The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Cola spp. (Cola acuminata and C. nitida)


Cola Tree




Sterculiaceae (Cocoa Family); Sterculieae Tribe, Sterculiinae Subtribe

Forms and Subspecies


The two most important trees that provide cola nuts are so similar that they can be distinguished only on the basis of the structure of the nuts they produce:


Cola acuminata (P. Beauv.) Schott et Endl.—small cola tree


Folk Names


Abata kola, abé, afata, ajauru, ajo pa, alie a uke, al mur, aloko, alou, ang-ola, apo, ashaliya, atara, ataras, atarashi, awasi, awedi, ballay cornu, b’are, ‘bari, bar ni da mugu, bese, bese-fitaa (“white cola”), bese hene (“king’s cola”), bese koko (“red cola”), bese kyem, bese-pa (Ghanese, “good cola”), besi, bichy nuts, bise hene, bise kyem, bise pa (“good cola”), bisi, bisihin, bisi tur, bissy, bitter cola, bobe, buesse, buessé, burduk’u, chigban, chousse, cola, colatier, cola tree, dabo, ‘dan agyaragye, ‘dan agyegye, ‘dan badum, ‘dan katahu, ‘dan kataku, ‘dan kwatahu, ‘dan laka, ‘dan richi, daushe, dibe, doe-fiah, ebe, ebi, e esele, egin-obi, ehoussé, ehuese, ereado, erhesele, eseri, evbe gabari, evbe gbanja, evbere, evbi, eve, evi, ewe, ewese, fakani, farafara, farsa, fatak, fecho, fetjo, gabanja, gandi, ganjigaga, gazari, ge, go, “nut”), godi (“tree”), godoti, gola, gonja, gooroo nuts, gor, gore, goriya, goro, gorohi, goron ‘yan k’asa, gotu, gotu kola, guere, guéré, guiti, guli, gura, gura nuts, guresu, gurésu, guro, gwanja, gwe, gwolo, hak’orin karuwa, halon, halou, hannunruwa, hapo, hure, huré, ibe oji, ibi, ibong, ihié, inkurma, jouro, kanu, kanwaga, kobe, kola, kolabaum, kolai, kola nut tree, kolaxame, ko-tundo, kui, kuruo, k’waryar goro, k’waryar yaraba, k’yank’yambishi, k’yanshe, labuje, labure, lou, maandin, mabanga, marsa, mbuesse, mbuessé, minu, na fo (“white cola”), nafo, na he (“red cola”), nahé, nata, ngoro, ntawiyo, ntawo, obi, obí (Yoruba),105 obi abata, obi gbanja, obi gidi, oji, oji ahia, oji aniocha, oji anwe, oji inenabo, oji odi, oji ugo, ombene, oro, oue, oué, oure, ouré, sandalu, saran-waga, siga, suture, tino uro, togo, tohn-we-eh, toli, tolo, toloi, tshere, tugule, tugure, tugwi, tui, ture, tutugi, uro, vi, wa na, we-eh, we na, wé na, wobe ihie, wore, woroe, wuro, yétou

These folk names almost always apply to both Cola species (Ayensu 1978, 255*).

“To the extent that they have still preserved their own natural and cultural qualities, cola fruits and cola trees occupy a high position in profane and religious ceremonies of the populace. . . . The prophet is said to have rested under a cola tree and to have distributed cola nuts to his followers. . . . The thing with Mohammed is, of course, an unmitigated swindle, for the cola tree does not occur in Arabia or in East Africa, and the prophet was never in West Africa. . . . The Islamic missionaries played their part from an early date and surrounded the cola with mystical embellishments.”







Other Cola Species Used for Pleasure and Other Purposes


The genus Cola consists of fifty to sixty species, some of which have attained importance as agents of pleasure, medicines, or ritual drugs. In addition to Cola acuminata and Cola nitida (the most important members of the genus), the following species are also used. (From Seitz et al. 1992, 940.)





Indigenous to western Africa, the cola nut (Cola nitidaCola acuminata) was originally reserved for the gods. During a visit to the earth, however, one of the gods left a piece behind and humans found it. Because of their stimulating powers, cola nuts were used for magic and as amulets and aphrodisiacs. Today, they still play a central role in the religious and social life of many West and Central African cultures.

