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Chapter 2: Selecting the Best Plant for Alkaloid Yield

Although coca bushes can grow to the height of twelve feet, they are generally kept pruned down to the height of a man for easier harvest. They have straight branches that are sparsely covered with emerald green leaves, the underside tending toward gray. The leaves are shiny, thin, opaque, oval and more or less tapered at either end. A distinct characteristic of the leaf is an areolated portion, bounded by two longitudinal curved lines, one on each side of the midrib. The lines are much more conspicuous on the underside of the leaf. The flowers are about 1/2 inches - 3/8 inches long and are found in little clusters on short stalks. They are composed of five yellowish white petals, heart-shaped anthers and exhale a faint odor.

Although the leaves of some species span to over a foot in length, those we are interested in are about 3/4 inches - 4 inches long and 3/4 inches - 1 3/4 inches at their widest point. The fruit, which encases the seed, is about 1/2 inches long and will be pale green when first formed, turning to red when ripe. It will look very much like a cranberry at this stage of its development. When it dries it will turn black, conforming to the shape of the enclosed seed, which has six longitudinal lobes, smooth and of a pale flesh color.

The trunk of the bush is covered with rough bark. The branches are sparse and are fern-green when new and will turn various tints of brown to gray as they mature. It is very common to see bud, leaf and flower on the same bush. The flower is also "perfect", in that it contains both male and female sexes and can thus pollinate itself.

Choosing Your Plant

The reason a physical or botanical description of coca was saved for this chapter is that there are many variations of physique as well as different compositions of alkaloids. There are more than a hundred species of coca. They are used as a snakebite remedy (E. anquifuqum), as purgatives (E. campestre), and two species (E.suberosum and E.tortuosum ) yield a red dye. One species (E.areolatum) grows to a height of eighteen feet, and is known as ironwood, or redwood. Some very fine timber is derived from it.

The big "E" in the above botanical name stands for Erythroxylon, which is one of the two genera of coca, the one we're interested in. The majority of Erythroxylon species are found in South America, although several are found in Asia, Africa and Australia. Of all these, only two broad varieties are grown commercially for their alkaloids: E. bolivianum and E.novogranatense. The former is also called Huanuco or Bolivian coca and the latter is generally referred to as Truxillo, or Peruvian coca.

Bolivian or Huanuco coca is the variety of coca that is grown exclusively for the alkaloid cocaine, and is the richest in that alkaloid. Truxillo or Peruvian coca is the bush preferred by the natives -- the coca chewers. The chewers, or those who make coca wine, prefer Truxillo primarily for its aromatic flavor. Besides being less bitter, it also contains several alkaloids that are non-crystalizable, each having its own effect and which are not prominent in the Huanuco variety. Native chewers call Huanuco hajas amargas, or "bitter leaf", whereas Truxillo is referred to as hajas dulces, or "sweet leaf".

To Chew or to Snort

In terms of cultivating for alkaloids there are essentially two varieties to choose from: Truxillo, the chewers coca; and Huanuco, the (for want of a better term) snorters coca. In fact, if it weren't for the eight million native chewers, commercial growers would cultivate Huanuco almost exclusively. The description at the beginning of this chapter holds true for both the Truxillo and Huanuco varieties. The basic physical difference between the two is that the Huanuco variety has larger leaves that are elliptical, oval and broader above the middle. The Truxillo variety has smaller, narrower leaves and is broadest in the middle making a more regular oval shape.

Truxillo Coca </b>Huanuco Coca

For those only familiar with snorters coca (i.e. cocaine) the choice might seem quite easy. Who, including Sherlock Holmes, has not found snorting highly pleasurable? But it's suggested that before making a choice that consideration be given to chewers coca. Chewing the leaf and snorting the flake are definitely two different trips. Chewing the leaves gives little of the psychological rush generally associated with the ingestion of cocaine. The effect is somewhat subtler because it is in a less concentrated form. But it is important to remember that when cocaine is extracted from the leaves there are quite a number of uncrystalizable alkaloids that are left behind and are missed entirely.

What are alkaloids?

Alkaloids are nitrogenous compounds that are usually formed as salts of organic acids. Nearly all of the vegetable alkaloids are probably formed by the action of ammonia, or amino compounds that are derived from ammonia, upon nitrogenous bodies. All of which probably does not tell you a helluva lot. You're still asking just what alkaloids are. In more basic terms, alkaloids are waste products, or excreta, of plants. They are regarded as waste products because they cannot enter the constructive metabolism of the plant though they are not directly excreted but are stored away, and may be soon shed off as in leaf or bark. Except for the manner of their expulsion they are analogous to human excreta: feces, and uric acids. We will assume you know from whence they come.

You have no doubt gathered by this point in the discussion that cocaine is one of the alkaloids. What follows will be a brief description of the alkaloids that are left behind when cocaine is extracted. All of the bases are more mild than cocaine and are considerably different in their psychological action. The action of cocaine is more pronouncedly on the nervous system than all the associate alkaloids, while they affect the muscular system more directly.

The Effects of Coca

Ecognine is a second base that will crystalize with some difficulty. It has very little effect on the central nervous system unless a very large dose is taken. It also has no anesthetic properties and the motor nerves are not specifically influenced. Ingestion is followed by slight depression that is in turn very quickly followed by reflex irritability of the spinal cord.

Benzoyl-ecognine is in turn an intermediate compound which has its effect directly on the muscle similar to caffeine. It has, in fact, so great an affinity for muscle that it is imbibed by adjacent muscles so thoroughly that more distant structures receive very little of the drug.

Cocamine is a local anesthetic nearer in resemblance to cocaine than the other alkaloids. It has the effect of being a general stimulant, although it acts specifically on muscle. Upon ingestion the pupils become dilated at first, then become excessively small. Although it is of the same empirical composition as cocaine, it is somewhat weaker in anesthetic action.

Hygrine is another of the bases and comes out in the form of a volatile liquid of a peculiar odor – very much the same as that of nicotine. When ingested, this base causes a burning or tingling sensation of the tongue.

Ever since the isolation of cocaine in the 1850's not nearly enough attention has been paid in researching these various alkaloids. They were at first described as "decomposition products" and not alkaloids at all. They were thought to be developed by changes taking place in the extraction of cocaine or in the deterioration of the leaves. The non-crystallizable substance has been called variously cocaicine, cocainoidine and cocamine. There has been considerable playing around with this substance and a great number of different chemical compositions have been arrived at, but unfortunately little attention has been paid to their combined physiological effect. There are, though, important principles in coca that are offering a distinctly different physiological effect than any one of its alkaloids. It is hard to believe that 8,000,000 Andeans can be wrong.

The choice, though a difficult one without having chewed, is up to the cultivator: Truxillo or Peruvian coca bushes for the chewer; Huanuco, or Bolivian coca for the snorter, who wishes to go to the trouble of extracting the cocaine.

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