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A brief introduction to the
Cultivation of Catha edulis (Qat / Khat)
by h20
Nov 2002
Catha edulis propagates in two ways:
  • by suckers or saplings that sprout from the main root of shrubs and trees,
  • from winged seeds (produced by shrubs and trees) that are circulated by the wind into protected and eroded ravines, where they eventually sprout and grow.

    I say shrubs and trees because even the bushes that develop from saplings have all the characteristics of the mother tree -- we have found saplings growing on hillside slopes that are all connected to the main root of the mother tree high up on the slopes. Bushes developed from saplings will seed, just like the mother tree, even before they grow into fully developed trees. Unlike north Yemen, where Catha seeds are infertile, the seeds of Eastern Cape, South Africa shrubs and trees are extremely fertile and develop readily in seed trays or boxes. In fact, they grow much faster than transplanted saplings. Transplanted saplings do very well, in that they readily develop shoots, which sprout from the base and quickly develop into bushes, especially after good and regular watering.

    Catha edulis tends to grow in relatively rocky soil, where the drainage is good, and it tends to prefer basalt or dolerite formations rather than sandstone, although I know of one cultivator who has produced good results in sandstone soil. In the wild, Catha never grows on sandstone. Basalt or dolerite is lava extruded from below the earth's crust and it contains a rich assortment of minerals favourable to qat growth. Water erodes the mineral deposits in basalt or dolerite and forms cavities in which subterranean water collects, dissolving the rich minerals on which qat roots thrive. Qat roots penetrate rock to a considerable depth of several metres below the earth's surface, and they are equipped with suckers which slowly erode and penetrate hard rocky surfaces. In the wild, I have come across copses of trees growing on a sheer basalt surface without any deposit of soil. The point is that qat likes water and in order to avoid mould diseases and slow rot, soil with good drainage is absolutely essential for successful cultivation.

    A mixture of cow dung, compost and wood ash is an essential additive for trees in the off-season (winter months) when they are not producing fresh material. It is necessary to add slow-release nitrogen fertilizer every six weeks during the in-season (a good cupful applied around the drip base area of each tree or bush) which, followed by good rainfall or watering, brings the shrubs and trees into beautiful flowerful, high alkaloid production.

    Regular pruning is essential from the start to bring Catha into proper alkaloid production. For the first few (2-3) years at least, plants will not be producing high grade alkaloid content. Some of the unpleasant effects of qat -- ocular, gastric and mental -- can be related to the immaturity of bushes or trees. Alkaloid production depends on the proper development of the roots, which supply precursors for alkaloid production at the characteristically red coloured nodes anterior to the fresh leaves on the stems of trees and bushes.

    My advice to cultivators is to regularly pick off the fresh material from bushes and trees for the first 2-3 years and not to chew it. As soon as the bushes and trees start to produce red-barked shoots in the 3rd to 4th year, you know you have hit pay dirt. These shoots can be anywhere up to a metre or more in length. The red bark is packed with stimulant compared to the leaves and can also be chewed. For a user already initiated into the joys of qat (remember there is a long latency period before any effects are experienced by the chewer), chewing one or two shoots has an almost immediate and recognisable effect. Though BEWARE, chewing too many shoots at one sitting will destroy peaceful sleep for the next 3-5 days or more depending on the amount chewed. Moderation is the key to most problems associated with substance abuse.

    The active ingredients of qat -- within in a rich mix of minerals, riboflavin and ascorbic acid -- are slowly absorbed into the body and stored rather than eliminated. So occasional and moderate use of qat raises body metabolism, which can be extremely invigorating in hot climates. Over-use or abuse merely adds to the body's store rather than increasing the duration and strength of the effect. Too regular use merely blunts qat's extraordinary euphoric ecstasy, as if the body of the user has become inured to the effect. As with many plant substances (including Cannabis and God knows what else), some abstinence is necessary in order to reduce tolerance and continue to enjoy all the exhilarating effects.

    People are usually amazed to discover just how deep qat roots penetrate under the surface. Out in the bush, where the earth has washed away in rain storms, I have traced rather thick roots (up to 10-15cm in diameter) from relatively small bushes for more than 500 metres before giving it up owing to the summer heat. So my advice would be to use very deep pots; or to transplant cuttings into progressively deeper pots -- the deeper the better.

    If one has access to dolerite or basalt, it may be a good idea to mix up chunks of it with the earth in the pots and to ensure that the pots are well drained (by making holes at the bottom and covering the inside with a layer of small stones to allow the water out). The latter is absolutely essential - qat trees are subject to mould and rot in damp, humid climates.

    My Kenyan cuttings come from a herbarium tree, growing at sea level in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, that is now virtually dead owing to damp rot. I obtained the cuttings, which were also nigh dead, from a university botanical researcher. There were twelve altogether and only eight survived and eventually grew. (The Kenyan cultivars are more potent per bush than the local wild variety in Eastern Cape, South Africa, because they have large oval rather than thin elongated leaves.)

    Catha enjoys cold, high altitudes but doesn't thrive in frosty conditions. To avoid winter frost bite of my garden specimens (we get big frosts near the end of winter) I planted my cuttings under the fringe of some high trees, which protects them. Being in pots will make them more susceptible to cold than established plants in the ground.

    I would fertilize potted shrubs in the same way as directed for garden specimens. During the flowering season, the addition of slow release nitrogen is essential. Agricultural lime, too, is an important additive for acidic soils.

    Harvested fresh leaves (a good quantity) can just be popped whole into a two litre bottle of good, cheap red wine (after, of course, decanting some of the wine) and left to steep for 6-8 weeks and then strained out of the liquid and discarded. The more potent the concentration in the wine, the better. (One can test it by bio-assay as one goes along.) Then, put a good tot or two of the strained red wine into a tall glass, add ice, lemon and soda for a refreshing, mildly stimulating summer drink that will certainly get your friends talking.

    Cultivators can submit any queries or problems connected with cultivation and use of Catha edulis to the following email address: trackactor@hotmail.com. Please be patient, all questions will be answered.