Coca (Erythroxylon coca) is a plant which is traditionally cultivated in the lower altitudes of the eastern slopes of the Andes. Since time immemorial, its leaves have been used as a stimulant by the indigenous people of Peru, Bolivia, and northern Argentina; it also has religious and symbolic significance (see Cocomama). Since the 1980s, the cultivation of coca has become controversial because it is used for the manufacture of the illegal drug cocaine.

Leaves of the coca plant.

Table of contents
1 Botanical aspects
2 Cultivation
3 Traditional use
4 See Further
5 External link

Botanical aspects

Coca belongs to the natural family Erythroxylaceae. It resembles a blackthorn bush, and grows to a height of 6 or 8 ft. The branches are straight, and the leaves, which have a lively 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 once 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 are succeeded by red berries.

Good 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. Bad specimens have a camphoraceous smell and a brownish colour, and lack the pungent taste.


The seeds are sown in December and January in small plots (almacigas) sheltered from the sun, and the young plants when from 1 1/8 to 2 ft. in height are placed in holes (aspi), or, if the ground is level, in furrows (uachos) in carefully-weeded soil. The plants thrive best in hot, damp 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. 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, in order to preserve the quality of the leaves, must be kept from damp.

Traditional use

In the Andes, the Indians 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 ingested with the coca leaves; it softens their astrigent flavor and activates the alkaloids.

The activity of chewing coca is called chacchar or acullicar.

Coca was 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 is still held in superstitious veneration among the Peruvians, and is believed by the miners of Cerro de Pasco to soften the veins of ore, if masticated and thrown upon them.

The parmacologically 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 several other alkaloids.

based on an article from 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

See Further

External link