Chapter One

Mama Coca

Chapter One - Mama Coca


... coca is an integral part of the Indians' way of life, deeply involved with his traditions, his religion, his work and his medicine. To deny the use of coca to the Indians is as serious a disregard for human rights as would be an attempt to outlaw beer in Germany, coffee in the Near East or betel chewing in India. The recent attempts to suppress and control the use of coca can be interpreted only as the latest step in the white man's attempt to exterminate the Indian way of life and make him completely dependent on the alien society and economy which has gradually surrounded him.

Richard T. Martin,

Economic Botany, 1970

"... certain coqueros, eighty years of age and over, and yet capable of such prowess as young men in the prime of life would be proud of."

Or. Hipolito Unanuc, 1794, commenting on the aphrodisiac value of the coca plant (in R. T. Martin, 1970

Coca is consumed by chewing the leaves with a pinch of lime prepared from calcinated seashells or plant ashes. Prior to adding the lime, the leaves are chewed to moisten and break them, as well as remove the stalks and strings. Then the lime is added pinch by pinch until the proper mixture is achieved. The wad of leaves is then kept relatively still between the teeth and cheek; it is sucked on rather than chewed. The amount of lime used is critical to the taste and to the concentration of alkaloid released. It is still a common practice for a mother to introduce her young to the coca experience by preparing the wad of leaves in her mouth and then transferring it to the mouth of her child. In this way, the proper amount of lime will be present in the first wad of leaves the child uses, which ensures that the first experience with coca will be a positive one. Since lime is caustic, an excess will burn the mouth. Without any formal knowledge of chemistry, these Indians were extracting the alkaloids from the leaves by making them alkaline. They knew that the lime was the mechanism by which absorption of the alkaloids could be controlled. Thus, if while chewing the leaves a little too much alkaloid was released, one had only to ease up on the lime and let the saliva wash out some of the excess lime into the stomach. The lower concentration of time would result in a slower absorption of alkaloids. Interestingly, cocaine alkaloid content was not the prime factor in choice of leaves. The Indians consistently chose leaves with a lower cocaine content but a high concentration of sweet, aromatic compounds which gave the wad of coca better flavor.

Over the years South American Indians have found the leaf beneficial in numerous ways. Aside from its ability to clear the mind, elevate mood, and make energy available, it appears to exert good influences on many physical functions. For example, it tones and strengthens the entire digestive tract, probably enhancing the assimilation of foods. A hot water infusion of coca sweetened with a little raw sugar (called agua de coca) is an excellent remedy for indigestion and stomach ache that was widely used even by non-Indians throughout South America until relatively recently.

Coca appears to maintain the teeth and gums in a good state of health; it keeps teeth white. The leaf is rich in vitamins, particularly thiamine, riboflavin, and C. An average daily dose of coca leaves (two ounces) supplies art Indian of the High Sierra with much of his daily vitamin requirement. Coca appears to have a beneficial influence on respiration, and is said to effect rapid cures of altitude sickness. It also rids the blood of toxic metabolites, especially uric acid. Indians say that regular use of coca promotes longevity as well. According to Indian tradition, coca was a gift from heaven to better the lives of people on earth.

(From Andrew Weil's "The Green and The White," p. 334> The Coca Leaf and Cocaine Papers)

The story of how coca and cocaine use started in Europe and North America is related in many ways to its traditional use by the South American Indians. Most early commercial products were made from the whole coca leaf. In Europe, Angelo Mariani produced a coca wine which gained wide popular acceptance. John Styth Pemberton, a pharmacist in Georgia, developed in 1886 a tonic soda water as a temperance drink (non-alcoholic) which he called Coca-Cola. Both products were sold as elixirs and the positive benefits to good health were their advertised features. A host of similar and even stronger products appeared on the market and the abuse of purified cocaine became a media sensation. Cocaine was removed from Coca-Cola in 1903, and in 1914 cocaine became illegal in the U.S.

Although coca is native to Peru and Bolivia, it has been successfully cultivated in a variety of climates and countries including Colombia, Jamaica, Ecuador, Brazil, Chile, Java, Ceylon, India, France, and the United States. For further information on the cultivation of coca, sec Mama Coca by Antonil, published by Hassle Free Press (London), Chapter Six.

Of the various species of coca, only two have been used as primary sources of cocaine, and it is these upon which we will focus. Erythroxylum coca, called Huanaco, is primarily cultivated on the eastern slopes of the Andes in Bolivia and Peru. Its greenish-colored leaves are elliptically shaped with parallel longitudinal lines on the underside of the leaf. It has a haylike odor. The plant grows well in altitudes between 500-1500 meters where the climate is favorably tropical, high in rainfall, moderate in temperature, and the soils are mineral rich and well drained. E. coca is the most important commercial species of coca and is used to make the majority of the world's cocaine. In Peru, the leaves from E. coca represent 95% of the total annual crop. As with the other varieties of coca, the alkaloid content is variable both in amount and composition, depending on where it is grown. A variety of £. coca called Ipadu or Amazonian coca is cultivated in the western Amazon of Brazil, Colombia, and Peru. This variety is propagated by cuttings rather than seeds, and prefers moderate temperatures and well-drained soils. The plant itself is taller and more spindly than Huanaco and has weak branches and relatively large elliptical leaves which are blunt or rounded at the apex. Its underside lacks the characteristic parallel lines. Amazonian coca contains very little true cocaine and is primarily used for chewing by the people who cultivate it.


