Erythroxylum coca

Herbs gallery - Coca

Common names

  • Coca
  • Coca Shrub

The famous coca plant is a shrub like tree that can grow to about six feet in length in cultivated varieties, with wild trees growing to eighteen feet tall. The coca possesses characteristic reddish brown bark coloration. The leaves of the coca are brownish green in color, they tend to be stiff and taste bitter. Each leaf is marked by the presence of two faint lines running parallel to the midrib of the lamina. Coca bears clusters of small flowers that are greenish white in color. Coca fruits are red colored berries and are produced after the floral bloom.

The native Incas in Peru regarded the coca plant as a divine gift from the gods and made traditional use of the narcotic leaves long before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores in the South American continent. The coca was for the exclusive use of the priests and royal families, Inca society also permitted the chewing of the narcotic coca leaves by the wealthy and talented people in Inca society. In general, only people with some rank and privilege in Incan society could use the coca.

This rule may not have been strictly enforced and exceptions to the rule existed. The Incan commoners who would have carried the bales of sacred coca leaves across the Andean mountains all the way to Peru from what is present day Bolivia, were in all likelihood permitted to chew the leaves as they traveled along the rugged slopes. Chewing coca leaves would have eased the hardships of the journey for the laborer to a great extent. The Incan traveler would have hardly felt the sharp chills and blustery winds of the mountains on a coca high, and could probably travel for days on end with little food or water with his load. Generally speaking, it is hard to imagine how chewing of the leaves could be banned in rural areas away from the direct control of the royalty and priesthood and it is more than likely that rural Incans living in the steep valleys along the eastern face of the Andean ranges, where the coca shrubs primarily grew would have chewed the leaves regularly as their descendants do to this day and age. The coca leaves were and are still used to silence hunger pangs and to numb the body to sensations of physical fatigue and pain - symptoms which are constant facts of life in the poor and harsh Andean region.

The strict social and class restrictions on the consumption of coca leaves in Incan society had been relaxed by the time of the arrival of the Spaniard Pizarro - who would eventually conquer the Incas with two hundred men. Coca leaves were an item of barter in the Incan market place and almost everyone chewed them on a daily basis. The use of coca leaves as a mild narcotic in Incan society was increased during the Spanish colonization. Once the Spanish disposed the rule of the Incan nobility, they employed the natives as labor in their mines and to till the fields in their newly conquered colony. The Spanish found the coca leaves could be a good opiate for the forced laborers and they continued the practice of importing the leaves from across the mountains. The Spanish saw that it was easier to keep slave laborers on limited food and water happy if they were also given some of the narcotic leaves - in this way, the Spaniards could spend a minimum amount on food for their slaves. Thus, the coca leaves became once more a historical instrument to enslave the common people. The once sacred medication of the wealthy and powerful Incan became a trap for the poor - for the second time in the hands of the hated and feared Spanish conquistadors.

Europeans were introduced to the coca plant when the early Spanish colonist brought some plants and news of the magical and narcotic effects of the coca back to Spain with them. The coca plant remained neglected for more than three centuries as Europeans could not find any use for the plant. As scientific knowledge increased in Europe, the narcotic nature of the coca became apparent to scientists and the coca began to be exploited as a significant source of narcotics.

The chemical compound responsible for the narcotic quality of the coca leaves was analyzed and isolated in the laboratory by a German researcher Friedrich Gaedcke, in 1855. Gaedcke named the tropane alkaloid "cocaine" after Coca, another German scientist Niemann would streamline the procedure for isolating cocaine in 1860. A little later, in 1884, another German scientist Dr. Carl Koler, who was a colleague of the distinguished psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, would find that the alkaloid cocaine could be used as a local anesthetic during surgery of the eye. The effect of the narcotic alkaloid cocaine would be further elucidated in different scientific studies as the years passed. As more and more studies were carried out on the effect of the alkaloid, clinical scientists found that the alkaloid cocaine paralyzed the nerve endings that are responsible for the transmission of sensations of pain, and due to this fact, cocaine became a valuable local anesthetic before the advent of other powerful opiates - the coming of cocaine and its use in medicine would revolutionize many surgical and dental procedures in the 19th century. The use of cocaine as an anesthetic in the medical and surgical field was not without problems, it was found that cocaine tended to stimulate heart and respiratory rates and increase arterial blood pressure - these side effects of the alkaloid were often harmful to the surgical patients, though not all patients were affected in this way.

