Coca, Cannabis, Opium & Tobacco – Gifts Of The Great Spirit
Thoughts On Growing Medical Coca Leaf Outdoors & In A Greenhouse: Clues From Deep History
Hi – After years of COVID and so many failed kinds of treatments many people are getting seriously interested in growing their own natural medicines and that includes the Coca plant, right near the top of anyone’s list. People rightfully want full legal access to this and other powerful natural medicines outside the medical establishment and the legal system, in our own gardens, greenhouses and grow rooms. So, when Coca plants finally do become legal, there is a wealth of centuries-old, long-lost, but very useful knowledge on Coca Leaf cultivation both in greenhouse and outdoor environments that I want to share, so let’s take a look at a few of the basics!
Shared knowledge is true power
You may already know that Coca was widely grown in glass greenhouses in Europe and Asia in the 1800’s, and there were major outdoor Coca plantations worldwide throughout that century. Every botanical garden in the world displayed the beautiful Coca plant, and botanists everywhere loved it and probed its secrets. Once you review the science from the 1800s it’s clear – this is not a difficult plant to grow. All that lost knowledge is still out there and my mission is to make it available so that the Coca plant can take its rightful place as a Peoples’ Medicine alongside Cannabis and the Opium Poppy.
Ripening Coca Beans – Colombia
Coca Starter Beds – Amazonian Peru
There are a lot of myths about how difficult it is to grow Coca outside of certain traditional sweet spots in the Andes. That may have been true before Cannabis growing under lights came of age but it no longer applies – especially to small, boutique or personal crops of Coca.
Science has verified the traditional knowledge that coca plants grown at higher altitudes produce a higher ratio of Cocaine to the other 20+ important Coca alkaloids compared to Coca grown outdoors at sea level or even low altitudes – below 2000′. However, Coca seemed to grow pretty well in Puerto Rico back in 1937-39 when it was being investigated by USDA.
But that doesn’t mean that Coca can only be grown successfully in the mountains. Coca has proven to be highly adaptable over thousands of years in human hands. It’s just that Coca’s natural environment, the cradle of its evolution, seems to have been in high Andean valleys, so the plant’s response to clean, intense light is built into its genes – literally.
“Light intensity, humidity and moisture availability may influence profoundly the relative leaf size, form, vein thickness and patterns, as well as stomatal and veinlet terminus numbers in all varieties of cultivated coca. Classical shade-leaf as opposed to sun-leaf structural differences may be found within each variety in relation to microhabitat differences experienced by individual plants and leaves. Humid and shady microhabitat conditions result normally in the development of relatively large, thin leaves with reduced numbers of stomata and veinlet termini per unit area, as well as more slender and less conspicuous veins. Conversely, sunny and drier habitats induce the formation of small and thicker leaves with comparatively more numerous stomata and veinlet termini, and more prominent, thicker veins. Shade-leaf morphology appears not only in South American coca plants grown under shaded conditions, but also in plants of each variety cultivated under glass at temperate latitudes in North America.”
With this in mind, let me introduce you to the Coffee plant – Coca’s remarkably close cousin, or maybe even sister. You don’t hear much about this, but the similarities between Caffeine and Cocaine alkaloids are just the beginning of the incredible Coca-Coffee relationship.
For example, you can’t tell the difference between the Coca and Coffee beans just by looking, and the flowers and leaves are visually almost interchangeable. After a lot of research I’ve concluded that everything important that applies to growing Coffee also applies to growing Coca, and there’s endlessly detailed information about coffee cultivation. Here’s a great website with detailed directions, photos and where to find coffee plants. In reality a simple search will give you dozens of places to buy a wide variety of Coffee plants online. Traditional methods of growing both plants are straightforward and not complex, and anyone who has ever taken a caffeine pill knows without being told that these plants have a lot in common.
There are so many amazing similarities between Coffee and Coca plants, flowers, beans and leaves. In fact the little plants/shrubs/trees are virtually identical to the eye and in their natural chemistry as well.