Clusius provided the first description of cola in 1605. Europe first became aware of the cola nut in the second half of the sixteenth century. The first cola plantations were established in the West Indies around 1680 (Schröder 1991, 119*). Nevertheless, the stock plant long remained unknown (Schumann 1900). In 1865, the seeds were found to contain caffeine (Schneider 1974, 1:346*).

The original Coca-Cola was a potent psycho-tropic beverage made with an extract of cola nuts and Coca leaves (Erythroxylum novogranatense).



The genus Cola is originally from tropical West Africa. Cola acuminata is found from Togo to Angola, and Cola nitida from Liberia to the Ivory Coast and in Senegal and Nigeria. As a result of cultivation, both species have now spread into the tropical zones of the New World and Southeast Asia.



Propagation occurs using large, undamaged seeds from the center of the fruit. To germinate, the seeds are placed in well-moistened seedbeds or pressed directly into the ground; no other treatment is necessary. The seeds germinate after three to five weeks. The tree can also be propagated using cuttings taken from root shoots (Eijnatten 1981). The variety Cola acuminata var. trichandra K. Schum. is especially suitable for cultivation (Seitz et al. 1992, 941).

Cola is now also planted in the region of Bahia (Brazil) for use in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé cult (Voeks 1989, 126*).

Cola trees require a moist, warm, tropical climate and thrive especially in rain forests. They prefer alluvial and humus soils.



This evergreen tree, which can grow as tall as 25 meters, develops pale yellow, purple-striped flowers and star-shaped composite fruits with large, woody hulls. The alternate leaves of Cola nitida are shiny and light green in color, while those of Cola acuminata are leathery and dark green. The leathery/woody fruits (so-called follicular fruits) can weigh as much as 3 kg. Enveloped within a mucilaginous layer are the large (up to 3 cm) seeds, with two (C. nitida) or four to six (C. acuminata) seed leaves. These cola “nuts” turn reddish brown when they dry. In the tropics, Cola species bloom throughout the year, with the main flowering period occurring at the beginning of the rainy season.

The two species C. acuminata and C. nitida are easily confused with the tropical species Cola quinqueloba (K. Schum.) Garcke as well as with other Cola species.

Psychoactive Material


—Seeds (nuts, semen cola, semen colae, colae semen, cotyledones colae, embryo colae, nuces sterculiae, nux colae)

Preparation and Dosage


The cola nut is the dried seed heart that has had its hull, i.e., the seedling or embryo of the plant, removed. In the pharmaceutical trade, only the seeds of Cola acuminata and Cola nitida may be referred to as cola nuts (Seitz et al. 1992, 942).

The seeds are freed from the fruit by breaking open the follicles by hand. The white seed hull that they are attached to can be removed in various ways. The cola nuts may be soaked overnight in water, so that the swollen hulls can be pulled off the next day, or they may be allowed to dry in large piles for five to six days. As soon as the hull turns brown, it disintegrates. After this, the nuts need only be washed. Freshly harvested cola nuts are sometimes placed in a termite mound. The termites then eat the seed hull cleanly away but do not touch the cola nuts (Schröder 1991, 123*).


The rather low-growing cola tree (Cola acuminata).



The fruit of Cola nitida.



Botanical illustration of Cola acuminata. (From Meyers, 5th ed.)


Some of the bitter red and white seeds are chewed fresh (Bremness 1995, 50*), but most are placed in water (so that they will remain soft) or dried in the sun.

An average daily dosage is 2 to 6 g or 1 to 3 g three times daily (Seitz et al. 1992, 944). The nuts are also used to manufacture extracts, tinctures, and wine extracts. Depending upon the production method, these products can exhibit considerable variation in the amounts of active constituents they contain.

