FAMILY: Erythroxylaceae (Coca Family)
COMMON NAMES: Bolivian coca, Ceja de Montana Coca, Coca Bush, Coca del Perú, Cocaine Plant, Cocamama, Divine Plant of the Incas, Gran Remedio, Hunacoblatt, Khoka (Aymara, ‘tree’), Kuka (Quechua) La’wolé (Mataco), Peruvian Coca, Spadie
Erythroxylum coca is a bush (or a tree, if left to grow wild), with elliptical leaves that are arranged spirally. The bark of younger plants is reddish, and scaly leaves appear at the base of young branches. The flowers are tiny and grow from the axes of the leaves. The small oval fruits start out yellow, and turn a bright red when they ripen. E. coca bushes usually grow between 10 to 16 meters in height, and have very long and thin branches. Coca bushes that grow in the Amazon are often totally covered in lichens (Ratsch 1998, 244).
The coca bush is often confused with other species of the genus Erythroxylum, as most members of the genus have a similar appearance. The easiest way to identify a coca plant is to chew the dried leaves with an alkaline substance, such as baking soda. If the mouth becomes numb, the plant is one of the two species that contain cocaine, E. coca and E. novogranatense, or a variety thereof. Because there are so many local varieties of the coca plant, mistakes in identification are common (Plowman et al. 1978).
The coca bush is originally from the mountains of Peru and Bolivia, and is found between altitudes of 500 and 2000 meters. Coca bushes are now cultivated in many parts of the world, including in Sri Lanka (Portratz 1985 cited in Ratsch 1998, 243).
E. coca seeds are sown by birds who eat the ripe fruits from bushes and excrete the undigested seeds. In the Andes, the plant is propagated mainly from seeds, but coca seeds become infertile when they dry, so planting must be done quickly after seeds are harvested. The seeds are pressed into shaded soil for germination and transplanted when they are about the size of an adult hand. In South America, this is generally done during the rainy season (Plowman et al. 1978).
E. coca plants prefer loose, humus-rich soil that is regularly supplemented with plant compost. They do not appreciate chalky soil (Buhler and Buess 1958, 3047). It takes about eighteen months from the time of planting before the first leaves can be harvested. A coca bush will produce for twenty to thirty years, and leaves may be harvested every fifty to sixty days during the rainy season and every three or four months during the dry season. The plant is not damaged by having almost all of its leaves removed. If the leaves are not harvested, the bush will turn in to a tree, the leaves of which have little to no psychoactive effect. The younger leaves generally contain higher amounts of psychoactive alkaloids (Ratsch 1998, 243).
TRADITIONAL USE: The coca bush originated in the rain forests of the Andes, and has been cultivated in South American for many purposes for thousands of years. The earliest evidence of coca leaf chewing comes from about 3000 B.C.E. Many pre-Colombian graves in the lowlands of Peru have been found to contain the remains of coca leaves, lime, and artifacts used for coca consumption. However, such remnants are rarely found in the Andean highlands, mostly due to clumsy excavation methods. Hair from numerous mummies in northern Chile has been tested for cocaine and its significant metabolites, and almost all of the mummies were found to contain trace quantities. The oldest of these mummies was carbon dated to about four thousand years ago (Cartmell et al. 1991)
Coca was very important in many pre-Columbian cultures as a item of trade, medicine, aphrodisiac, and ritual inebriant. Indeed, the civilizations of the Andes were so strongly influenced by the use of coca that it is hard to imagine them without it. Coca leaves are used as offerings and for divination, as well as in healing, initiations, and festivals. Grave excavations reveal that coca was provided to the dead for their journey to the underworld. According to Buhler and Buess, coca was seen as a gift of the sun gods, and the leaves were burned as incense, worn as ritual adornments, and smoked for divination. One could only approach the gods with a quid of coca in the mouth (Buhler and Buess 1958). The plant was said to create a link between humans and the divine and between individual humans as well. It was therefore used both for sacred purposes and as an aphrodisiac.
