Practicing plant therapy with Silene undulata.
Plant medicine has fascinated me since the first time I packed a tiny piece of weed into a pipe and took a hit. How could this resinous, pungent plant instantly transform my perspective and open my mind? In my college years, along with being a daily smoker, I experimented with herbal concoctions, using Queen Anne’s Lace as a natural contraceptive (not recommended) and mushrooms to break my writer’s block (highly recommended).
Looking back now, the path to my current profession in cannabis is clear: I always wanted to be a “potion maker,” as I would tell my mom when I was five. Growing up in Northern California, the most powerful herb available was cannabis, a plant native to the Himalayas brought to the Green Triangle by forward-thinking renegades. But after a decade of exploring the endless possibilities of cannabis infusion through my chocolate making and on Bong Appétit, my curiosity about new botanical remedies has grown. What other plants are used around the world for their medicinal or psychoactive properties? This question brought me to South Africa—a bona fide cornucopia of medicinal plants, one of the most prized being Silene undulata.
Silene undulata is known by the Xhosa in South Africa as Undlela Zimhlophe, or the White Ways, for its fragrant white flowers and dream-enhancing properties. Native to the river valleys of the Eastern Cape, the plant is picked for its roots as a powerful ubulawu dream medicine traditionally used by Xhosa diviners, or amagqirha, to receive guidance from their ancestors. A perennial herb, the sticky blossoms open at dusk to be pollinated by nocturnal insects and then close during the day.
Silene undulata is also known to the growing population of self-proclaimed psychonauts who scour Erowid, the psychoactive Wikipedia, for plant knowledge. With Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind leading the charge, a renaissance of alternative medicine is growing in Western society, and among the many categories of mind-expanding plants explored online are oneirogens, Greek for “dream creators.”
The use of plant teachers to help us gain access to the hidden knowledge of our dreams has long been documented around the world. In China, Taoists use wild red asparagus root to “fly” in their sleep, while Mexico’s Calea zacatechichi is made into a tea or smoked for divination.
What is new is the importance of REM sleep or dreaming for our overall health and mental wellbeing. According to sleep and dream specialist Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., REM dream loss is a public health risk that “silently wreaks havoc with our lives, contributing to illness, depression, and an erosion of consciousness.” Are dreams a key to mental health, and are traditional plant medicines like African dream root the answer?
“Are dreams a key to mental health, and are traditional plant medicines like African dream root the answer?”
As a millennial, my search for African dream root started online. It turns out the root is relatively easy to order, even the live plant is available—if you have two years to spare for it to mature. After some research and finding only a handful of sellers on Etsy, I ordered a small bag of dried root, and a package was soon on the way from New Jersey.
This was my first misstep, says Gogo Moyo, a sangoma, or traditional healer, in Johannesburg: “The root must always be taken care of. If it’s picked from the ground, you can’t put it in a packet and then leave it on your shelf, because it’s going to rot. It’s still hot, it’s still fresh.” Fresh is the last word I would use to describe the plastic bag of bone-dry twigs sitting in my spice cabinet.
Indigenous respect for the plant goes beyond its botanical capabilities. “In essence, [this] would be the food that we give to our ancestors to awaken them, heighten them, bring them more to the surface,” Moyo tells me. “There are a few rules to handling these roots.”
According to Moyo, the technical preparations of the roots—such as how they were dried, when they were picked, and whether they were properly stored—are as important as who prepared them. One belief is that, if you’re a woman, to handle the root on your period makes it unclean, so most muti (or traditional medicine) vendors are men.
Sexual abstinence is another requirement to handle sacred plants. “Ancestors don’t like dirt. They find it very offensive. So anything that’s unclean and not pure at the moment would not speak to them.” The odds of the root I ordered from a woman on Etsy being “clean” were slim.
Before my dream journey could begin, I needed a specified dose for the root. An online case study introduced me to Jean-Francois Sobiecki, an ethnobotanist who says, “these dosage and preparation forms exist and have evolved for a good reason—either to prevent toxicity or to prevent overdosage with psychic disturbance.” Included in this case study was an account of the Xhosa people’s ceremonial use of the dream root, where, around the full moon, the diviner crushes 250 milligrams to a gram of root into powder which is then added to water, mixed until a frothy foam is created, and consumed for three days. Some tribes bathe in the dredges of the mixture, while others drink both the water and foam, and some drink just the foam.
