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Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Division: Magnoliophyta
Class: Magnoliopsida
Order: Malpighiales
Family: Erythroxylaceae
Genus: Erythroxylum
Species: E. coca
Binomial name
Erythroxylum coca

Coca is a plant in the family Erythroxylaceae, native to northwestern South America. The plant plays a significant role in traditional Andean culture, but is best-known in modern times for the stimulant drug cocaine that is extracted from its new fresh leaf tips in a similar fashion to tea bush harvesting.

The plant resembles a blackthorn bush, and grows to a height of 2-3 m (7-10 ft). The branches are straight, and the leaves, which have a green tint, are thin, opaque, oval, more or less tapering at the extremities. A marked characteristic of the leaf is an areolated portion bounded by two longitudinal curved lines, one line on each side of the midrib, and more conspicuous on the under face of the leaf.

The flowers are small, and disposed in little clusters on short stalks; the corolla is composed of five yellowish-white petals, the anthers are heart-shaped, and the pistil consists of three carpels united to form a three-chambered ovary. The flowers mature into red berries.

The leaves are sometimes eaten by the maggots of the moth Eloria noyesi.


Species and classification

There are twelve main species and varieties (Erythroxylum coca). Two subspecies, E. coca var. coca and E. coca var. ipadu, are almost indistinguishable phenotypically; a related high cocaine-bearing species has two subspecies, E. novogranatense var. novogranatense and E. novogranatense var. truxillense that are phenotypically similar, but morphologically distinguishable. Under the older Cronquist system of classifying flowering plants, this was placed in an order Linales; more modern systems place it in the order Malpighiales.

Cultivation and uses

Leaves and berries
Leaves and berries

Coca is traditionally cultivated in the lower altitudes of the eastern slopes of the Andes, or the highlands depending on the species grown. Since ancient times, its leaves have been used as a stimulant by some of the indigenous people of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, northern Argentina, and Trinidad. In the highlands, it is used as a breathing aid. It also has religious and symbolic significance. Since the 1980s, the cultivation of coca has become controversial because it is used for the manufacture of the drug cocaine, which is illegal in most countries for recreational use, but legal for medical uses, e.g., nose and throat anaesthesia.

Good fresh samples of the dried leaves are uncurled, are of a deep green on the upper, and a grey-green on the lower surface, and have a strong tea-like odor; when chewed they produce a faint numbness in the mouth, and have a pleasant, pungent taste. They are traditionally chewed with lime to increase the release of cocaine from the leaf. Bad specimens, usually old or stale leaves, have a camphoraceous smell and a brownish colour, and lack the pungent taste.

The seeds are sown from December to January in small plots (almacigas) sheltered from the sun, and the young plants when at 40-60 cm in height are placed in final planting holes (aspi), or, if the ground is level, in furrows (uachos) in carefully weeded soil. The plants thrive best in hot, damp and humid situations, such as the clearings of forests; but the leaves most preferred are obtained in drier localities, on the sides of hills. The leaves are gathered from plants varying in age from one and a half to upwards of forty years, but only the new fresh growth is harvested. They are considered ready for plucking when they break on being bent. The first and most abundant harvest is in March, after the rains; the second is at the end of June, the third in October or November. The green leaves (matu) are spread in thin layers on coarse woollen cloths and dried in the sun; they are then packed in sacks, which must be kept dry in order to preserve the quality of the leaves.

Pharmacological aspects

The pharmacologically active ingredient of coca is the alkaloid cocaine which is found in the amount of about 0.2% in fresh leaves. Besides cocaine, the coca leaf contains a number of other alkaloids, including Methylecgonine cinnamate, Benzoylecgonine, Truxilline, Hydroxytropacocaine, Tropacocaine, Ecgonine, Cuscohygrine, Dihydrocuscohygrine, Nicotine and Hygrine. Some of these non-psychoactive chemicals are still used for the flavouring of Coca-Cola. When chewed, Coca acts as a stimulant to help suppress hunger sensations, thirst, and fatigue. Some anesthetics such as Novocaine are derived from the coca plant. The LD50 of coca extract is 3450 mg/kg, however, the LD50 of the extract based on its cocaine content is 31.4 mg/kg, indicating that the coca leaf contains constituents other than cocaine that may contribute to a toxic effect of the plant

Traditional uses

In the Andes, the indigenous peoples have been chewing the leaves of the coca plant for millennia. They traditionally carried a woven pouch called a chuspa or huallqui in which they kept a day's supply of coca leaves, along with a small amount of ilucta or uipta, which is made from pulverized unslaked lime or from the ashes of the quinoa plant. A tiny quantity of ilucta is chewed together with the coca leaves; it softens their astringent flavor and activates the alkaloids. Other names for this basifying substance are llipta in Peru and the Spanish word lejía, lye in English. Many of these materials are salty in flavor, but there are variations. The most common base in the La Paz area of Bolivia is a product known as lejía dulce (sweet lye) which is made from quinoa ashes mixed with anise and cane sugar, forming a soft black putty with a sweet and pleasing licorice flavor. In some places, baking soda is used under the name bico.

The practice of chewing coca was most likely originally a simple matter of survival. The coca leaf contained many essential nutrients in addition to its more well-known mood-altering alkaloid. It is rich in protein and vitamins, and it grows in regions where other food sources are scarce. The perceived boost in energy and strength provided by the cocaine in coca leaves was also very functional in an area where oxygen is scarce and extensive walking is essential. This was also used to fool the feeling of hunger, sleepiness and head-aches linked to altitude and other altitude sicknesses. The coca plant was so central to the worldview of the Yunga and Aymara tribes of South America that distance was often measured in units called "cocada", which signified the number of mouthfuls of coca that one would chew while walking from one point to another. Cocada can also be used as a measurement of time, meaning the amount of time it takes for a mouthful of coca to lose its flavor and activity. In testament of the significance of coca to indigenous cultures, it is widely believed that the word "coca" probably originally meant "plant."