Coca leaves are used as a method of social exchange in the Andes. When people come together they often exchange and chew coca leaves as a way of beginning a social interaction. Before the leaves are eaten, three are placed together in a fan shape and held in front of the third eye. The person then faces the highest visible mountain and consecrates the leaves with the phrase poporo apú. Coca leaves are also used as ritual offerings on altars and mountain paths, and as offerings to the Mother Goddess, Pachamama. Healers often use coca leaves as a form of ransom to retrieve parts of the souls of ill people from various deities. If an individual disrespects a certain deity, that deity may steal part of the person’s soul. This manifests as physical illness. The offering of coca is said to cause the deities to return the parts of the soul that have been lost, healing body and spirit (Hoffmann 1992 cited in Ratsch 1998, 249).
Certain diviners throw and read coca leaves as a form of oracle for people suffering from sickness and other problems. A long period of training is necessary to become such a diviner, and the ritual must be done very precisely. Sometimes other objects, such as grains infected with Claviceps purpurea (ergot) may also be thrown and read with the coca leaves. Peruvian shamans will also smoke a quantity of coca in order to enter an ecstatic trance state and travel to other worlds. Through doing this they are able to cross a ‘bridge of coca smoke’ and enter other realities, in which they are able to manifest healing in the physical realm (Martin 1969).
The Tukano Indians believe that the first coca plant grew from the finger joint of the daughter of the lord of animals. They say that the Banisteriopsis caapi vine grew from the finger of another of his daughters, and so ayahuasca and coca are said to be siblings. Every adult Tukano male will spend about three hours a day preparing coca powder, as it is consumed by tribesmen all day long. This lets them be productive and suppresses hunger. They also believe that ingesting coca protects the body and spirit from dark forces (Schultes & Raffauf 1990, 167 cited in Ratsch 1998, 249).
The Spanish had a hard time understanding the native use of coca when they arrived in South America, and quickly banned its use between 1560 and 1569 AD, saying that the plant was dangerous and damaging and had no positive uses. The Inquisition saw coca use and worship as a sign of witchcraft, and tried to suppress it, but the Indians saw the coca bush as very sacred, not to mention that its regular use made thriving in the oxygen-poor high mountain regions much more bearable. Therefore, the indigenous peoples generally disregarded the new Spanish laws and continued using coca as normal. As of today, coca use has been legalized in Peru and Bolivia and is associated with Indian identity and indigenous culture (Lobb 1974).
The coca plant was first brought to Europe between 1569 and 1580, and the main constituent, cocaine, was first isolated by the German chemist Albert Niemann in 1859. By the end of the nineteenth century, cigars and cigarettes made of coca leaves were being smoked in England and the east coast of America. In 1864, the chemist Angelo Mariana created a coca extract in sweet wine which he called Vin Mariani. Fans of the beverage included Queen Victoria, Pope Leo XIII, Thomas Edison, and many other artists and intellectuals. A number of writers, including Alexandre Dumas, Octave Mirbeau, Henrik Ibsen, Jules Verne, and H.G. wells are all said to have ‘lived’ on this wine, and produced their best works with its assistance (Andrews and Solomon 1975, 243-246). This seems to have created a profound understand of the goddess energy in many of these men – as Octave Mirbeau wrote:
Woman possesses the cosmic force of an element, an invincible force of destruction, like nature’s. She is, in herself alone, all nature! Being the matrix of life, she is by that very fact the matrix of death – since it is from death that life is perpetually reborn, and since to annihilate death would be to kill life at its only fertile source. ~ The Torture Garden
It is, however, important to keep in mind that when cocaine and alcohol come together in the body they create a substance known as cocaethylene, which effects dopamine receptors in the same way as cocaine, but has a much longer half life, meaning that this combination may be deadly in excess. Coca-cola was, in fact, developed as a competition to Vin Mariani, and initially contained cocaine from E. coca and caffeine from another entheogen, the Cola Nut. Now, however, Coca-Cola only contains the leaf residue from coca leaves that have already had their cocaine content extracted for medical purposes (Voogelbreinder 2009, 170).