Coffee plants offer a very useful and completely legal model for Coca cultivation, whether outdoors, indoors under lights, or in a greenhouse. For example, “mountain-grown” coffee has a great reputation and that’s for a good reason. Coffee used to be almost exclusively “shade-grown” a century ago, but along came scientific research and now Coffee bathes in intense mountain light in some of the world’s great coffee-growing regions.
Of course, if the Coca plant could be “shade-grown”, meaning it didn’t need a lot of direct sun and didn’t have to be grown out in the open, the task of Coca cultivators in the Andean nations would be a lot easier. (And it looks like some very clever botanists have figured out how to do just that – or something almost as effective. People are like water – we will find a way.)
Now please check out these two images. One is a handful of Coca seeds in their bean, the other is Coffee seeds in their bean.
As you look further into it you’ll find that the Coca/Coffee relationship goes far beyond the striking similarity of their seeds, leaves, flowers, alkaloids, and growth habits. Although the societies of the world now treat Coffee as something very familiar and not at all unusual, the fact is that when Coffee first hit the European psyche it had an earth trembling impact on minds and relationships. Coffee literally inspired generations of art, poetry, music and scholarship. But that’s another story.
The bottom line here is that it looks like pretty much anywhere in the world you can grow good Coffee you can grow good Coca, and that includes outdoor spaces at any altitude and in many different locations, as well as in greenhouses and indoor grow spaces at any altitude with the right kind of lighting. I want to show you why I think this little fact is so significant, and some of the fun growers and gardeners can have with it.
First, there is a lot to be said for having a little altitude, which could mean as little as 2-3000 feet depending on the environment. We’ve all heard coffee referred to as Java. That’s because arguably the best coffee in the world in the 1800’s came from Java, and those coffee plantations were right alongside some of the best Coca plantations in the world, also scattered throughout the mountains of Java and elsewhere in the archipelago like Sumatra. The Dutch were major Coca leaf producers in Java, just like the Germans were in the Andes – any surprises there?
Feral Coca plants are still there, wherever they were originally cultivated in colonial times – wild Coca gone back to nature. Maybe some Australian backpackers are walking right past some feral Coca bushes right now along an old mountain path in Java. Maybe they will stop and pick a leaf or two for making some fresh Coca tea a little later in the afternoon – if they know what they are walking past.
Even when more good Coca Leaf tea sources develop online there will still be plenty of reason to grow a little Coffee Leaf yourself at home. Who knows, Coffee Leaf tea may become a thing. Cannabis growers may want to start tucking some Coffee plants in among the Girl Scout Cookies and Durban Poison. Practice with Coffee now – grow Coca in a couple of years. Intercropping coffee and cannabis suggests some interesting combinations.
If you live in the Netherlands it looks like growing Coca plants may already be more or less legal, so if you’re already growing a few Coca plants, why not grow some Coffee leaf too, alongside your Coca? That could make things really interesting.
Coffee Leaf tea is totally unlike the brew of the roasted Coffee bean, and my research convinces me that it has many of the same benefits as reported for Coca Leaf tea in the medical literature of the 1800’s. Aside from their very similar principal alkaloids, Coffee leaf and Coca leaf share many of the same array of beneficial alkaloids and other phytochemical properties.
I’ve always wondered if anyone in the Andes – the only place in the world there would be enough Coca beans – has ever tried drying and roasting Coca beans like Coffee? Might be an interesting variation on Coca Leaf tea if it hasn’t been tried. The Coca ‘bean’ inside the flesh is slightly smaller than the Coffee bean. But brewed roasted Coca Bean coffee. How cool could that be?
So, maybe it’s time for some Coffee Leaf tea to start floating around the Cannabis ecosystem and maybe Cannabis growers are the ones to make it happen. After all – who wakes up in the morning, stretches, yawns and then heads to the kitchen for a Caffeine pill? It’s the delicious chemistry of the whole Coffee bean that people love, not the caffeine buzz itself, and one of the greatest shames of the “drug wars” is that the world has been denied the benefits and pleasures of whole Coca Leaf while being force-fed the chemical buzz of cocaine, and often not even that.
