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Catha Edulis: Sacred Plant of the Ancient Egyptians

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Useful overview by Klaus Trenary


Family: Celastraceae (burning bush)

Common names: Abyssinian tea, African salad, African tea, Arabian tea, Bushman's tea, cat, catha, chafta, chat, ciat, crafta, djimma, four of paradise, ikwa, ischott, iubulu, kaad, kafta, kat, khat, la salade, liss, liruti, mairongi, mandoma, maonj, marongi, mbugula mabwe, mdimamadzi, meongi, mfeike, mhulu, mira, miraa, mirungi, miungi, mlonge, m'mke, msabukinga, masbukinja, msuruti, msuvuti, msekera, muholo, muhulu, muirungi, mulungi, muraa, musitate, mutsawari, mutsawhari, mutsawhri, mwandama, mzengo, nangungwe, ol meraa, ol nerra, qat, quat, salahin, seri, Somali tea, tohai, tohat, tsad, tschad, tschat, tshut, tumayot, waifo, warfi, warfo.

Other scientific names: Catha forskalii, Catha glauca, Celestrus edulis, Methyscophyllum glaucum.

Related species: Catha spinosa

Botanical description: The Khat tree was named and described to occidental science in 1775, thanks to the work of a Finnish, Botanist-explorer, Pehr Forskal.

Catha edulis is a large, thornless, flowering evergreen shrub, having articulate branches. The plants can grow from 2 to 5 meters tall, and are indigenous to arid regions. They usually have a rather scrawny appearance due to being somewhat sparsely leaved.

Young leaves are elliptical, and are a beautiful reddish-brown with a deep gloss and rich, red veins. The leaves will acquire a yellowish tinge and become more leathery as they age. The actively growing plant does emit a strong but not unpleasant odor.

The young buds and leaves are the only part of the plant normally utilized, usually taken from the growing shoots. The older leaves towards the bottom and center of the plant may also used, but they are considered inferior and not as potent.

The leaves are not picked for the first time until the dry season when the plant is four years old. The first harvest is considered inferior to later ones. Leaves gathered from plants over six years of age are most prized, possibly due to an accumulation of alkaloids. For some reason, the foliage of cultivated plants is preferred over that of wild gathered.

Native to: Eastern Africa to Southern Arabia. Originated in Ethiopia, but widely cultivated in modern times. Now common in Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Arabia, Congo, Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa.

Cultivation parameters: In their native habitats, Catha trees are often grown between rows of coffee trees. The plants are usually started from cuttings, which root easily. Temperature range 40-95 degrees F. Plants are semi-hardy perennials but avoid sub-zero exposure. Like partial sun when young, put in full sun when established. Keep plants on the dry side and use well drained soil, not forgetting to allow for good air circulation. This species is slow growing, especially when immature.

Active constituents: Cathinone (S-alpha-aminopropiophenone), Cathine (d-noriso-ephedrine), Cahine, norephedrine

Effects of ingestion: Excitation and increased motor activity. Being wakeful, talkative, energized and cheerful are some of the feelings that users describe. A sense of exaltation, of being outside the sphere of space and time. Approximately 30 % of the people who use Khat experience sleepiness as opposed to excitation. Larger doses can lead to boisterousness and aggressiveness.

Initial effects of ingestion can be a little disconcerting, including dizziness, increased heart rate and possibly mild stomach pain. The less pleasant feeling soon subside, and gently merge into a sense of bliss and euphoria, boundless energy and clarity of mind.

Methods of ingestion: Chewing and holding in the mouth. Prepared as a tea, an infusion of water or milk is made, and then sweetened with honey.

Traditional uses: The ancient Egyptians considered Catha edulis to be a most sacred plant, a "divine food" like royal jelly to bees, capable of releasing humanities nascent divinity. The Egyptians did not ingest Khat merely to "get high", they used it to " trigger and impel the metamorphic process leading to a theurgic transmutation of human nature into apotheosis". Allowing the lowly mortal being to be "vergottet", or made God-like.

This plant was so important to the ancients that is was called "the plant" or "the shrub", although its specific name is lost to time.

Today Khat is taken in a social context to promote communication and induce excitement, similar to how westerners would use coffee. It was also used to banish sleep and to allay feelings of hunger and fatigue.

Khat is readily available in area markets and is classified by grade, with "Kaad methani" from the Sabir mountains being considered the very best. Next came "Kaad moberah", of average quality, and lastly the inferior grade of "Kaad beladi", gathered from the wild.

The native users of Khat, usually male, will spend a large percentage of their income to procure this stimulant on a daily basis

To help preserve freshness, Khat was traditionally kept wrapped in banana leaves and made into small bunches.

Khat tea was always given any friend or distinguished visitor that might pay a visit, and it was also traditional to send some Khat home with them.

To this very day, Arabs of Yemen will sit around the fire all night long, chewing Khat, laughing and talking.

A restorative tea made from the flowers ( called flowers of paradise in Yemen ) of the plant is still consumed in Arabia.

The medicinal uses of Khat were first described in the thirteenth century by the Islamic physician, Naguib ed-Din. He used it to treat depression. In more modern times, the Baroness Tania von Blixen used the leaves to gain insight and creativity.

Health hazards: Khat is mildly habit forming.

Regular use of Khat has been known to cause severe constipation.

Chronic users are often in a constant state of alert euphoria, but may occasionally become agitated and aggressive.

There have been unsubstantiated reports of high use of Khat causing cancer. The high percentages of tannins present in the leaves may contribute to the risk of cancers of the mouth and digestive tract if used regularly.

In rare cases ingesting Khat can cause depression or lassitude and deep sleep.

Excessive use of Khat over long periods of time has been known to lead to a decreased sex drive in males.

Legal status: In 1988 the D.E.A. included Cathine as a schedule IV substance. This was due to the compounds amphetamine like stimulating effect on the central nervous system. Because of the fact that Cathine is a chemical constituent of Khat, it was determined that the entire plant would be subject to schedule IV controls. That policy was found to be consistent with the controls put on other plants containing psychoactive substances. (Federal Register, Vol. 53, May 17, 1988, pp 17459)

Cathinone, which is present only in fresh leaves less than 48 hours old, has been recently classified as a schedule I narcotic.

References:

Geisshusler & Brenneisen, Journal Ethnopharm.. 1987, 19: 269-277

Lewin, L., 1931, "Phantastica, Narcotic & Stimulating Drugs." Routledge and Kegan Paul, London

Galkin, V.A., and Mironychev, A.V., 1964, Federation Proc., 23: suppl., T741

Von Bibra, Baron Ernst, 1995, "Plant Intoxicants." Healing arts press, Rochester, Vermont. ISBN 0-89281-498-5

Muses, Charles, "The Sacred plant of ancient Egypt"

This document © 1997 Klaus Trenary. Version 1.7 (01-01-97)

Created 9/13/2000 0:17:49
Modified 9/13/2000 0:17:49
Leda version 1.4.3