Students of Ethnobotany: Iboga

This psychotropic edition of Students of Ethnobotany is brought to you by Kate Dumbrell.


Tabaranthe iboga

Ever wondered how to sort out personal issues through psychoanalysis, without seeing a psychologist?

One option might be to chew on some iboga root bark. The psychedelic properties of Tabaranthe iboga, from the family Apocynacae, have long been recognized in Central Africa, it’s place of origin. Iboga is a pretty nifty little shrub, as it’s roots contain many alkaloids, most importantly ibogaine which is responsible for the ‘magical journey’ users report.

Iboga is the sacred essence of the Bwiti tribe religion, practiced in Gabon, Cameroon, and the Congo. People there worship the iboga tree as the source of spiritual knowledge. They believe that by ingesting iboga root, they can free their soul to a higher place, to speak with the spirits of plants and animals. Most members of Bwiti tribes eat iboga at least once in their lives, usually in massive amounts for initiation ceremonies, such as when a boy makes the transition into man-hood. The Bwiti father oversees this whole event, which can last about 20 hours. During the iboga “trip”, tribe members pound on drums around a fire while people experience complex visions, and often auditory and tactile hallucinations. Practitioners report an introspective mindset, in which the person often relives past experiences (self-psychoanalysis for the win!), and sees their true self in all their flaws. All of this is complimented with a lovely side of violent nausea and vomiting. When coming down from the experience, people are usually unable to sleep for one or two nights –possibly the result of the effect the psychedelic alkaloids have on their neurotransmitters (specifically serotonin and dopamine). Bwiti tribesmen may also eat iboga root bark in much smaller doses when they go on hunting trips, to stay awake and alert for many days.

By now you may think that iboga is a crazy rare plant used only in remote parts of Africa, never coming into contact with the Western world.  False. Due to the raw, emotional, introverted and reflective mindset iboga triggers, the plant can have therapeutic uses. Patients may be rudely awakened to the detrimental effects their problems (such as opiate addiction) can have on themselves and others. While researching the iboga root, I came across many articles in the medical literature and elsewhere, documenting the power the root is believed to have in these situations (although no clinical studies have been done yet). At a neurochemical level, ibogaine may work on addictions by attaching to the same receptors that addictive compounds, such as opiates, attach to, thereby resetting the brain’s connection patterns and preventing feedback loops that encourage dependency. The use of iboga as a tool for treating addictions is successful enough to warrant further

research. It may be able to reduce or even eliminate physical dependency in a matter of days, and perhaps even treat some of the psychological underpinnings that lead to drug use. But this therapeutic application faces several problems. For example, treatment clinics are illegal in the US, and the use of iboga is restricted or illegal in many other countries. There are also cultural laws in Gabon, making export illegal. How does Canada weigh in? One free treatment clinic, called the “Iboga Therapy House”, opened in Vancouver in 2002.  The centre offers individuals their own room, access to many amenities, and full meals during the weeklong detoxification process. Despite its successes in treating patients therapeutically with iboga, the clinic recently closed due to financial instability.


Iboga bark

In sum, iboga rootbark use is not for the faint of heart; it may reveal you for who you really are, which can be scary. It has been used therapeutically to treat addiction problems, but still faces many economical, societal and legal issues. Until further research is done and concludes that iboga root is safe and beneficial in some situations (such as addiction treatment), it will remain mainly a spiritual plant, sacred to the Bwiti religion in Central Africa.


4 thoughts on “Students of Ethnobotany: Iboga

  1. Pingback: Students of Ethnobotany: Iboga | Africa and Beyond |

  2. Fantastic website, and great post… the internet needs more weblogs like this one…

    You may be interested in these additional photos of Iboga. I have spent quite a bit of time in Gabon and have thus had a number of photographic encounters with the plant:

    General info:
    Flowers, leaf and young fruit:
    Different varieties / fruit shapes:

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