Enterprising European merchants of the 19th century, would make commercial use of remedies made from the coca leaves, for example, brisk sales of an herbal coca tonic would make a French merchant extremely wealthy. The example of this Frenchman would also enable an American druggist a few years later to acquire great wealth when he sold tonics made from a combination of coca leaves with the juice of the cola nut mixed in a sweet syrup to the American public - he would call this concoction Coca-Cola. The United States would eventually prohibit the use of cocaine in soft drinks in the 1904 after its narcotic nature became well known. Cocaine would be a subject of many medical and psychiatric studies, Sigmund Freud and some of the few other pioneers in the study of the human mind would eventually learn the narcotic ability of cocaine with interest. These pioneers in psychological medicine were primarily interested in the ability of the alkaloid to intensify mental concentration; they also studied its ability to reduce or remove fatigue and its ability to bring on a feeling of general well being in a person. Cocaine would be experimentally used by intellectuals such as poets, novelists and painters in the 19th century. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the great British writer would give the practice of consuming cocaine some legitimacy in literature, when he made his greatest character, the detective Sherlock Holmes used cocaine as a drug. The fictional detective uses cocaine to keep his wits in shape when he has no case to work on in many of the stories.

Cocaine is no longer used in medicine these days, synthetics such as lignocaine, benzocaine, and procaine - trade name Novocain, now substitute cocaine in medical use. These synthetic compounds possess all the beneficial anesthetic properties of cocaine but lack the dangerous stimulatory side effects of the alkaloid. Cocaine is a dangerous drug and the use of this drug for non-medical purposes is illegal in the United States. The universal abusive use of cocaine for non-medical purposes is considered to be one of the most serious problems in the contemporary world - illegal trafficking and sale of cocaine is a world wide problem.

Parts used



The historical use of the coca is a long one in South America, people in the Inca civilization cultivated this herb for centuries and the plant may have been used by pre-Incan peoples as well. South American peoples mainly used the coca leaves in religious rituals intended to show respect for the god of the Earth - the coca leaves had a religious significance and were seen as sacred. When Europeans were introduced to the coca leaves, the initial response was enthusiastic and notable people such as Pope Leo XII, Sarah Bernhardt, the inventor Thomas Edison, and Ulysses S. Grant often drank a drink consisting of coca mixed with wine known as "Vin Mariani". Cocaine was seen as a very beneficial alkaloid by the medical community during the 1880s, with physicians often claiming that the alkaloid would be able to cure everything from problems like stomach pain to blunting opium addiction in addicts. Many consumable and non-addictive products were made from the extract of the coca leaf extract, these included condiments and candies, medications and over the counter injections, as well as soft drinks including the original Coca Cola in the United States.

The main tropane alkaloid found in the coca plant is the compound cocaine, which was first extracted in 1855 in Germany. The method of extraction was further refined in 1860. The tropane alkaloid cocaine is a very powerful topical anesthetic, once introduced in the body, cocaine quickly paralyzes the functioning of the sensory nerve fibers. Due to this property, the alkaloid is usually used as a local anesthetic in surgery of the eye, nose, and throat. It is also employed as an anesthetic in medical examination conducted to check problems in the upper respiratory tract and the digestive tract in general. In addition to tropane alkaloids, the leaves of the coca plant also posses many valuable nutrients, including essential minerals like calcium, phosphorus and iron as well as the vitamins A and E, the vitamin B2 and other B complex vitamins. Native tribes in Peru and Bolivia traditionally used the leaves of the coca plant to treat all kinds of ailments and conditions ranging from dietary inadequacies to gastrointestinal disorders, patients affected by spells of nausea, chronic headaches, and altitude sickness were given coca leaves to chew - this was the only treatment for such disorders. Cocaine is one of the most addictive and dangerous narcotics in the contemporary world, though, coca leaves are still chewed in Peru and Bolivia as a mild narcotic - the extracted cocaine is banned and illegal in most countries around the world.