After all this talk about Coffee, if you’re still reading then Coffee probably interests you. If so, you’ll enjoy this very nicely-done 200 page guide to growing coffee outdoors. The reason I like it so much, other than it being a great grow-book, is that you can pretty much just substitute “Coca” for“Coffee” throughout the Guide. Check out this free downloadable resource.
Lots of people are already growing Coffee plants at home. If you want to check out actual greenhouse coffee growing, which is almost exactly the same process as growing Coca, check this coffee research website.
But back to the first question: why is high altitude always better for Coca? That’s what all the historical records say, and that’s why all the traditional Cocals are at altitude. Coca plantations in the jungle are only because it
doesn’t matter to the cocaine trade how high quality the leaves are – you can extract the Cocaine from low-quality jungle leaf just the same. But for highest quality leaf – you have to head for the light- or bring it in.
The secret to high quality Coffee and Coca leaf is in the ultraviolet part of the light, which becomes more intense and dominant the higher the altitude and the closer you are to the equator.
So if you’re growing outdoors, it looks like your sunniest location will be best as long as the mid-day sun isn’t so intense that it burns the young plants after you plant them out. Shade-starting is traditional for both Coca and Coffee plants, and gradual adaptation is used, but when mature both Coca and Coffee love the sun. When you are growing in a greenhouse, with or without light-assistance, you’ll be able to experiment and find just the right balance to use throughout their life cycle. Just like with Cannabis, I’m sure that Coca will respond to grow-lighting in ways that only experience can predict, and I’m also pretty sure that greenhouse and grow-lighting Coca experience is out there – it just isn’t being shared online yet. However my whole point in bringing up Coffee is that it responds exactly like Coca so anyone can get a very good idea of how Coca would do in their outdoor or greenhouse location by planting and raising a few healthy Coffee trees. Here again is the link to that free, beautifully photographed and very detailed coffee grower’s guide.
As we all know, to grow great Cannabis indoors you use high-intensity grow lights set up to allow you to vary the spectrum. It’s the same with Coca, the Opium Poppy, Coffee and every other treasured plant growing indoors under lights – there is an ideal spectrum for each point in the plant’s life cycle. I’m pretty sure that you could look at solar data for the Coca regions of the Andes and come up with a pretty good idea of a spectrum map for light-assisted Coca. For example, when you look at the bright yellow on this map of Peru above you can tell you’re looking at the solar intensity of the headwaters of the Amazon flowing down into the Amazon basin itself, which is the home of traditional Coca growing. This looks to me like a solar map of Coca’s natural environment – don’t you think? This is one of those areas where growers will gradually accumulate experience and it will become community knowledge.
In another post I discussed the historical evidence, mostly from the 1800’s, of vigorous efforts to introduce of Coca plantings worldwide, and took note of a number of places where Coca was grown as part of a botanical garden or conservatory display of Andean plant life.
A hundred and fifty years ago Coca was grown in almost every public Botanical Garden facility in the world and in quite a few private indoor gardens as well. Some of the more famous gardens with notable stands of Coca plants (usually with accompanying displays of how Coca is used by those quaint primitive Andean Indians) include; the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, London; the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Royal Botanic Garden at Sydney, the Gardens at Versailles, and the Jardim Botanico at Rio de Janeiro.
Another beautiful example of an indoor Coca garden was the one created by Angelo Mariani at his company’s headquarters in France. This crude drawing hardly conveys what history describes as a complex of beautifully designed and innovative greenhouses as well as a production facility for “Vin Mariani” – pretty universally agreed to be the best Coca Wine ever created, although it was actually more of a Coca Tonic than a wine.
If you want to learn more about the fabulous Angelo Mariani and his empire of Coca wines, tonics and medicines you’ll enjoy exploring the archives of this blog. (It’s in French but easy to translate.)
