Friday, July 19, 2019

The Culture of Cola: Social and Economic Aspects of a West African Domesticate :: Botany

The Culture of Cola: Social and Economic Aspects of a West African Domesticate The area of study known as "economic botany" is a wide-ranging one, but is most often concerned with the relationship between humans and the plants they utilize for food and medicine and raw materials for shelter, tools and other material needs. Less often mentioned, although not entirely neglected, are those plants that may be seen primarily as being of less obvious and direct material benefit to the people who use them. The nut of the cola tree provides an example of such a plant product, one of limited nutritional or material use, but being of very great social importance. Among the various cultures using it, the cola nut plays important cultural roles in virtually every aspect of life, from birth to death. The cola tree belongs to the Sterculiaceae family and is indigenous to West Africa, especially the nations of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast and Nigeria, but is found eastward to Gabon and the Congo River Basin. The genus Cola is comprised of about forty species, but the most commonly used are Cola verticillata, C. anomala and C. nitida, with the latter two being of the greatest economic importance (Lovejoy, 1980). Cola is related to the cacao tree, but is taller (up to 30-40 feet), and has smooth bark with longitudinal cracks and dense foliage with large, leathery oblongate leaves alternate on large petioles. It has small cup-shaped flowers borne in clusters on short pedicels in the leaf axils. Both male and hermaphroditic flowers are found, although the latter are functionally female since the anthers are not pollen-shedding. The fruits are borne on young branches and form a star-shaped cluster of pods, usually numbering five, with each follicle bearing 4-10 chestnut-sized seed s. C. nitida is dicotyledonous, while C. acuminata has more than two cotyledons, and may have six or more (McIlroy, 1963). Traditionally, the nut is used as a masticatory in a manner similar to that of betel-nut. Its popularity is due to the large amounts of caffeine and smaller amounts of theobromine, kolatin and glucose it contains, all of which act as stimulants and may be mildly addictive (Lovejoy, 1980). Its stimulant effect also makes it useful as an appetite suppressant, and it was often used as "iron rations" for armies on the march, allowing large distances to be traveled while carrying a minimum of food (Sundstrom, 1966).

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