mg of mesembrine only produced disticha was documented by Laing (1979), who
headache, listlessness and loss of appetite (Hartwich and
Zwicky 1914; Bodendorf and Krieger 1957; Bodendorf and
reported on three young men presenting at a
Kloss 1961; Popelak et al. 1960a; Popelak et al. 1960b; Tyler Jr Zimbabwean hospital the morning after they had
1966). taken the bulb. One of them was deeply un-
conscious, and had dilated pupils, tachycardia,
raised blood pressure, a slightly raised temperature
Pancratium trianthum Herb. (Amaryllidaceae)
Bushmen in Botswana are claimed to induce visual hallucina-
and labored respiration. He remained in this state
tions by rubbing the bulb on an incision made on the head. for 24 h and could be discharged after 72 h with
P.A.G.M. De Smet/Journal of Ethnopharmacology50 (1996) 141-146 143

Table 2 species only emerges from publications in the

Alkaloidsin the bulb of Boophanedisticha(L.F.) Herb. (Hauth French language.
and Stauffacher1961)

Alkaloid Relative contribution to 3. Other plants

total alkaloids
Alchornea floribunda Miill. Arg. (Euphorbiaceae)
Buphanidrine 19.4%
Undulatine 18.6%
Buphanisine 16.9% In Zaire, Alchorneafloribunda has a long history
Buphanamine 14.1% of use under the name niando as an aphrodisiac
Nerbowdine 1I. 1% and for its stimulant and intoxicating properties
Crinine 7.2%
(De Wildeman 1920; Raymond-Hamet 1952a).
Distichamine 5.4%
Crinamidine !.2% The plant is also valued by the Fang of Gabon for
Acetylnerbowdine 0.6% its narcotic properties (Fernandez 1972).
Lycorine 0.4% At one time, the aphrodisiac action was at-
Buphacetine 0.3% tributed to the presence of yohimbine, but a later
evaluation demonstrated that this alkaloid is ab-
sent in the bark of Alchornea floribunda
(Raymond-Hamet and Goutarel 1965). Subse-
a normal pulse, blood pressure and temperature. quently, Khuong-Huu et al. (1970) isolated the
Another youngster appeared to suffer from an alkaloid, alchorneine, from the leaf, stem bark and
acute psychotic episode with violent hallucina- root of Alchornea floribunda and from the leaf of
tions. His physical signs were similar to those in Alchornea hirtella. Khuong-Huu et al. (1972) anal-
the first victim but less marked. He was treated ysed different dried plant parts of Alchornea
with intravenous chlorpromazine to sedate him floribunda and reported crude alkaloid levels of
and after 36 h he had recovered. The third young 0.13 mg/g (stem bark), 1.86 mg/g (root bark) and
man, who was not admitted, claimed that he had 4.83 mg/g (leaf). Alchorneine was the major alka-
taken the decoction with the other two. He had loid of the stem bark and the root bark, and the
spent the night feeling drunk and seeing visions root bark also contained isoalchorneine. This lat-
and felt perfectly well the following morning. On ter alkaloid was also found in the leaf, together
examination, the only abnormal sign was slightly with alchorneinone. The dried stem bark of
dilated pupils. After recovery, all three men claim- Alchornea hirtella yielded 0.16 mg/g of crude alka-
ed that the hallucinatory effect of the bulb was loids with alchorneine as the major component.
well known in their area (the Gutu district). The imidazo structures of these alkaloids were
Botanical analysis of stomach contents and rem- elucidated.
nants of the actual bulbs confirmed that they had Raymond-Hamet (1952b) discovered that a
ingested Boophane disticha. decoction of the powdered root enhances the sen-
Other detailed reports about the intentional sitivity of the sympathic nervous system for
ingestion of Boophane disticha for hallucinatory epinephrine in the anaesthesized dog, and
purposes have not been found in the literature, but Khuong-Huu et al. (1970) characterized alchor-
there are ethnopharmacological statements that neine as a parasympathic ganglioplegic agent
the bulb is traditionally employed in Zimbabwe to because of its intense vagolytic action and strong
arouse ancestral spirits (Nyazema 1984; Gelfand et inhibition of intestinal peristalsis in the
al. 1985). anaesthesized dog. However, the reputed central
Besides Boophane disticha, the African flora stimulatory properties still have to be established.
comprises various plants which are reputed to
have hallucinogenic activity. Some poignant ex- Monadenium lugardae N.E.Br. (Euphorbiaceae)
amples are reviewed below. While most of these
examples have already been mentioned somewhere This plant has widely been used as a medicine in
in the Anglo-Saxon literature, the use of Mostuea the Piet Rief area of the Eastern Transvaal. Taken
144 P.A.G.M. De Smet / Journal of Ethnopharmacology 50 (1996) 141-146

