Tracing the Roots of Kratom

We’re all familiar with kratom nowadays. Whether you consume it at home or at a kava bar, you’re probably familiar with its powder or tea form. 

But what’s the history behind it? How was it traditionally used?

What is kratom?

Kratom, Mitragyna speciosa, is a 13–52-foot tall tropical tree with large glossy leaves, belonging to the Rubiaceae family (which includes coffee and gardenia plants). Kratom trees require very rich, fertile soil and are extremely sensitive to drought and frost.

Kratom trees grow naturally throughout the jungles of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Papua New Guinea but are also planted by kratom farmers for cultivation on private land. 

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.

Traditional use

The earliest known reports of kratom consumption date back to Malaysia is 1836. But the plant has been used for millennia in traditional medicine and in social and religious contexts.

Traditionally, kratom has been used for a variety of purposes in Southeast Asia, including as a recreational drink (primarily among men), a remedy for various ailments, and in some Thai villages, it was used in religious ceremonies.

Rural populations would consume kratom leaves to address common medical problems, such as cough, diarrhea, fever, anxiety and pain. Kratom was even used as a wound poultice. 

Fishermen, farmers, and other manual laborers in Southeast Asia would chew the fresh or dried leaves to combat fatigue and increase work productivity. The leaves could also be smoked or brewed or steeped into tea.

Kratom is still popular in Asian village communities during social gatherings.

Unlike drug or alcohol users in these villages, kratom users, particularly men, haven’t had to face 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, kratom consumers in these villages are typically seen as hard-working people, while those who consume alcohol, cannabis or tobacco have experienced a certain level of stigma.

Kratom Cultivation

Whether you choose red, white, or green kratom powder, the “color” depends on the farmers’ cultivating and processing methods — not the type of tree. In fact, there’s only one kratom tree species: Mitragyna speciosa. The various vein colors come from the growing process — including how much sunlight is available and how mature the leaves are at harvest as well as the drying process. 

Though the kratom tree stays leafy all year, once the individual leaves reach a certain level of maturity, they either drop to the ground or are picked off by the farmer. As the leaves mature, different levels of alkaloids build up. The leaves cycle through the various vein colors — from red to green to yellow to brown.

Harvesting kratom is therefore a time-sensitive practice, as it directly affects the concentration of the plant’s alkaloids (the botanical compounds responsible for the plant’s effects). Genetics may also play a role in alkaloid content.

These time-dependent farming practices allow kratom farmers to produce several different veins at the same time, even though all of the trees are essentially the same species.

Kratom’s first appearance in scientific literature

In 1921, a medicinal chemist at the University of Edinburgh named Ellen Field, was the first to isolate mitragynine from kratom leaves. In 1964, its structure was first defined by X-ray crystallography by a research group led by G.A. Jeffrey at the University of Pittsburgh.

Kratom use in the U.S. 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.”

Kratom chemistry/ active components

Kratom has a minimum of 37 different alkaloids, a class of naturally-occurring compounds that contain primarily nitrogen atoms. The two primary psychoactive components in kratom 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.

Different veins for different folks

The vein color is an indicator of the overall effects of the kratom tea, but even two batches of the same vein can vary in shade. This is because kratom is organically processed and never artificially colored.

  • Red vein kratom, a darker reddish-brown color, is made from the most mature leaves and is typically linked to more relaxing effects. 
  • Green vein kratom, which is more of a vibrant green color, is derived from middle-aged leaves and is associated with a more balanced, euphoric effect. 
  • White vein kratom, often relatively pale or yellowish in color, is derived from young leaves and gives more stimulating and energizing effects. 

Once the leaves have been picked and gathered, they are rinsed with water to remove dirt and other contaminants. Then the leaves are dried, or cured, on large racks which can further change the alkaloid content, depending on the amount of time they spend in the sun. Finally, the leaves are ground up with industrial grinders, resulting in fine powder ready to be sold to buyers.

Kratom Strains

Within each kratom vein, or color, there are several different strains available which refer to the plant’s origin. Each strain has its own distinct characteristics, but these can vary slightly due to the harvesting and growing processes. 

For instance, Bali is known for its pain-relieving and anxiety-reducing qualities. Thai leans more toward a stimulating effect. Bali is said to offer a subtle energy boost while offering the pain relief expected of a red. 

Maeng Da (a term that refers to high quality) is said to be one of the most potent strains and has both energizing and stimulating traits as well as pain-relieving effects. In Thai, ‘Maeng Da’ literally translates to “pimp grade,” suggesting high quality and alkaloid content. 

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