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ShrubbySpecies Plant

Erythroxylum coca

Erythroxylum coca

Coca (Erythroxylum coca Lam., 1786) is a species in the form of a shrub or small tree belonging to the Erythroxylaceae family.

Systematics –
From a systematic point of view it belongs to:
Eukaryota domain,
Kingdom Plantae,
Magnoliophyta division,
Class Magnoliopsida,
Linales Order,
Family Erythroxylaceae,
Genus Erythroxylum,
Species E. coca.
The terms are synonyms:
– Erythroxylum bolivianum Burck;
– Erythroxylum chilpei E. Machado;
– Erythroxylum peruvianum Mitch. & Pascal;
– Erythroxylum peruvianum Mitch. & Pascal ex Steud.

Etymology –
The term Erythroxylum was published for the first time, as a new genus, by Patrick Browne but its provenance is uncertain and unclear.
The specific epithet coca is a Quechua vernacular voice from the Central Andes.

Geographic Distribution and Habitat –
Coca is a plant native to the central and north-western tropical regions of South America; it is present spontaneously in Bolivia (E. coca variety Coca) and Peru (E. coca variety Truxilense); outside the spontaneous state it is also cultivated in Chile, Colombia, Brazil, China, Indonesia and Madagascar.
Its natural habitat is that of the Amazon rainforest.

Description –
Erythroxylum coca is a plant that grows up to a height of 2-3 m.
It has straight branches and the leaves, which have a green tint, are thin, dull, oval and tapering at the ends. A marked feature of the leaf is an areolate portion bounded by two longitudinal curved lines, one line on each side of the midrib and most conspicuous on the underside of the leaf.
The flowers are small and arranged in clusters on short stems; the corolla is made up of five yellowish-white petals, the anthers are heart-shaped and the pistil is made up of three carpels united to form a three-chambered ovary.
After fertilization, red berries ripen from the flowers.

Cultivation –
The main world producers of coca leaves are Colombia, Peru (where there are the main plantations and crops), Bolivia and Brazil.
The extent of cultivation varies greatly, according to the programs of the respective governments and the action of alternative development to crops, with incentives offered by various countries, and usually channeled by the United Nations, to convert coca cultivations into legal products. Generally speaking, just over 100,000 hectares are cultivated in Colombia, around 50,000 in Peru and 30,000 in Bolivia.
In Colombia, after years of growth, crops have stabilized, according to official information, also due to the extensive use of military forces and the drastic use of aerial sprayers of powerful herbicides (glyphosate). The aerial spraying has also provoked protests from the government of Ecuador, both for the negative effects on the environment of the Amazon forests, and for those on the populations and their legal cultivations.
In Peru and, especially in Bolivia, crops, after a few years of reduction or stabilization, are rapidly re-increasing due to the return to the indigenous and original use of this plant. Colombia continues to be the number one producer of cocaine despite less cultivation and more prohibition.
Erythroxylum coca is a plant that grows best in the tropics in areas where annual daytime temperatures are between 17 and 23 °C, but can tolerate 14-27 °C.
Mature plants may not tolerate temperatures of -5°C or lower, but the growth of young shoots is severely damaged already at -1°C.
It prefers an average annual rainfall between 1,000 and 2,100 mm, but tolerates between 700 and 4,000 mm.
Coca is widely cultivated in the Andean region of the tropics, where it is also locally present in the wild, the plant is not easy to grow elsewhere, and is little known in other parts of the world. In Southeast Asia it is grown only in botanical gardens, not as a crop.
The form Erythroxylum coca ipadu is found only as a cultivated plant in lowland rainforest areas of the Amazon.
It grows best in a sunny position and, from a pedological point of view, it grows best in more fertile and well-drained soils, where it prefers a pH between 5.5 and 6.5, tolerating between 4.3 and 8.
The plants take 1 to 3 years from sowing to the first harvest, and then have an economic life of about 20 years.
Annual yields reach up to 2 tons/Ha of dried leaves.
The leaves are sometimes eaten by the larvae of the Eloria noyesi moth.
Of the two cultivated species of coca, Erythroxylum coca has greater resistance to the use of glyphosate as a herbicide than Erythroxylum novogranatense.
Propagation is normally by seed.