All these successful indoor botanical and commercial Coca gardens showed that a modest level of Coca plant production is quite feasible and, once the gardens are well-established, they can be self-sustaining over decades. That makes it pretty easy to see that Coca plants can be successfully grown using modern indoor technologies.
Of course growing Coca plants indoors with the idea of producing Cocaine probably not be anywhere near profitable even if it were to be legal. That leaves markets the question of markets for the whole natural Coca leaf itself, and followers of this blog know that I see many ways that Coca Leaf can be the basis of a wide range of viable natural medicine businesses, as it already is in Peru and Bolivia.
But … now let’s mention the single greatest challenge to indoor Coca growing anywhere outside of Peru, Bolivia and Colombia – and possibly a few other places that remain nameless.
There are two ways to grow Coca plants – from seeds or cuttings. The biggest problem with growing from seed anywhere outside of the immediate area where the seed is harvested is that Coca seeds have a very short natural “shelf life”. The seed is protected by an outer protective fruit which begins decaying rapidly, and once the rot starts it renders the seed inside infertile.
However, I do hear from friends in the UK that growers there and in the Nether;ands seem to be getting good viable Coca seed from Indonesia – probably from somebody who has lifted a few Coca plants from the vicinity of one of the old Belgian, German or Dutch Coca plantations in Java and elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago. Good work plant hunters!
As far as I can tell nobody has been successful at removing or slowing the decay (anyone used nitrogen?) of the fruity shell or otherwise making Coca seed viable beyond 2-3 weeks, although a simple, slow air-drying process out of the direct sun seems to have worked very well for old-time growers in Java. Maybe that’s what is happening now.
So even a very modest-scale grower in, for example, the Western US, would have to have a very dependable source of at least several dozen viable seeds from the Andes to get started – no small task, to be sure. Any internet source would have to be carefully evaluated – there is a good chance that it might be either a con or a sting. If you find or know of a trusted source please let me know so I check it out and post a link here.
The better option for many growers may be cuttings although traditional Coca growers use this technique just when they expect to plant only a few crops of Coca in a patch, because Coca plants grown from cuttings are sterile. High-production Cartel Coca plantations don’t care about sterility but traditional growers do. Click here to check out the full book on historical Coca cultivation techniques.
Coca growers who plant from cuttings (what a lot of Cannabis growers call “cloning”) simply take a cutting with leaf bud activity but no leaves yet, and plant it in the shade by sticking it into a prepared container or soil bed. Nothing fancy – just good moist soil shaded from direct sun. And it’s easy to get growing plants from cuttings – Coca growers using this technique reportedly have a 75% or greater success rate. Remember this image from earlier in the post? Those are cloned Coca plants, not from seed. They are all uniform in shape and height, just as they should be.
Getting viable cuttings anywhere outside of Peru/Bolivia is still (3/21) a major obstacle facing anyone thinking of growing a Coca garden because cuttings don’t travel well if they dry out, and ideally they go directly from being cut to the rooting medium anyway. Of course any Andean nation could decide to open up the world to Coca cultivation simply by allowing their traditional Coca growers to supply seed and cuttings to the world market. The impact on GDP would be profound, with great benefits going directly to the traditional growing communities. This would be especially appropriate for Bolivia, where the Coca-growing communities have historically benefited least from the wealth generated by the plant they cultivate.
Another side to the challenge of small-scale Coca growing is that as just mentioned plants from cuttings are sterile (no seeds) so growers will have to get fresh cuttings annually or keep cloning existing plants – which will lead to genetic exhaustion pretty quickly. That means, importantly, that leaf production will fall and ultimately the plants will die off.
So growing a few dozen Coca plants would be no small operation even if Coca plants were suddenly legal. Obtaining high quality seed or cuttings from their source in the Andes in time to get a planting started would still be a challenge, but one that I’ll bet will get solved PDQ the moment it becomes clear that Coca can be grown in the first US state to allow it.
If you want to really dive into Coca science as it existed before the great suppression of knowledge that has accompanied the rise of Pig Pharma and the institutionalization of ‘illegal drugs’ then I have a suggestion for you.
