There has been increased interest abroad in South African psychoactive plants.
This is mostly owing to more research having been done in the last 15 years on Southern Africa psychoactive plant species and their role in healing (Sobiecki, 2012).
One species that has gained considerable attention has been the Dream Root or Silene Undulata (previously capensis). The root of this plant has been used traditionally by the Xhosa people in 3 day healer initiation ceremonies where it is copiously consumed along with much song and dance to stimulate or open dreaming of one’s ancestors. Many western psychonauts report on its oneirogenic (dream inducing) properties. This has given rise to online shops selling Silene undulata across the world.
However another plant called Synaptolepis kirkii, is mistakenly often called dream root and is confused with the dream root (Silene). They are both ancestral white medicines but they have different dosages and affects.
The chalky white rhizome of Synaptolepis is also used an Ubulawu: Ubulawu being a term used to describe an African traditional medicine preparation form of using the roots of various subtle acting psychoactive plant species (a number of ubulawu species exist all with different natures) steeped in 5-10 litres of water, the dilution of which is vomited with to cleanse the chest (of kapha-mucus) so as to open the mind and dreams. You can see my paper on ubulawu on http://www.khanyisagarden.co.za/papers/
Both Silene undulata and Synaptolepis are used by the indigenous people of South Africa as Ubulawu preparations for opening connection to ones ancestors and oneself. The relative intake of Synaptolepsis in Ubulawu is little; 1 tablespoon of the powder is traditionally mixed with around 7-10 litres of water and most of this is vomited out. Yet western psychonauts are ingesting the powder straight. It is difficult to say if any negative side effects results from this dosage and ingestion method. Some psychonauts report persistent opened ability to have certain types of dreams long after the initial experience (years even) so this may allude in shamanic understanding to opening a relationship to the spirit of the plant itself that may not close which may not be desired by some, and the cultural understanding of which needs investigation.
This is something that requires more research that I am currently engaging. Therefore, it is best advised to take Ubualwu species in the traditional means and one plant at a time.
It is concerning that many people are taking these African plant teacher medicines without knowing anything about the spirit of these plants. In South America there is much more information about the initiation plants; what they are about and their purpose-in South Africa we don’t have this cultural information documented-which needs urgent cultural-anthropological study.
This lack of cultural knowledge may be harmful for those who are not super respectful of the spirit of the plants-and may be seen as inviting oneself to a guest’s house without even knowing the guest! I had such an experience, where using a powerful species I was hit with a knobkerrie by the plant spirit-or at least had that vision. It didn’t feel right taking this plant-that is certain.
Thus, the subtle details of Ubulawu are lacking and without which users can cause harm to themselves. Ubulawu is certainly not a flippant curious exploration of self but more a powerful tool to purposefully access yourself through the plants to grow and transform yourself. For this we must become aware of the cultural meanings of each plant, the spirit of the plants and what their nature/specialities are in terms of healing. For this there needs experienced teachers to advise on, and is one of my passions and purposes in my workshops, hence this article. While communing with the plant itself is important to learn, its true too that traditional healers and communities know these plants intimately and their spirits for centuries and can help guide us on their use.
Other concerns worth mentioning are; the selling of wrongly identified plant species and haphazard mixing of different species. I happened on a friend’s sample of Dream Root bought from a supplier that clearly had more than one species in the bag and that didn’t look like the said plant. This is concerning as people are not perhaps fully realizing that Ubulawu are teacher plants and that different species should NOT BE haphazardly mixed together and sold as one species. Through personal experience I once bought an array of white Ubulawu species from a muti market visit, and just used them without a real intention of initiation or healing. I soon suffered what can be described as an acute psycho-spiritual disturbance where I felt my mind had gone “upside down” that needed a neo shaman friend to help re-align. This showed me one should not just throw together teacher plants and expect good results – careful meditation with the plants and guidance, if possible from an experienced teacher or literature source is advisable. The careful use of various species to get the right result has been documented elsewhere in the literature (Sobiecki, 2012).
Thus, together, care is needed to familiarize with the correct species identification: e.g., Silene undulata being Dream Root and Synaptolepis kirrkii referring to something else (“Dream Rhizome” it can be called), and that people should not use Ubualwu especially mixed together without the guidance of a trained and experienced traditional healer who is familiar with their use.
Certainly people interested in selling ubulawu online should invest in doing this research to build and share the cultural understandings of African psychoactive plant teacher medicines. The traditional healer knowledge holders should be informed of the intention of the research and even become involved with the said businesses to show social responsibility.
I run regular workshops on medicinal plants including ubulawu and fieldtrips (one is planned for October/Nov 2018) where I will be covering these topics and making new connections to other knowledge: Fb event here: https://web.facebook.com/events/972548416202519/
or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sobiecki, J.F. 2012. Psychoactive ubulawu spiritual medicines and healing dynamics in the initiation process of Southern Bantu diviners. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. 44 (3): 216-223.
Jean-Francois Sobiecki BSc. Hons Ethnobotany, (UJ) is a qualified ethnobotanist, nutritionist researching and teaching on the use of psychoactive plant medicines for healing in Johannesburg, South Africa.