Coca leaves are legal to buy, sell, and use in Peru, Bolivia, and parts of Argentina, and use is tolerated in many other parts of South America. The governments of Peru and Bolivia have been attempting to have coca leaves legalized world wide so that they may be exported, making a firm distinction between beneficial coca and dangerous cocaine. This would have great benefits for the economies of both countries. However, at this time, coca leaves are illegal in the United States and are considered trafficable substances in many other countries, as they contain the cocaine alkaloid (Voogelbreinder 2009).
Coca is nominally illegal in Columbia, but many people still grow the plants in their garden and use the leaves as a medicine and tonic. The politics of the cocaine trade have had serious effects on the well being of indigenous peoples in Columbia who cultivate the plant for traditional purposes. Indiscriminate aerial spraying of toxic chemicals have had serious effects both on growers and those who are simply unfortunate enough to live near a plantation. The chewed leaf is nowhere near as toxic as extracted cocaine and, indeed, has many health benefits, but it is treated with equal disdain by the U.S. government. Anyone choosing to purchase illicit cocaine should be aware that they are supporting an underground industry that ruins the lives of many poor peasants who have been left with no choice but to grow coca, and which destroys the environment for the benefit of a few corrupt individuals (Voogelbreinder 2009, 170).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: E. coca leaves are dried or roasted before use. Otherwise, they do not produce the intended effects. Fresh leaves may be lightly roasted or made into tea. The fresh leaves should be dried using a method that allows them to remain green and supple – either in the sun or using artificial means, such as an oven or a dehydrator. If the leaves are dried artificially, temperatures should not exceed 104F (40C), or the cocaine content may be degraded. The flavor of the dried leaves of the Huanuco variety is very similar to that of Chinese green tea. The leaves of Amazonian coca, however, are somewhat more bitter (Schroder 1991 cited in Ratsch 1998, 244).
Coca leaves may be consumed through chewing, smoking, or as an extract. The most common method is chewing and sucking on the leaves. In the Andes, people chew coca leaves together with tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) leaves, a practice which seems to have mostly disappeared at this time. The naturalist Johann Jacob von Tschudi describes the chewing of coca leaves as follows:
“At least three times, but normally four times per day, the Indians rest from their work so that they may chew coca. For this purpose, they carefully remove the individual leaves from the Huallqui (bag), remove the veins, place the divided leaves in their mouth, and chew this for as long as it takes for a proper ball to form under their molars, they then take a thin moistened little stick of wood and dip this into slaked lime and then place this together with the adhering powder into the ball of coca in their mouths…when the ball no longer produces enough juice, they throw it away and begin with another” (In Buhler and Buess 1958).
In order for cocaine to be released, the leaves must be mixed with an alkaline substance. Then the alkaloids may be absorbed through the mucous membranes of the mouth. In South America, plant ash or burned lime is used for this. Baking soda is often used in modern times in Western countries (Cruz Sánchez & Guillén 1948 cited in Ratsch 1998, 245).
In the Andes, coca is often chewed with the scrapings from round cakes of ash known as Llipta. Llipta are made by taking pieces of various plants and roasting them in a pot over a fire until they break down in to ash. This ash is then mixed with lemon juice, boiling water, maize beer (chicha), sugarcane liquor, sweet tea (Camelia sinensis or Ilex paraguariensis), salt water, or even urine, and a carrier such as potato flour or another starch. This mixture is formed into cakes, pyramids, or other shapes, and allowed to dry. Pieces of this may be added to coca quids as an alkaline base (Buler and Buess 1958).
Other substances are also often added to coca quids to alter their psychoactive and medicinal effects. In Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile, coca quids are often chewed with the ashes of the flowers and fruits of Trichocereus pasacana, a cactus that is often confused with Trichocereus pachanoi. In Peru, the leaves of Rhynchosia pyramidalis are roasted to remove toxic effects and then added to coca quids for a licorice flavor. The leaves of Tagetes pusilla are also used to add an aromatic flavor. Fresh Brugmansia spp. leaves, Capiscum (chili) powder, and Theobroma cacao nibs may also be used (Plowman 1980).
