Mitragyna Speciosa, or Kratom, What Kind of Plant Is It Exactly?
Mitragyna speciosa, or Kratom as it’s commonly known, is a tropical evergreen tree indigenous to Thailand and its surrounding countries in Southeast Asia as well as New Guinea. The plant has been used for millennia in traditional medicine and in social and religious contexts.
Kratom belongs to the Rubiaceae family, which includes coffee and gardenia plants. The trees can sometimes reach 80 to 100 feet in height, but most stand somewhere between 13 and 52 feet. Kratom trees require very rich, fertile soil, and they are extremely sensitive to drought and frost.
What’s In a Name?
This plant has long gone by several names in Southeast Asia: kratom, ketum or biak-biak (Malaysia), krathom (Thailand) or thom (Southern Thailand).
It’s been suggested that the genus name Mitragyna was given by Dutch botanist Pieter Willem Korthals due to the leaves’ resemblance to a bishop’s hat, called a miter. However, some believe the term may refer to the ancient Mithraic cults who were always reaching for spiritual transcendence.
This is the tomato/ tomahto debate. Kratom can be pronounced with a short “a” sound (apple) or a long “a” sound (able), depending on your preference.
Traditional Uses for Mitragyna Speciosa in Ethnobotany
Kratom has been used for various purposes in Southeast Asia for centuries, including as a household remedy for various ailments, as a recreational drink (primarily among men), and in some Thai villages, it was used as part of religious ceremonies.
Farmers, fishermen and other manual laborers in Southeast Asia would also chew the fresh or dried leaves to combat fatigue and improve work productivity. The leaves could also be smoked or brewed or steeped into tea.
In traditional use, rural populations would ingest kratom leaves to treat common medical problems, such as diarrhea, fever, cough, anxiety and pain and even used it as a wound poultice. It is still popular in Asian village communities during social gatherings.
Unlike drug or alcohol users in these villages, kratom users, particularly males, haven’t faced any stigma. This is because kratom is widely accepted in these areas as an aid for hard work to support one’s family.
In fact, village kratom users are typically seen as hard-working individuals, while those who consume alcohol, cannabis or tobacco have experienced a certain level of stigma.
When Did Kratom First Appear in Scientific Literature?
In 1921, Ellen Field, a medicinal chemist at the University of Edinburgh, was the first to isolate mitragynine from kratom leaves. In 1964, its structure was first characterized by X-ray crystallography by a research group led by G.A. Jeffrey at the University of Pittsburgh.
Kratom use in the United States was also mentioned in the 1999/2000 issue of the underground publication Entheogen Review, a self-described “Journal of Unauthorized Research on Visionary Plants and Drugs.”
The Active Components and Chemistry of Kratom
Kratom contains at least 37 different alkaloids, a class of naturally-occurring compounds that contain primarily nitrogen atoms.
However, the two main psychoactive components in kratom that are responsible for its effects are called mitragynine and 7-hydroxymitragynine (7-OHMG). Both of these active components are found only in Mitragyna speciosa, but other analogues have been identified, including speciogynine, mitraphylline, paynantheine, and speciociliatine.
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