After reading through this post you may enjoy browsing my ebook “Searching For Mama Coca“. “Searching” is a how-to handbook lovingly assembled from deep research into three centuries of Coca cultivation experience. With this little guide you can browse the historical experience behind every step of growing and harvesting Coca Leaf and then explore links to the full original sources through the hyperlinked bibliography.
“The Coca Leaf Papers” contains 5 complete full-text, digitized, hyperlinked books from the 1800s (with lots of internal links to digitized archives of earlier Coca books) detailing every aspect of Coca use, preparation and cultivation. If it were printed it would be over 800 pages.
I know that’s information overkill, but if you’re a Coca history fanatic like me then overkill is OK. This is a very easily-navigated eBook and it includes:
“History of Coca”, Dr. Golden Mortimer, 1901
“A New Form Of Nervous Disease: An Essay On Erythroxylon Coca”, Dr. William Searles, 1884
“Erythroxylon Coca: A Treatise On Brain Exhaustion”, Dr. William Tibbles, 1877
“Coca Erythroxylon: Its Uses In Treatment of Disease”, Angelo Mariani 1885
“Coca – Its Therapeutic Applications”, Angelo Mariani, 1890
Plus a groundbreaking English translation of the detailed inside story on Andean Coca
“Drug Wars & Coca Leaf In Brazil”, Ivan Barreto 2014
If you’ve come this far – thanks! I’ve recently come across a brilliant, passionate piece of writing that makes the case for the liberation of Coca as well as I’ve ever seen it made, and I want to share it with readers of this post.
Here are a few quotes from an essay entitled “The Case for Coca and Cocaine: Bolivia’s March to Economic Freedom“, written by a candidate for a JD law degree named Daniel Tyler Cook. A full-text link is at the end. It was written in 2004 and as far as I can tell, remains buried in the law school archives. It is a brilliant summary of Coca’s place in Bolivia’s culture and economy and a disciplined, passionate argument for the liberation of Coca and Bolivia.
The author begins:
“For centuries, the Bolivian people have engaged in an intimate relationship with coca. Ancient Indian communities cultivated and consumed coca as a part of their cultural lives. Today, at least one million Bolivians still consume coca in some form. Indeed, coca is recognized as the most indispensable of Bolivian crops to its citizens. Coca also constitutes the raw material for cocaine. This fact ignites international concern, principally in the United States. As a result of the international drug trade, coca and its regulation has shaped, and continues to shape, Bolivian foreign affairs and domestic policy.
“The U.S.-led “war on drugs” has primarily targeted the coca growing Andean Nations, including Bolivia. In doing so, the United States targets the supply side of the drug trade, attempting to eradicate drug production in these source countries with the aim of preventing consumption within U.S. borders. While drug use and abuse might justify such policies from a North American perspective, a Bolivian perspective could hardly justify current international coca policies. Rather, such a U.S.-led perspective exposes the inefficacy of current drug policies aimed at Bolivia.
“This Note attempts to provide an assessment of current U.S.-backed drug policies from a Bolivian perspective. Part I traces the history of coca/cocaine production, use, and legislation in Bolivia and in the international community in order to demonstrate the integral role played by the United States in Bolivia’s coca regulatory regime. Part II examines alternatives to current Bolivian drug policies and offers a different approach to coca/cocaine regulation. This approach emphasizes Bolivian interests over the interests of other countries, specifically the United States, by proposing a unilateral approach to drug regulation to benefit and buttress Bolivia’s culture, society, and economy. This Note concludes that Bolivia’s acquiescence to a self-interested U.S. drug policy not only fails to promote Bolivia’s interests, but also causes more harm than it alleviates.