In the Amazon, preparation of coca leaves is very different. The leaves are picked fresh and roasted immediately. The roasted leaves are then pounded in large mortars, and the leaves of other plants are turned in to ash. The two resulting powders are mixed in equal amounts. Each person takes a spoonful and pushes it between the cheek and the teeth. This mixture dissolves over a period of thirty minutes or so, and is then swallowed (Ratsch 1998, 245). A variety of Amazonian plants are also sometimes added to the blend to alter its effects or flavor.
The Makú Indians of the Amazon use coca in a very interesting fashion. They roast the leaves and mix them with the ashes of fresh green banana leaves, crushing everything as part of a ritual. They then mix this powder with cassava flour and make it into a bread. This bread is prepared fresh each evening and eaten as food (Prance 1972).
Coca leaves can be combined with essentially any psychoactive substance, and will sometimes potentiate the psychoactive effects of other plants, such as Anadenanthera colubrina. Coca leaves may also be added to incense and smoking blends to create a stimulating effect, and are especially well suited to smoking blends containing Cannabis sativa. Even as little as 0.1 g of roasted leaf will produce stimulation when smoked (Voogelbreinder 2009).
It is said that it is best to avoid drinking very hot liquids when chewing E. coca leaves, as the cocaine alkaloid numbs the mouth, meaning it is hard to tell how hot the liquid being consumed really is. This can easily lead to scalding. Regular coca leaf chewing can lead to inflammation of the mucous membranes in the mouth (Schultes 1980, 57).
A good medicinal dose for a E. coca tea is about 5 g of dried leaf material. A great deal more is taken when coca is chewed, with an average use of 60 g of dried leaf per day by regular users. Some men will consume up to one pound of coca/ash mix each day (Schultes 1980).
Coca leaves are often prepared in tea bags and combined with other herbs to produce coca teas. In Peru, many combinations are available, including Matricaria recutita (chamomile), Tagetes pusilla, mint, cinnamon, and so forth (Voogelbreinder 2009).
MEDICINAL USE: Coca leaves have been a very important medicine in South America for some time, though little is known of their pre-Hispanic uses. Today, coca is used in so many different ways that it has been called ‘the aspirin of the Andes’. It is used to treat all sorts of pain, rheumatism, colds, flu, constipation, digestive troubles, colic, upset stomachs, altitude sickness, exhaustion, weakness, and to assist in labor. The leaves may also be burned or smoked to assist with bronchitis, asthma, and coughs – this practice even traveled to England, where the leaves were known as Peruvian tobacco (Ratsch 1998, 250).
Coca tea is used to assist in the healing of diabetes and to suppress the appetite of overweight individuals. It also helps with stomach and digestive troubles, exhaustion, and altitude/travel illness. E. coca leaves are also sometimes used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a vasoconstrictor (Voogelbreinder 2009).
Many soccer, football, and baseball players will utilize pure cocaine to give them energy for playing sports. This practice has its roots in the chewing of coca leaves by runners who carried messages, contained in knotted pieces of string, for the Incan emperors. Coca leaves are no longer used in European medicine, although one can still find a homeopathic version of the plant essence (Ratsch 1998, 250-251).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: Coca leaves contain between 0.5 and 2.5% alkaloid content, primarily cocaine and cuscohygrine. Peruvian and Bolivian coca leaves contain the highest quantities of cocaine, making up 75% of the total alkaloid content. The fresh leaves also contain an essential oil, flavonoids, tanning agents, vitamins A, B, and C, and tons of minerals, especially calcium and iron. 100g of coca leaves will provide the recommended dose of all essential minerals and vitamins, making this plant a super food. Both fresh and dried leaves have excellent nutritional value, and are thus regarded by indigenous peoples as food (Novák & Salemink 1987).
The Andean Indians say that when coca is chewed with respect it will soak up sadness and pain and will protect the chewer as a mother would. Appropriate consumption of the plant regulates blood sugar levels – it lowers a blood sugar level that is too high and raises a blood sugar level that is too low – so, coca leaves keep blood sugar concentrations at a place where the body needs it. The leaves also counteract the stress of being in high altitude, and improve oxygen absorption in thin mountain air (Burchard 1975).
