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Vol. LIX, No. 8
April 20, 2007

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What Was IT?

The mystery flower in the Division of Environmental Protection's 2007 Earth Day Contest photo was Sceletium tortuosum, a succulent plant belonging to the ice plant family or Aizoaceae (Mesembryanthemaceae) that is endemic to the Great Karoo region of South Africa. Sceletium comes from the Latin sceletus, referring to the prominent leaf veins that persist as the skeleton-like structure of the dry leaves. Sceletium is known by several common names including kanna, kougoed and canna.

For thousands of years, IT has been used by the Khoisan people as a sedative, mood enhancer, analgesic for toothache and stomach pains and for other medicinal purposes. They developed crushing and fermenting processes to increase the stability, palatability and pharmacological activity of preparations made from the plant. The fermented, dried preparation was most commonly used in the form of a plug that was chewed or used to make infusions or decoctions. Later, the Hottentot settlers learned of these products and valued them so highly that they were used as a currency for barter.

The plant contains several active alkaloids including mesembrine that are responsible for its medicinal properties.

Most Sceletium is obtained from wild populations that are becoming increasingly scarce, probably as a result of overcollecting. More sustainable methods of cultivation are needed to protect the plant. Methods have also been developed to synthesize mesembrine by artificial methods.

The grand prize winners are Rajaram Shantadurga and Keith Ball. Runner-up winners are: Maria Aronova, Tom Mercer, Teresa Church, Danielle Needle, Robert Fariss, Antonia Thomas, Martin Hohmann-Marriott and Jeff Forbes. Winners will receive their prizes at 1 p.m. Apr. 26 during Earth Day ceremonies. NIH Record Icon

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