This was the only published information I found on dosage and spiritual use of the dried roots, which set my dates for the week of the February super moon. In addition to the dose, the article included a fast from meat, alcohol, tobacco, and sex during the ceremony. With a clear plan and some guidelines on spiritual preparation, the final unknown was how to consume the root. The foam is made up of saponin, the chemical compound responsible for the dream-enhancing properties. Online videos show the use of a mason jar to agitate the root and create foam, a simple enough method. This was the technique I used during my three-day journey, though Moyo later instructed me on the traditional preparation.
In South Africa, you leave the root whole and beat it with a sacred wooden fork in a clay pot, while at the same time focusing on your intentions or questions for your ancestors. Even the way the foam is consumed has purpose: “You eat it directly with your mouth from the clay pot, because when you’re training, you don’t use any utensils,” Moyo explains. So each morning, on an empty stomach, I ground up the root in my mortar and pestle, added the powder and half a cup of water to a mason jar, shook vigorously until suds formed, quickly took off the lid, and ate the foam with a spoon. The foam’s flavor is not unlike soap, but with an astringent woody aftertaste. I repeated this until I was full. Because the foam quickly dissipates, this took about an hour, and on an empty stomach, it made me nauseous.
“Some tribes believe the root must be consumed until vomiting, others until burping. I chose the latter for my first attempt.”
Some tribes believe the root must be consumed until vomiting, others until burping. I chose the latter for my first attempt. Here, according to Moyo, I made the right choice. “The whole idea is to eat enough of it to fill your stomach, and the only way to know that you’re full is because you’ll be continuously burping.”
I then went about my day, avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and sex, though I still smoked weed for continuity. With my dream journal next to my bed and a recorder as backup, I recorded three nights of dreams. The first night brought little to the foreground, but I’d read it could take a day or two to kick in. After another morning of eating the foam, I found myself feeling a little spacey during the day. That night, my mind traveled through multiple dreams, the specifics of which had vanished by the next morning. On the final night, the night of the super moon, my dreams were vivid. When I woke, I grabbed my recorder and sleepily mumbled: “Everything is small like blueberries. I’m walking through the streets of Rome with a box of stuffed dirty teddy bears with some weed. Then I see my mom in a hair salon, getting her haircut, and she shows me two types of shoes. But it’s not my mom, it’s me.”
The dream wasn’t lucid, but my ability to recall the details was powerful. As I write this article, almost two months later, the panic of walking through the streets of Rome, lost, and then stumbling across my mother, seeing her face upon mine, is still fresh in my mind, as if a memory from my conscious life. The street I walked down was one I took often from the American Academy in Rome to Trastevere, but the buildings were achromatic as if I was walking in an image from the past. Imagine one of those black and white photos, where the rose in the foreground is bright red but everything else is muted—that was the contrast of the verdant herb to my sepia surroundings, just a single source of color, of life. I can picture even the shoes to this day: round toe, tan and brown Mary Janes identical in every way, except that where one pair was tan, the other was brown—and vice versa.
I decided to wait a few days before listening to my recording—to let it sink in and also because my anxiety lingered. In the meantime, I took the advice of Sobiecki. “People who are doing an initiation process into being a healer with the African plants should have a teacher to monitor them,” he told me. So I went to the sangoma Moyo, one of the few who have embraced modern technology for traditional healing education. When I told her about my experience taking the root, she immediately asked to hear the details of my dream.
Her interpretation felt more like a therapy session than ancestral messages, but she did enlighten me to a few moments of symbolism I hadn’t seen. For one, Moyo said the vibrant weed I was carrying in the box “could even be for all herbs.” Her advice was to expand my research of medicinal plants to where my family originates in Southern Italy. The shoes, she said, “speak of transitioning, like you’re traveling, you’re moving.” While I wouldn’t be caught dead in tan and brown Mary Janes, the idea of transition rang especially true.
When I first set out on this dream journey, I had few expectations. But what became exponentially clearer is that African dream root, much like all medicinal plants, contains more than the saponins responsible for enhancing dreams. Whether or not Silene undulata opens the gateway to ancestral knowledge depends on one’s beliefs. But as a dream enhancer, the root—even when ordered off the internet from an unknown seller a continent away from the river valleys of the Eastern Cape—had a profound effect on my recollection, though whether that was from the root or because I was focusing so single-mindedly on my dreams is hard to tell.
The next time I experiment with this root, I’ll cultivate the plant myself for a fresher specimen, or better yet, I’ll travel to South Africa and fully immerse myself in the ritual of divination. Until then, thokoza gogo.