An advertisement for Vin Mariani, Paris, c. 1890. Angelo Mariani marketed this stimulating coca-leaf wine, predecessor to coca-based soft drinks, for physicians and fashionable connoisseurs alike. Its exact recipe was a closely guarded secret, but Mariani received and published twelve volumes of testimonials to its tonic virtues from many notables, including Jules Verne, Sarah Bernhardt, the Czar and Czarina of Russia, Thomas Edison, and Queen Victoria. Pope Leo XIII awarded Mariani a Gold Medal for this elixir made from the Divine Plant of the Incas.


Thomas Alva Edison.

"Monsieur Mariani, I take pleasure in sending you one of my photographs for publication in your Album. Yours very truly."

Camille Flammarion (an astronomer who founded the French Society of Astronomers).

"Solar rays in bottles."

Charles Gounod (composer of symphonies and operas). "To my good friend Mariani, beneficial revealer of this admirable coca wine from Pern, whic h has so often restored my strength."

Cardinal Lavigerie: "Your coca from America gave my European priests the strength to civilise Asia and Africa."

Pope Leo XIII sent a gold medal to Mariani through a Cardinal with the following letter:

"Rome, January z, 1898. His Holiness has deigned to commission me to thank the distinguished donor in His holy name, and to demonstrate His gratitude in a material way as well. His Holiness does me the honour of presenting Mr. Mariani with a gold medal containing His venerable coat-of-arms."

William McKinley (President of the United States). "Executive Mansion, Washington, June 1+, 1898. My dear Sir, Please accept thanks on the President's behalf and on my own for your courtesy in sending a case of the celebrated Vtn Mariani, with whose tonic virtues I am already acquainted, and will be happy to avail myself of in the future as occasion may require. Very truly yours, John Addison Porter, Secretary to the President."

Augttste Rodin: "To Mariani, who spreads coca. Your friend."

Jules Verne: "Since a single bottle of Marian’s extraordinary coca wine guarantees a lifetime of a hundred years, I shall be obliged to live until the year 2700! Well, I have no objections! Yours very gratefully.”


The temperature in which Coca is grown must be equable, of about 18° C. (64-4° F). If the mean exceeds 20° C. (68° F), the plant loses strength and the leaf assumes a dryness which always indicates that it is grown in too warm a situation, and though the leaves may be more prolific, they have not the delicate aroma of choice Coca.

A peculiar earth is required for the most favorable cultivation of Coca, one rich in mineral matter, yet free from limestone, which is so detrimental that even when it is in the substratum of a vegetable soil the shrub grown over it will be stunted and the foliage scanty. While the young Coca plants may thrive best in a light, porous soil, such as that in the warmer valleys, the full grown shrub yields a better quality of leaf when grown in clay.

This, commonly mixed with organic matter and salts from the decaying vegetation, or that of the trees burned to make a clearing, affords what might be termed a virgin earth—terra franche ou normale—which requires no addition of manures for invigoration. In the conservatory it has been found, after careful experimentation, that a mixture of leaf mould and sand—terre de bruyere, forms the best artificial soil for the Coca plant.

Aside from an appropriate soil that is well drained, there is another important element to the best growth of Coca, and that is a humid atmosphere. Indeed, in the heart of the montana it is either hazy or drizzling during some portion of the day throughout the year, the intense glare of the tropical sun being usually masked by banks of fog, so that it would seem that one living here is dwelling in the clouds.

Mortimer, History of Coca.

Young coca plants, showing fibrous root. —Conservatory of Mariani. (from Mortimer, History of Coca.)


Erythroxylum novogranatense is native to Colombia, Venezuela, and parts of Central America. In Colombia, it grows in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and in the rugged mountains of Cauca and Hucha. This species is highly resistant to drought and prefers a hot, dry habitat.

It is a bushier plant than E. coca, with smaller, narrower, and thinner leaves which are bright yellowish green in color and rounded at the apex. Its leaves contain large amounts of methyl salicylate which give it a wintergreen odor. However, its true cocaine content is much lower than that of E. coca. In Colombia, where coca cultivation is illegal, illicit crops of E. novogranatense are cultivated for local chewing and for illicit cocaine manufacture. While this species has shown great adaptability to other climates, it has also been found that the alkaloid composition and quantity will vary with the climate and soil. An example of this is Java coca, which was adapted from E. novogranatense. Until World War II, this variety provided most of the raw materials for the worlds supply of pharmaceutical cocaine. While its alkaloid content is even higher in Java than in Colombia, its true cocaine content is much lower.

On the desert coast of Peru and in the adjacent arid valley of the Río Marañón, a variety of E. novogranatense is grown. It has been named Trujillo after the region in Peru where it is grown. The leaves of E. novogranatense var. truxillense provide only 5% of Peru's annual harvest, and most of this is exported to the United States for use as a flavoring agent in Coca-Cola. The remaining leaves are locally consumed (chewed) by natives who value them for their great aromatic qualities and palatability.

E. novogranatense var. truxillense has been cultivated in both arid and wet climates with great success. Its adaptability and resistance to drought are even greater than Colombian coca, since it actually prefers desert conditions. The plants are propagated by seeds and may grow as tall as 3 meters with multiple trunks reaching 4 centimeters in diameter. The leaves are narrowly elliptic to oblong, 20-65 millimeters long, and 10-25 millimeters wide. The topsides are medium to light green in color and pale green underneath. The midrib is flat with a slight medial ridge.


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Did you know at one time cocaine “wine” was legal, available and quite popular? See our newest section of the CCC on this curious subject:

Cocaine Wine