Although the Western World was not introduced to kratom until the early-to-mid 1800s, the history of kratom dates back centuries. Native to warm and humid regions of Southeast Asia, it has been cultivated and used by the peoples thereof for generations, due to the soothing, invigorating, and beneficial properties of its lush green leaves.
This is a brief kratom history: what it is, where it came from, why so many are once again rediscovering this exciting ethnobotanical.
WHAT IS KRATOM?
Kratom’s history starts with, of course, the kratom plant. Also known as Mitragyna speciosa, it is a tropical, evergreen, leafy tree that grew abundantly in places like Thailand, Indonesia, and Myanmar even before humans came along. Interestingly, kratom comes from the same family as the coffee tree (Rubicaea), and they both contain alkaloids in abundance.
Alkaloids are the naturally occurring organic compounds that have a physiological effect on humans. Both of the plants above produce many different alkaloids, most notably caffeine in coffee and mitragynine in kratom.
Beyond that the two share few similarities. They grow in vastly different regions, look nothing alike, and instead of the coffee bean, it is the kratom leaf which is used.
Kratom historically has been divided into three primary categories: red vein, green vein, and white vein. Contrary to popular belief, this distinction is not due to different colored leaves. Rather the color changes with the age of the kratom plant and its leaves. Youthful leaves begin with white veins, and mature over time through green veins and finally into red veins.
This aging process affects the concentration of certain alkaloids within the veins. Different types of alkaloids build and diminish over time, and these levels are a major factor in regards to the unique properties and effects each vein color offers.
WHAT WAS KRATOM TRADITIONALLY USED FOR?
It is unclear exactly when kratom’s history and human history intersected. But many centuries ago, someone must have chewed on a leaf. Was it intentional experimentation by early, brave scientists in their careful search for new sources of sustenance? Or was it one lone leaf-loving weirdo who had already eaten dozens of other leaves that day? It’s impossible to know for certain (but fun to think about).
One way or another, the history of kratom begins with its widespread use throughout the cultures of Southeast Asia. Its availability and versatility made it very popular as an herbal panacea. Depending on the purpose or situation, the leaf was ground into powder or chewed whole, brewed into teas, smoked in pipes, and mixed into foods.
Kratom’s history of usage is diverse. Farmers and manual laborers in particular used kratom to combat fatigue and increase productivity. Others used it to decrease pain and reduce inflammation. It was thought to treat coughs and diarrhea. It was added to salves for wounds and concoctions for ailments of all kinds.
In places like Maya and Thailand, it was used as a substitute for opium. Like kratom, opium produces alkaloids of its own (i.e. morphine, codeine, etc.), albeit a very different, far more addictive blend. Kratom helped many alleviate the severity of withdrawal symptoms that come from chronic opiate use.
And just about every culture in the history of kratom used it recreationally, to lift the mood, to brighten the spirits, to relieve social anxiety, to welcome guests, and to relax at the end of the day.
WHEN WAS KRATOM DISCOVERED BY THE WEST?
According to kratom history as written by the western world, it wasn’t until the 1830s that kratom was first “discovered” and documented by a Dutch botanist, Pieter Willem Korthals. The Dutch East India Service was on the prowl around the world for any and every new spice, herb, plant, and scent they could get their hands on.
Korthals, proud of this “discovery” of a plant known to Southeast Asia for centuries, gave it its new scientific name. It was changed immediately thereafter. A few times, actually. George Darby Haviland, a British surgeon, gave it the name in 1859 that we still know it as today: Mitragyna speciosa. “Mitra” comes from either part of a bishop’s hat (“mitre”) or the plant’s association with Mithraic cults.
And then, well, everybody forgot about it for about 100 years. Kratom’s history was put on pause.
Remember how opiate users were fighting their dependence with kratom? Unfortunately that was bad for business in Thailand. Opium taxation wasn’t as lucrative with an alternative. So the Kratom Act of 1943 banned the cultivation, export, and use of the plant. Malaysia followed suit in 1952.
Indonesia, on the other hand, didn’t have the same cultural hang-ups from kratom’s history of usage. They decided to capitalize on the kratom market, positioning themselves as the primary planters, harvesters, and exporters of kratom. At the time, this didn’t mean much. Now, however, Indonesia supplies 95% of the world’s supply of kratom, which earns the country upwards of $130 million per year.
Maybe that’s why, in an incredible chapter of the history of kratom, Thailand legalized medicinal Kratom in 2018. Who’s to say.
Beyond that, kratom remained in obscurity until the last few decades. It has received lots of attention in the 2000s, both good and bad.
IS KRATOM LEGAL?
The short answer is, it depends where you are. Kratom’s history in recent years is full of sweeping bans in Europe, restrictions in a handful of states in the US, and Indonesia itself is threatening to ban kratom exports altogether. Make sure you do your research about the laws and restrictions of your particular area. However fascinating flora and fauna may be, it’s not worth legal trouble.
The biggest issue, throughout all of the history of kratom, is a general lack of scientific research about the plant. Naturally this means the FDA, the DEA, the US, and the EU are all starting to make a fuss about another plant. Even though they didn’t even realize it existed until 20 years ago.
The best thing to do is stay informed. You can do that right here, on our new blog, for all the latest and greatest information about kratom, kratom history, and other exciting ethnobotanicals.