Coca plants have traditionally been linked to the native peoples of Bolivia and Peru. The herbal medicine of the indigenous Aymara and Quechua peoples who live in these two countries is centered on the chewing of coca leaves; the very culture of these natives is linked to the coca plant. Coca leaves are a panacea for the many problems connected with living at the high altitudes these peoples inhabit. The freezing cold and the generally nutrient poor diets is physically demanding on people living in these societies - the only relief is to chew the mildly narcotic leaves. The narcotic alkaloids in the coca leaves are released when they are chewed with a little lime or ash. The release of small amounts of the active alkaloids in the mouth brings a tonic effect on the body and helps the body ward off the effects of the cold, reduces physical exhaustion, and compensates for the poor nutritional value in the food. The traditional system of herbal medicine of South America employed coca leaves in treating problems such as nausea, vomiting, and to alleviate disorders like asthma, coca leaves were also used to speed up the convalescence of patients. The coca leaves are used to make an herbal heart tonic in Colombia. Coca plants are famous, mainly due to the tropane alkaloid cocaine extracted from the coca leaves. This highly addictive and potent narcotic is still legally employed in conventional medicine in the role of a local anesthetic for some types of medical procedures. Cocaine has a bad reputation as its illegal use is much more widespread and destructive. This potent narcotic and stimulant is the preferred drug of many addicts around the world. Cocaine in its pure form is addictive to the extreme and the illegal trafficking and sale of cocaine is a big problem in many countries.

Habitat and cultivation

The coca plant is native to the Andean region along the north western South American continent. Two Andean countries, Bolivia and Peru possess the most varieties of the plant. Nowadays, Asian countries also cultivate coca plants in plantations. For optimal growth, the coca plant requires an equatorial climate with a lot of moisture all year.

Coca plants have many small branches that bear up elliptical or obovate opposite leaves. Each leaf is from four to seven centimeters long and three or four cm across. Coca plants come in many varieties, and leaves from the Colombian coca are smaller in size and less pointed at the tips than the leaves of the Bolivian variety.

Coca is grown from the seed by the natives of the Andean region. Traditionally, the native women would go out to collect the drupes just before they ripen. The women would then place the collected drupes in baskets out of doors and permit the fruits to set until they turn soft from exposure to the elements. Once the fruits have turned soft, the pulp is washed away and the seeds that are left are sun dried.

Once dried, the seeds are collected and sown on seed beds. Coca seeds normally take about twenty four days to germinate. When the seedlings emerge out of the ground, they may require protection. A lattice covering is normally placed over the seedlings by the time they give out four leaves - this lattice is usually kept on for a year to protect the growing plants.

Young coca plants are transplanted to the fields once they attain a height of thirty to forty centimeters. Traditionally, to get good plants, the transplantation of the young coca plants is carried out in the rainy season - possibly a means of assuring a good water supply for the growing plants. Coca plants can give a small harvest of leaves in three years. Native women in the Andean region normally harvest coca leaves from plants in the third year - this harvest is carried out three or four times annually. Typical annual yields of coca plants in a plantation can range from 1,500 - 2,000 lbs. of dry leaves per acre and it is normal to grow new plants once every two decades.

The coca plants are susceptible to some plant pests and needs to be protected. These pests include weedy plant species that grow around the coca plants and rob growing seedlings of nutrients in the soil, while competing with the young plants for light and space. Coca plants are also vulnerable to some types of insect species including an ant species called the cutie, these ants cut and gnaw through the roots and chew the leaves. The larvae of a butterfly species called the ulo feeds on coca plants. A burrowing insect species called mounga forms tunnels inside the trunk of the coca and can completely destroy the plant. Lastly, a fungus called the taja, often grows on the leaves and the branches - resulting in the impaired growth and death of coca plants.


Coca contains cocaine and various other alkaloids, volatile oil, flavonoids, vitamins A and B2, and minerals. The plant's stimulant and anesthetic action is due largely to the cocaine it possesses.


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