Coca leaves are stimulating and animating, and can act as an appetite suppressant, aphrodisiac, and euphoriant. When mixed with Trichocereus spp. cacti, coca quids are said to have extremely stimulating and somewhat psychedelic effects (Fernandez Distel 1984).
When E. coca leaves are chewed, the cocaine that is released in to the body remains there for about seven hours as a metabolite, ecgnonine, in very low concentrations. Cocaine itself remains in the bloodstream for between one and two hours. When coca leaves are chewed as a quid, it takes a few minutes for the cocaine to spread through the mouth. At this time, the mucous membranes become numb – one can tell how high quality particular coca leaves are depending on how quickly this happens. The stimulating effects of the leaves can be felt 5-10 minutes after chewing begins. The effect will increase and then persist for about 45 minutes to an hour, then quickly lessen (Ratsch 1998, 251).
The effects of coca leaves and baking soda or another alkalizing agent on the mucous membranes of the mouth can be very destructive, and long term users often develop a leathery surface inside of the mouth. Certain additives are sometimes used to counteract these effects (Ratsch 1998, 251).
The use of extracted illicit cocaine causes euphoria, local anesthesia, and central nervous system excitation. This is followed by depression. If the drug is readily available, it is very habit-forming for many people, often leading to serious patterns of abuse. Long term use of illicit cocaine extracts may lead to psychotic behavior and hallucinations. Visual hallucinations can include fleeting changes in perception and can extend to realistic hallucination. Tactile hallucinations may include the sensation of bugs crawling over the skin, known as cocaine bugs. Auditory hallucinations may including hearing voices and whispering. ‘Street’ cocaine is never completely pure – it contains traces of other alkaloids and impurities that enter during the extraction process. Furthermore, each time street cocaine is sold down the supply chain it is cut with adulterants, ranging from harmless white powders like lactose to dangerous substances such as heroin (Voogelbreinder 2009). It is important to remember that E. coca is a sacred plant and medicine, and that misusing it or using it as a tool for self-abuse will always lead to very real, serious consequences for the health of body, mind, and spirit.
ADDITIONAL COCA ARTICLES
Andrews, G., and D. Solomon, eds. The Coca Leaf and Cocaine Papers. London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.
Buhler, A., and H. Buess. “Koka.” Ciba-Zeitschrift 92, no. 8 (1958): 3046–2076.
Burchard, R.E. “Coca Chewing: A New Perspective.” In Cannabis and Culture, edited by V. Rubin. The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 463AD.
Cartmell, L.W., A.C. Aufderheide, A. Springfield, C. Weems, and B. Arriaza. “The Frequency and Antiquity of Prehistoric Coca-leaf-chewing Practices in Northern Chile: Radioimmunoassay of a Cocaine Metabolite in Human-mummy Hair.” Latin American Antiquity 2, no. 3 (1991): 260–268.
Fernandez Distel, A. “Contemporary and Archaeological Evidence of Ilipta Elaboration from the Cactus Trichocereus Pasacana in Northwest Argentina.” In Proceedings 44. 194. BAR Inernational, 1984.
Leary, J.D. “Alkaloids of the Seeds of Datura Sanguinea.” Lloydia 33, no. 2 (1970): 264–266.
Lobb, C.G. “El Uso De La Coca Como Manifestación De Cultura Indígena En Las Montanas Occidentales De Sud-america.” América Indigena 34, no. 4 (1974): 919–938.
Martin, R.T. “The Role of Coca in the History, Religion, and Medicine of South American Indians.” Economic Botany 23 (1969): 422–438.
Novak, M., and C.A. Salemink. “The Essential Oil of Erythroxylum Coca.” Planta Medica 53 (n.d.): 113.
Plowman, T., L. Rudenberg, and C.W. Greene. “Chromosome Numbers in Neotropical Erythroxylum (Erythroxylaceae).” Botanical Museum Leaflets 26, no. 5 (1978): 203–209.
Prance, G.T. “An Ethnobotanical Comparison of Four Tribes of Amazonian Indians.” Acta Amazónica 2, no. 2 (1972): 7–27.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Schultes, R.E. “Coca in the Northwest Amazon.” Botanical Museum Leaflets 28, no. 1 (1980): 47–60.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.