He concludes the essay, many fact-filled pages later, with this:
“Many of the problems associated with the above-mentioned anti-drug policies do not relate to their moral or practical worth. It is reasonable to assume that a nation would pass laws prohibiting or regulating drugs or crops used in producing drugs. Yet, drug prohibition or regulation is not a necessary action by any means. While the United States chooses to wage its war on drugs, it does not follow that Bolivia should do so as well. In light of the Bolivian reality, coca/cocaine prohibition has substantial costs that might outweigh any benefits prohibition fosters.
“Nonetheless, at present, the policy initiatives summarized and critiqued above have failed to provide for Bolivia’s interests. These policies have taken profitable opportunities from Bolivia’s farmers and growers without providing economically viable alternatives to coca. These policies have replaced the coca/cocaine earnings with U.S. economic aid. In essence, Bolivia has moved from living independently to something akin to living on food stamps. It has become a debtor nation by sacrificing its most profitable cash crop, the coca plant. And it has done this at the urging, indeed the coercion, of the United States.
“Bolivia would be better off if it precluded the United States from playing any role in its drug policies. As long as Bolivia is one of the poorest nations in the western hemisphere and the United States the richest, the two nations cannot negotiate freely and equally. As long as this relationship exists, any agreement between the two undoubtedly inculcates U.S. interests over Bolivian interests. While the United States has a drug problem, Bolivia does not. Bolivia’s citizens do not consume drugs at such high rates as do U.S. citizens. Moreover, the United States’ primary cash crop has not been targeted as illicit because of a derivative product banned throughout the world. The two nations stand in remarkably different positions. As such, the two nations are not in any sort of position to engage in bilateral action on an issue that affects each differently.
Now check this conclusion by the author – all I can say is RIGHT ON!
“This Note suggests that Bolivia divorce the United States as a partner in its drug control policies. If done, Bolivia would be free to regulate coca without fretting over foreign aid the United States foists upon it. This loss of income undoubtedly has consequences. Yet, other nations might pick up where American aid leaves off, narrowing some of the gap. Moreover, without intense drug interdiction and enforcement efforts, Bolivia would save money administratively. And, through liberalization of its drug laws, particularly with regard to coca, much of the Bolivian population can return to attainable goals of sustenance without worrying about violating any of a number of drug laws.
“Bolivia might also legalize cocaine as a commodity. While its export would face severe restrictions, legalization might actually have the effect of assisting international drug regulation. In essence, if Bolivian traffickers were forced to procure cocaine through a legal channel, foreign governments could easily locate those people attempting to smuggle drugs across borders. If traffickers were still able to obtain cocaine clandestinely, legalization would most likely have the effect of raising cocaine prices to pay for the intermediary buying the licit drugs to sell to traffickers engaged in the illegal international drug trade. Ultimately, a comprehensive regulatory cocaine regime would create employment opportunities in a legal market, while regulations would keep cocaine from becoming any more dangerous than it already is in a vast, illegal market. Indeed, the violence associated with an illegal drug market would diminish substantially if the illicit market were converted to a licit market.
“In Bolivia’s interest, strict coca regulations would cease, and Bolivians would again be allowed to produce coca to consume and sell on the open market. Confrontations between Bolivian drug police and cocaleros would undoubtedly lessen, limiting dissension and saving lives. With the legalization of cocaine, an illicit market diminishes. The Bolivian government would then assume the power to regulate cocaine production, distribution, and consumption within its borders. The country concomitantly would save needed funding that currently goes to eradication and supply-side reduction efforts that fail to benefit Bolivia’s interests. In the end, Bolivia’s citizens would prevail.
When I was a child I moved around the world with my military family, always traveling by ship in the days before aircraft could cross oceans. I would spend hours on deck writing messages, sealing them with candle wax in bottles I snagged from somewhere on board, and then consigning them to the sea knowing in my heart that they were on their way to someone, somewhere who would read them. Sometime replies arrived at my grandparents’ house years later, and they would forward them to me wherever I was living. From these contacts I developed pen-pals who I stayed in touch with for many years. I was fortunate to develop, very early in my life, a sense of the network that invisibly but seamlessly connects us all. Thank you for picking up this message in a bottle, dear reader. We are all here together.
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