3 minute read


The coca plant, genus Erythroxylum, family Erythroxylaceae, order Linales, is native to the Andean slopes of South America. The genus Erythroxylum comprises approximately 250 species, of which the most cultivated species are Erythroxylum coca (southern Peru and Bolivia) and Erythroxylum novogranatense ( Colombia and northern coastal Peru). The coca plant is a shrub, growing to about 15 ft (5 m). Cultivated plants are pruned to about 6 ft (2 m). The leaves are oval, smooth-edged, dark green, and 1.6-3.1 in (4-8 cm) long, 1-1.6 in (2.5-4 cm) wide. Unlike other short term crops such as maize and rice, or other mountain grown commodities such as coffee, coca plants require little care. Coca plants can thrive in poor soil, have few pests or predators—an ideal crop for the bleak growing conditions in the Andes. After planting, leaves can be harvested by 6-12 months. Coca plants can yield 4-5 crops per year for 30-40 years.

The coca plant is the source of cocaine, one of about 14 alkaloids obtained from the leaves. The concentration of cocaine in the leaves varies from about 23% to 85%, depending on the species and growing conditions. The cocaine alkaloid was first extracted from the leaves in the 1840s. It soon became a popular addition to powders, medicines, drinks, and potions. The popular American soft drink Coca-cola, introduced in 1885 by John Pemberton, uses coca leaves in its preparation. Since 1906, when the Pure Food and Drug Law was passed, Coca-Cola has been made with decocainized coca leaves. Today, some species of Erythroxylum are grown in other regions of the world, such as India and Indonesia, where the climate is similar to the Andean tropics, and cultivated primarily for cocaine extraction. Before cocaine became a popular street drug, coca was grown mainly for traditional consumption among the Andean peoples, and for legal industrial medicinal use.

The indigenous people of the Andean mountain range have been chewing the leaves of the coca plant for thousands of years. Archeological evidence indicates that Peruvians were chewing coca as early as 1800 B.C. Ancient sculptures show the heads of warriors with the characteristic "bulge" in the cheek, depicting coca chewing. The coca plant was one of the first cultivated and domesticated plants in the New World. During the reign of the Incas, coca was regarded as sacred and it was used only by chieftains, priests, or privileged classes. Coca was the link between man and the supernatural. It was used for various social and religious rituals, ceremonies, and fortune telling. Leaves of the coca plant were buried with the dead to help with the journey to the afterworld. Coca leaves were used in traditional medical practices, aiding in diagnosis and treatment. When the leaves are chewed with an alkaline substance such as lime, or plant ash, the active ingredients that stimulate the central nervous system are released. Stamina was increased, hunger depressed, pain eased—a feeling of well being and strength was achieved.

After the Spanish conquered the Incas in the sixteenth century, coca was given to the peasants, or working classes. The Spanish realized that coca enabled the peasants to work harder, longer, and that they needed less food. What was once exclusive to the ruling class was made available to the common people. Thus chewing coca leaves became a way of life for an entire peasant nation. The Indians, then and now, chew the leaves with other substances and never ingest the cocaine alkaloid alone, and apparently do not experience the addictive mind altering effects associated with cocaine. Coca leaf chewing is still identified with religious practices, social rituals, traditional medicine, and work situations. The leaves are used for bartering or, as a form of currency, to obtain other goods such as food items. In the past few decades however, growing coca has become associated with obtaining material goods and becoming rich. An entirely new economy, mostly illegal or underground, has developed around coca. Many plantation The leaves and fruit of a coca plant (Erythroxylum coca) in Costa Rica, the plant from which cocaine is extracted. © Gregory G. Dimijian 1990, National Audubon Society Collection/Photo Researchers, Inc. Reproduced with permission. owners have changed their focus from leaf production to the extraction of the cocaine alkaloid in paste form. Coca production is now the most lucrative industry in Peru and Bolivia, the world's leading producers. The coca industry is heavily scrutinized by several international governmental groups. Realizing the cultural significance of coca chewing among certain sectors of people living in the Andes, the Peruvian government developed a separate agency to protect and supervise legal trade. Most of the annual production of coca however, goes to the black market.

Christine Miner Minderovic

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cluster compound to Concupiscence