|Binomial name||Erythroxylum coca|
Other Common Names:
The other common names for the shrub coca are "la Hoja de Coca" (the leaf of coca) or Coca del Peru (coca of Peru).
Coca was held in such high esteem because the alkaloid of this plant was able to combat fatigue and to mask hunger, the later by inhibiting nerve impulses that convey hunger pangs. 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 coca plant is a shrub which can grow to about six feet in length in cultivated varieties and the wild trees growing to eighteen feet tall. It is generally grown from seeds and requires moisture and an equable temperature the coca possesses characteristic reddish brown bark coloration. The leaves of the coca are brownish green in colour, they tend to be stiff and taste bitter.
It is native to the eastern Andes Mountains but cultivated in Africa, northern South America, Southeast Asia, and Taiwan. It also grows in Colombia, Chile, and in the Brazil Amazon region, and to a lesser extent in Mexico, and the West Indies. It is cultivated in Indonesia and Ceylon.
The coca shrubs develop well in tropical humid climates, preferably zones such as clearings in forests, or on the wet side of mountains. Wild species are commonly found in altitudes of 300 to 2000.For optimal growth, the coca plant requires an equatorial climate with a lot of moisture all year. The plants thrive best in hot, damp situations, but the leaves most preferred are obtained in drier locations, such as on the sides of hills.
Coca is usually grown from seed in nurseries, but it can also be propagated by cuttings. Seedlings are transplanted after one year when they are approximately 25 cm tall, and spaced about 2 m apart. The first harvest is normally one to three years after planting, when the leaves are stiff, ripe and easily removed from the stem. The leaves continue to be picked three or four times a year, and shrubs are usually replaced after 20 years. The green coca leaves are dried in the sun in thin layers, and then packed in sacks that must be kept slightly damp to preserve the quality. The best quality leaves have a strong tea-like odour and, when chewed, give a pleasant warm feeling in the mouth with a pungent taste. 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.
Pests and Diseases
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. 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.
The fresh and the dried leaves are the most commonly used parts of the plant for its commercial and medicinal applications.
• The flowers are astringent, antihaemorrhagic, haemostatic, salve and tonic.
• They are used in the treatment of burns and scalds.
• The plant has shown anticancer activity.
• An edible oil called tsubaki oil is obtained from the seed
• Dried flowers are cooked and thus used as a vegetable or mixed with gelatinous-rice to make a Japanese food called 'mochi'.
• A non-drying oil is obtained from the seed - used as a hair-dressing.
• A green dye is obtained from the pink or red petals
• This very popular shrub is used in borders and in formation hedges.
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. Early in 1500's the Roman Catholic Church which wanted to convert the Indians to Catholicism, opposed coca because it permitted the Indians to bind with past culture and religion. Priests declared that coca was a food and, therefore, could not be eaten before receiving the Holy Eucharist--coca was a violation of the mandatory precommunion fast.
Thus, in 1551 the Bishop of Cuzco banned coca use because it was an evil agent of the Devil, and decreed punishment by death (burning) for users of those in possession of the leaves. 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 propitiated.
Coca chewing is practiced throughout South America. Coca is believed to be a gift from God. Traditionally the user made a ball-like quid with a coca leaf, added a paste of lime or alkaline ashes and then placed the quid in the cheek, where saliva would flow over the coca and trickle down the throat. The presence of an alkali helped to release the alkaloids from the leaf--the origin of crack cocaine in today's society. Until the time of the Spanish conquest, only the Inca aristocracy was privileged to chew the coca leaves, but afterward, the Spanish encouraged the enslaved Native Americans all to use coca in order to get them to endure long periods of heavy labour and physical hardships.