The cola tree is an evergreen which can grow up to 25 meters tall. It has pale yellow flowers with purple stripes and star-shaped fruits with woody hulls. The leaves of C. nitidaare shiny and light green in color. The leaves of C. acuminata are leathery and dark green. The fruits can weigh up to 3 kilograms and contain large seeds. Cola nuts turn reddish brown when they dry (Ratsch 1998, 178).
Cola plants are originally from West Africa. Cola acuminata is found from Togo to Angola, and Cola nitida is found from Liberia to the Ivory coast, and in Senegal and Nigeria. Both species are now cultivated in tropical zones of the Americas and in Southeast Asia (Ratsch 1998, 178).
Cola may be propagated using the large seeds from the center of the fruit. The seed is placed in well-moistened soil – no other treatment is required. Seeds germinate in three to five weeks. The tree may also be propagated from root cuttings. Cola trees like a moist, tropical climate, and do especially well in rain forests (Ratsch 1998, 178).
TRADITIONAL USES: The cola nut comes from west Africa, and was said to originally only be owned by the gods. However, one of the gods left a piece behind when he visited the earth, and a man found it. He started to eat it, but the god returned and forced the man to give it back by pressing his finger in to the man’s throat. This is said to be the origin of the adam’s apple. Cola nuts were used for magic and as aphrodisiacs and amulets. They are still central to the religious and social worlds of many African cultures (Ratsch 1998, 178).
In West Africa, the cola nut is the most important element of social life. Cola nuts are offered to guests in order to show respect, they are given to lovers to express one’s feelings, they are exchanged in business to seal contracts, and they are offered to the ancestors, spirits, and gods. The nuts are consumed at all social and religious events, including burials, sacrifices and baptisms. All political meetings begin with the chewing of cola nuts. They are placed at crossroads as protective talismans, and are used as payment for divination services and as part of divination ceremonies. Cola nuts were also used as currency in Africa for some time. Taking one nut with alcohol is said to prevent drunkenness (Drucker-Brown 1995).
Cola nuts also have religious significance in Latin America. They are used in the initiation ceremonies and other rituals of the Candomble sect. In the Santeria cult, a liquid known as omiero is consumed when new members are initiated. Omiero consists of 101 herbs, representing all of the orishas, or gods. However, due to the difficulty in collected all of these herbs, only 21 are usually used. Cola nuts are a part of this mixture, as well as rum and cocoa butter. Just these ingredients ensure that the drink has stimulating and psychoactive effects. Unfortunately, the identity of all 21 herbs is not known, but we do known that Solanum nigrum, Lactuca virosa, cinnamon, and Polypodium species are included (González-Wippler 1981)
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: The cola nut is dried and the seed hull is removed. This is usually done by hand. The hull may be removed by soaking the nut overnight in water, or the fruit may be dried for five to six days, which causes the hull to turn brown and disintegrate. After this, the nuts are washed. Fresh cola nuts may also be placed in a termite mound. The termites will eat the seed hull away, leaving only the nut (Schroder 1991 cited in Ratsch 1998, 179).
The bitter seeds may be chewed fresh, but most are soaked in water so that they remain fresh, or are dried in the sun. An average daily dose is 2-6 grams, or 1-3 grams three times a day. The nuts are also used to make extracts, tinctures, and wine extracts. These may contain extreme variations in amounts of alkaloids due to variations in processing methods (Seitz et al. 1992 cited in Ratsch 1998, 180).
MEDICINAL USE: In Africa, cola fruits are used as tonics and stimulants and to treat fever, dysentery and exhaustion. Many African women chew cola nuts to treat morning sickness and to prevent migraines. Cola nuts are also considered aphrodisiacs (Drucker-Brown 1995).
n Europe, cola nuts were once used to treat migraines, neuralgia, nausea, and diarrhea. Cola preparations are used today to treat physical and mental exhaustion (Ratsch 1998, 180).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: In both species of Cola, the purines caffeine and theobromine occur in all parts of the plant, particularly in the seeds. Cola nitida seeds contain slightly more caffeine than Cola acuminata seeds. Cola nuts are very stimulating and invigorating, and also increase the ability to concentrate. The effects of chewing fresh nuts are much more pronounced as the caffeine-cathecine complex breaks down more quickly. This complex degrades when the seeds dry, so the alkaloids are absorbed more slowly when one consumes dry nuts (Seitz et al. 1992).
The original Coca-Cola beverage was made with an extract of cola nuts and coca leaves, and produced very strong psychoactive and stimulating effects. Chewing cola nuts also causes euphoria and a sense of well being, and stimulates the central nervous system and the heart. Testing has shown that cola nuts help to burn fat and suppress the appetite, meaning that the cola nut is of interest to individuals who are looking to lose weight (Voogelbreinder 2009, 134-135).