in sufficient quantities, the root is believed to pro- var. brunonis; the leaves of this latter species yield-
duce hallucinations and delirium. The local ed 0.08% of alkaloids. Onanga and Khuong-Huu
diviners sometimes swallowed a piece of the root, (1980) also examined different parts of Mostuea
which was supposed to make them see visions and brunonis var. brunonis and found sempervirine in
to prophesy under its influence (Watt and Breyer- the roots and gelsemicine, 14-hydroxy-gelsemicine,
Brandwijk 1962; Watt 1967). 20(N-4)-dehydrogelsemicine and mostueine in the
The plant contains potentially bioactive com- leaves and stems.
pounds, such as alkaloids (Gundidza 1985), but The only chemical and pharmacological evalu-
the reputed hallucinogenic properties have not yet ation of Mostuea stimulans A. Chev. was reported
been verified. It has merely been reported that the by Paris and Moyse-Mignon (1949). They found
latex from aerial parts and a methanolic extract 0.06% of alkaloids in the stalks with leaves, 0.15%
from the fresh stems had a dualistic effect on in the entire roots, and 0.33% in the root bark. One
guinea-pig ileum: contractile activity at lower con- root bark alkaloid showed similarities to semper-
centrations and the opposite effect at higher con- virine, while another root bark alkaloid had cer-
centrations (Gundidza 1990; 1991). The latex also tain properties similar to gelsemine; in neither
showed significant insecticidal activity (Gundidza case, a definitive identification was made. Sub-
1986). cutaneously administered root bark had a mean
lethal dose around 0.25 g/kg in the mouse. Death
Mostuea species (Loganiaceae) was preceded by a phase of hyperexcitability; the
animals got up on their hind legs and sometimes
Chevalier (1946;1947) reported on the authority presented with convulsions. In anaesthetized dogs,
of the Reverend Father Walker that Gabonese an intravenous dose of 0.05 to 0.10 g/kg produced
natives in the region of Fernan-Vaz used the hypotension followed by hypertension, whereas a
grated chunks of a certain root as aphrodisiac. higher dose of 0.10 to 0.20 g/kg only produced
Among the vernacular names of the drug were hypotension; a short phase of tachyardia and
Sata mbwanda (Nkomi) and Sdtd mbwundb hyperpnoea was succeeded by cardiac and respira-
(Bakole). Chevalier identified the already known tory depression.
Mostuea gabonica Baillon and a new species, Since Mostuea stimulans might contain semper-
Mostuea stimulans, as source plants. According to virine and gelsemine, the occurrence of gelsemine
Walker, the natives considered the roots as a and related alkaloids in Gelsemium sempervirens
potent aphrodisiac and claimed that it had an could be of interest. Poisoning with this latter
action comparable to that of Tabernanthe iboga. plant can result in headache, dizziness, visual dis-
During nights consecrated to drumming and danc- turbances and a dry mouth, with muscular
ing, they would chew the roots and gratings to weakness and signs of a weak strychnine-like
dispel sleep, but more often the roots were con- action in severe cases (Blaw et al. 1979; Lampe and
surned, alone or mixed with iboga, because of the McCann 1985), but truely hallucinogenic reactions
sexual excitation they provoked. Exaggerated use have not been reported. There is a 19th century
of the drug could lead to cerebral troubles. source, however, which claims that Gelsemium use
According to Chevalier, the chewed or powdered may result in narcotic-like habituation (Lewin
root bark first tasted very bitter when put into the 1962).
mouth, and then induced salivation and acquired
a taste reminiscent of a fresh kola nut. It produced Voacanga bracteata (Apocynaceae)
a certain euphoria and, if the dose was a bit strong,
a sort of intoxication was experienced. According to an annotation on a herbarium
The occurrence of alkaloids in the genus of specimen, the bark of Voacanga bracteata is said to
Mostuea is well established. Bouquet and Fournet be used in Gabon to become 'high' (Bisset 1985a).
(1975) isolated 0.2% from roots of Mostuea hirsuta The stem bark of this plant contains 2.46% of alka-
and also found 0.2% in roots of Mostuea brunonis loids, such as voacamine/voacamine N-oxide
P.A.G.M. De Smet / Journal of Ethnopharmacology 50 (1996) 141-146 145

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