Customs and Traditions –
Erythroxylum coca is a plant whose use of the leaves, through chewing, is certainly very ancient and dates back to a couple of millennia before Christ. Being a tropical plant, its use was not, nor is it today, as is often believed, relegated only to the Andean populations who, evidently, had to obtain it by trading with the populations of tropical areas. Coca leaves were therefore not a commodity. Proof of this is that even in the Inca era, therefore for a couple of centuries before the Spanish conquest, in a moment of territorial consolidation that gave almost unity to the western sector of South America, coca leaves remained for the almost exclusive use of the Inca theocracy.
The increase in the consumption and cultivation of coca leaves occurred due to the work of the Spaniards during the first decades of the conquest. In the use of coca leaves they found an excellent ally to improve the semi-slave production in the mines of Potosí which were given to the indigenous slaves to give them greater resistance and reduce hunger and thirst and were often also given as pay.
It is certain that during the 16th century the production of coca leaves increased from 100 tons to more than 1,000, almost all absorbed by the silver mines in and around Potosí, in present-day Bolivia.
However, coca also entered over time in food use, in medicines and in the production of liqueurs and drinks.
The leaves are also used to make various preparations used in modern medicine.
The custom of chewing coca leaves in Peru is certainly very old. During the Inca period it was considered a sacred plant and only rulers (kings and clerics) were allowed to use it. Illegal cultivation was severely punished, even use for profane purposes. With the decline of the Inca empire the custom passed quickly and widely among the common people.
The use of cocaine as a narcotic today is a worldwide phenomenon and there is a sizeable illegal trade. Indeed in Peru and Bolivia you get cultivation restrictions, but it is very difficult to replace this profitable crop with other useful plants.
In the past it was used for the production of medicines, drinks and liqueurs. Like Vino Mariani, made with Bordeaux wine in which coca leaves were macerated: the alcohol-cocaine combination favored the maintenance of the stimulating characteristics of the drug.
Currently some liqueurs are produced such as Coca Buton, obtained thanks to the distillation of the coca leaf, thus eliminating the molecule and leaving only its natural properties in the liqueur.
Other beverages use the coca leaf such as Red Bull Cola and Agwa De Bolivia a new digestive liqueur sold in the USA and Holland.
From a pharmacological point of view, the active principle of coca is the alkaloid cocaine, which in fresh leaves is found in quantities ranging from a minimum of about 0.3 to 1.5%, with an average of 0.8%.
In addition to cocaine, other alkaloids are also present in coca leaves. Cocaine acts as an inhibitor of the reuptake of catecholamines, especially dopamine.
Absorption of cocaine from coca leaves is much less rapid and efficient than from purified, extracted forms of cocaine, and causes neither euphoria nor the other psychoactive effects associated with use of the drug of the same name. Some support the idea that cocaine does not react as an active ingredient when a coca leaf is chewed or an infusion is drunk; however, some studies show that a small but measurable amount of cocaine is present in the blood after the consumption of coca-based infusions. The addiction to the consumption of coca leaves in its natural state has not been documented, nor have any other deleterious effects been found.
Although the real narcotic, cocaine, is chemically extracted through a complex process and high concentration, the coca leaf itself is considered a narcotic and therefore subject to prohibition. Its legal use is limited only to some countries or regions that make it, and have made it in the past, a traditional use (all of Bolivia, all of Peru, northern Argentina, some Colombian regions, such as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta; consumption is often limited to indigenous peoples, such as the Arhuaco, Aymara, Kogi and Wiwa).

Method of Preparation –
From the leaves of the coca plant, as mentioned, cocaine is obtained, a narcotic.
The drug can be smoked, chewed, inhaled or injected intravenously. The leaves, when chewed, act as a mild stimulant capable of relieving hunger, thirst, pain and fatigue. The processed drug gives effects at a central level (euphoria, reduction of the sense of fatigue) and at a peripheral level (tachycardia, mydriasis, vasoconstriction) and causes addiction.
Chewed with lime or vegetable ash, the leaves cause a feeling of lightness and increase energy. Therefore they are still used by indigenous peoples as a stimulant to better tolerate hunger, thirst and physical stress
An infusion of leaves also serves as a remedy for altitude sickness, the dreaded ‘soroche’.

Guido Bissanti

– Acta Plantarum – Flora of the Italian Regions.
– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
– GBIF, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.
– Useful Tropical Plants Database.
– Conti F., Abbate G., Alessandrini A., Blasi C. (ed.), 2005. An annotated checklist of the Italian vascular flora, Palombi Editore.
– Pignatti S., 1982. Flora of Italy, Edagricole, Bologna.
– Treben M., 2000. Health from the Lord’s Pharmacy, Advice and experiences with medicinal herbs, Ennsthaler Editore.

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Attention: The pharmaceutical applications and alimurgical uses are indicated for informational purposes only, they do not in any way represent a medical prescription; we therefore decline all responsibility for their use for curative, aesthetic or food purposes.

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