Coca was also a vital part of the religious cosmology of the Andean tribes in the pre-Inca period as well as throughout the Inca Empire (Tahuantinsuyu). Coca was historically employed as an offering to the Sun, or to produce smoke at the great sacrifices; and the priests, it was believed, must chew it during the performance of religious ceremonies, otherwise the gods would not be appeased. Coca is still held in veneration among the indigenous and mestizo peoples of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and northern Argentina and Chile. It is believed by the miners of Cerro de Pasco to soften the veins of ore, if masticated (chewed) and thrown upon them (see also Cocomama). Coca leaves play a crucial part in offerings to the apus (mountains), Inti (the sun), or Pachamama (the earth). Coca leaves are often read in a form of divination analogous to reading tea leaves in other cultures.

In the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, on the Caribbean Coast of Colombia, coca is consumed by the Kogi, Arhuaco & Wiwa by using a special gadget called poporo. The poporo is the mark of manhood, but it is a female's sexual symbol. It represents the womb and the stick is a phallic symbol. The movements of the stick in the poporo symbolize the sexual act. For a man the poporo is a good companion which means "food" "woman", "memory" and "meditation". Women are prohibited from using coca. It is important to stress that poporo is the symbol of manhood. But it is the woman who gives men their manhood. When the boy is ready to be married, his mother will initiate him in the use of the coca. This act of initiation is carefully supervised by the mama, a traditional leader.

The activity of chewing coca is called mambear, chacchar or acullicar, borrowed from Quechua, or in Bolivia, picchar, derived from the Aymara language. The Spanish masticar is also frequently used. Doing so usually causes users to feel a tingling and numbing sensation in their mouths, similar to receiving Novocaine during a dental procedure. Even today, chewing coca leaves is a common sight in indigenous communities across the central Andean region, particularly in places like the mountains of Bolivia, where the cultivation and consumption of coca is as much a part of the national culture similar to chicha, like wine is to France or beer is to Germany. It also serves as a powerful symbol of indigenous cultural and religious identity, amongst a diversity of indigenous nations throughout South America. Bags of coca leaves are sold in local markets and by street vendors. Commercially manufactured coca teas are also available in most stores and supermarkets, including upscale suburban supermarkets.

Mate de coca, sometimes called "coca tea", is a tisane made from the leaves of the Coca plant (Eritroxilécea). The consumption of coca tea is a common occurrence in many South American countries. Coca tea is also used for medicinal and religious purposes by many indigenous tribes in the Andes. On the "Inca Trail" to Macchu Picchu, guides also serve coca tea with every meal because it is widely believed that it alleviates the symptoms of mild altitude sickness. And traditionally, official governmental persons travelling to La Paz in Bolivia are greeted by a mate de coca. News reports noted that Princess Anne and the late Pope John Paul II drank the beverage during visits to the region.

International use

Coca has a long history of export and use around the world—legal and illegal. Modern export of processed coca (as cocaine) to global markets is well documented, and coca leaves are exported for coca tea, flavoring (Coca-Cola), and for medical use. Several pipes taken from Shakespeare's residence and dated to the seventeenth century have shown evidence of cocaine, Queen Victoria of England was also a cocaine user; the drug was first introduced to Europe in the 16th century.

Industrial use

Coca is used industrially in the cosmetics and food industries. The Coca-Cola Company used to buy 115 tons of coca leaf from Peru and 105 tons from Bolivia per year, which it has used as a flavouring ingredient in its Coca-Cola formula. Coca is sold to the pharmaceutical industry where it is used for various anaesthetics. Coca is used to produce Coca Tea by Enaco S.A. (National Company of the Coca) a government enterprise in Peru.[1]
[2] In Colombia, the Paeces, a Tierradentro (Cauca) indigenous community, started in December 2005 to produce a drink called "Coca Sek." The production method belongs to the resguardos of Calderas (Inzá) and takes about 150 kg of coca per 3000 produced bottles.



Article 26 of the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs states:

1. If a Party permits the cultivation of the coca bush, it shall apply thereto and to coca leaves the system of controls as provided in article 23 respecting the control of the opium poppy, but as regards paragraph 2 (d) of that article, the requirements imposed on the Agency therein referred to shall be only to take physical possession of the crops as soon as possible after the end of the harvest.
2. The Parties shall so far as possible enforce the uprooting of all coca bushes which grow wild. They shall destroy the coca bushes if illegally cultivated.

The Article 23 controls referred to in paragraph 1 are rules requiring opium-, coca-, and cannabis-cultivating nations to designate an agency to regulate said cultivation and take physical possession of the crops as soon as possible after harvest. Article 27 states that "The Parties may permit the use of coca leaves for the preparation of a flavouring agent, which shall not contain any alkaloids, and, to the extent necessary for such use, may permit the production, import, export, trade in and possession of such leaves". This provision is designed to accommodate Coca-Cola and other producers of coca products.

In Bolivia, the president Evo Morales (elected in December, 2005), a former coca growers union leader, has promised to legalize the cultivation and traditional use of coca. Morales asserts that "coca no es cocaína"--the coca leaf is not cocaine. During his speech on 19 September 2006, he held a coca leaf in his hand to demonstrate its innocuity.[3]

In Peru, private companies already manufacture coca leaf products.

More recently, coca has been reintroduced to the U.S. as a flavoring agent in the herbal liquer Agwa.


This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

  • Turner C. E., Elsohly M. A., Hanuš L., Elsohly H. N. Isolation of dihydrocuscohygrine from Peruvian coca leaves. Phytochemistry 20 (6), 1403-1405 (1981)

External links


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This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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