Ritual Use


In West Africa and the Sahel zone, all of life is heavily shaped by the cola nut (Uchendu 1964), which represents the most important socio-integrative element. Cola nuts are offered to every guest as a gesture of respect and deference, they are presented to a lover as a token of one’s feelings, they are exchanged at the end of business negotiations to seal the contract, and they are offered to the ancestors, orishas, spirits, and gods. The stimulating nuts are ingested at all social and religious events. They are chewed or given to others at burials, name-giving ceremonies, baptisms, and sacrifices. In the royal courts (e.g., in northern Ghana), all political meetings and discussions begin with a communal chewing of cola. The nuts are placed at forks in the road as protective amulets, they are given to lepers and beggars as gifts, they are handed to physicians and healers as a welcoming greeting, and they are given to soothsayers as payment for divinations (Drucker-Brown 1995).

The social meetings at which cola nuts are ceremonially distributed and communally consumed are strongly reminiscent of the manners in which Catha edulis is used in Yemen, Erythroxylum coca and Erythroxylum novogranatense in South America, Ilex cassine and Ilex vomitoria in southeastern North America, Ilex paraguariensis in southern South America, Piper methysticum in Oceania, Camellia sinensis in Japan, Cannabis sativa in Morocco, and betel in Southeast Asia (cf. Graebner 1927).

Cola nuts have also attained a ritual significance in Latin America. They are one of the liturgical plants of the Candomblé cult and are an indispensable element in the initiation of new members into the cult (Voeks 1989, 126*).

In the Afro-American Santería cult (cf. madzoka medicine), a sacred liquid known as omiero is drunk at the initiation of a new cult member (santero). Omiero should consist of 101 herbs, representing all of the orishas (Yoruba gods).106 Yet because it is almost impossible to collect all of these plants, the number of sacred orisha herbs has been reduced to twenty-one. Omiero is prepared from these twenty-one herbs as well as the following ingredients: rainwater, seawater, river water, holy water, sacrificial blood, rum, honeymanteca de corojo, cocoa butter, cascarilla, pepper (Piper spp.), and cola nuts (González-Wippler 1981, 95). Alone, the presence of the many cola nuts, the rum (see alcohol), and the cocoa butter (see Theobroma cacao) is enough to ensure that the preparation has stimulant or mild psychoactive effects. Unfortunately, the botanical identity of the twenty-one orisha herbs is not fully known. They do include Solanum nigrum (cf. Solanum spp.witches’ ointments), lettuce (Lactuca virosa), cinnamon, and fern (see Polypodium spp.), all of which could contribute to the drink’s psychoactivity (González-Wippler 1981, 96).



The cola nuts themselves represent artifacts, as they were used as currency in Africa for a time (Schröder 1991, 116*).

Medicinal Use


The fruits have many folk medicinal uses, especially in Africa (Akendengué 1992, 171*). They are used primarily as a tonic and stimulant and to treat dysentery, fever with vomiting, and exhaustion (Ayensu 1978, 257*). Many African women chew cola nuts to avoid vomiting while pregnant and to treat or suppress emerging migraines (Seitz et al. 1992, 944). To a certain extent, cola is also regarded as an aphrodisiac (Drucker-Brown 1995, 132f.).



Cola Counterfeits and Cola Substitutes


The drug can be counterfeited by using the seeds of lower-quality (i.e., with less caffeine) Cola species as well as the fruits/seeds of false colas (some of which have no caffeine at all) (Seitz et al. 1992, 943).




The so-called cola nuts are rust-brown in color when dry.


“Without the cola nut, for which, if circumstances called for it, the riding horse or the bed slave would be given up, there would be no courtship, no marriage contract, no dowry, no oath, no symbolic expression of friendship or enmity, and no provisions for the dead on their journey. For the people of A. E. N., the cola nut was also responsible for the Adam’s apple in men’s throats, as they explain in a legend. According to this, once, as the Creator was wandering on the earth looking after the people, he took a piece of cola nut that he was chewing out of his mouth and laid it on a tree drum. And because he forgot this when he departed, a man who had observed this forgetfulness was able to take possession of the delicacy. But the god remembered his absentmindedness and returned, whereupon the man tried to swallow the divinely tasting morsel. The creator, however, stopped him from doing so with a quick grab of his neck, and since that time, men bear this knotty deformation on their throats.”






In Europe, cola nuts were once utilized to treat migraine headaches, neuralgia, vomiting, seasickness, and diarrhea (Schneider 1974, 1:347*). Today, Cola preparations are consumed around the world for physical and mental exhaustion (see energy drinks). A mother tincture (Cola hom. HAB) is used in homeopathy (Seitz et al. 1992, 945).



The composition of the constituents is the same in both species. The purines caffeine and theo-bromine (cf. Theobroma cacao) occur in all parts of the plant but are concentrated in the seeds and seedlings. Cola nuts from Cola acuminata contain up to 2.2% caffeine, and those from Cola nitida up to 3.5% caffeine. Both contain less than 1% theo-bromine (Brown and Malone 1978, 11*; Seitz et al. 1992, 942). Also present are the polyphenols leucoanthocyanidin and cathecine and large amounts of starch (Seitz et al. 1992, 940). Caffeine and cathecine are primarily present in the form of a caffeine-cathecine complex (especially in fresh nuts) that previously was wrongly thought to be a glycoside and named colanine (Seitz et al. 1992, 941).



Cola nuts have pronounced powers to stimulate, to wake up a person and keep him awake, as well as tonic effects, i.e., they generally invigorate a person and promote concentration. The effects of freshly chewed nuts are more pronounced, as the caffeine-cathecine complex they contain is broken down more rapidly. Since this complex decays as the seeds dry, the alkaloids are not as easily removed from the tissue and hence are more slowly absorbed. To date, no negative effects of Cola use during pregnancy have been observed (Seitz et al. 1992, 944).

Commercial Forms and Regulations


In Africa, numerous commercial goods are produced in different areas. Tinctures and refreshing beverages are manufactured in many countries. All Cola products are available around the world without restriction (Seitz et al. 1992). Only the pertinent food regulations need be taken into consideration.


The stimulating extract of the cola nut was mixed with an extract of coca to produce what is probably the most famous refreshing drink in the world: Coca-Cola. (Advertisement, late nineteenth century)




See also the entry for caffeine.


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———. 1977. The introduction of nitida kola into Nigerian agriculture, 1880–1920. African Economic History 3:2–5.


———. 1981. Kola-Handel in Westafrika. In Rausch und Realität, ed. G. Völger, 2:528–32. Cologne: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde.


———. 1986. Trade in gbanja kola in south western Nigeria, 1900–1950. Odu—A Journal of West African Studies 30:25–45.


Akinbode, Ade. 1982. Kolanut production and trade in Nigeria. Ibadan: NISER.


Chevalier, August, and Em. Perrot. 1911. Les kolatiers et los noix de kola. Paris: Augustin Challamel.


Drucker-Brown, Susan. 1995. The court and the kola nut: Wooing and witnessing in northern Ghana. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 1 (1): 129–43.


Eijnatten, Cornelis L. M. 1981. Probleme des Kola-Anbaus. In Rausch und Realität, ed. G. Völger, 2:522–27. Cologne: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde.


Ford, Martin. 1992. Kola production and settlement mobility among the Dan of Nimba, Liberia. African Economic History 20:51–63.


González-Wippler, Migene. 1981. Santería: African magic in Latin America. Bronx, N.Y.: Original Products.


Graebner, F. 1927. Betel und Kola. Ethnologica 3:295–96, Leipzig.


Lovejoy, Paul E. 1970. The wholesale kola trade of Kano. African Urban Notes 5 (2): 141.


———. 1980a. Caravans of kola: The Hausa kola trade 1700–1900. Zaria and Ibadan, Nigeria: Ahmadu Bello University Press.


———. 1980b. Kola in the history of West Africa. Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines 20 (1/2): 97–134.


———. 1995. Kola nuts: The “coffee” of the Central Sudan. In Consuming habits, ed. J. Goodman et al., 103–125. London and New York: Routledge.


Neimark, Philip J. 1996. Die Kraft der Orischa: Tradition und Rituale afrikanischer Spiritualität. Bern, Munich, and Vienna: O. W. Barth.


Schumann, K. 1900. Die Mutterpflanze der echten Kola. Notizblatt des Königl. botanischen Gartens und Museums zu Berlin 3 (21): 10–18.


Seitz, Renate, Beatrice Gehrmann, and Ljubomir Kraus. 1992. Cola. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 4:940–46. Berlin: Springer.


Uchendu, V. 1964. Kola hospitality and Igbo lineage structure. Man 64:47–50.