Caffeine: the most widely consumed drug in the world
why would a plant want caffeine?
The last question seems to be the easiest to answer: plants which contain caffeine, while they may make goats have trouble sleeping, are generally less bothered by insect and other predators. Caffeine (in its purest, chemical form) is quite bitter, a fact of which beginning coffee drinkers are all too aware. The soil around a caffeine producing plant is usually impregnated with the substance, protecting the 'caffeinated' plant from predators for several yards. But which are these caffeine-producing plants?
not just coffee or tea
We all know that coffee and tea contain caffeine—some of us couldn't be without it. Since both coffee and tea have been discussed at length in their own articles, I'll let you refer to those for more information. If you want to know how much caffeine is in your favorite pick-me-up, go to this article from the Mayo clinic or this one from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. But there are a number of less well-known caffeine-producers with you may not be familiar.
Most English-speaking, Christmas-celebrating folks have a very clear picture of holly in their heads! It has leathery, dark green leaves which have thorns all around them and bright red berries, right? Most of them come in female (with the berries) and male (with inconspicuous pollen) forms; you need to plant at least one male holly in the vicinity of your showy female hollies. [I only know all this because I was considering planting a pair of holly bushes.] Holly leaves are ubiquitous on Christmas wrapping paper and greeting cards. But the Ilex genus, consisting of hollies and other shrubs with colored berries, occurs throughout the Americas and Asia, from Paraguay to mainland China! And it is from this genus that three of our "caffeinated plants" emerge.
Surprisingly, several American hollies are caffeine producers. Take the Yaupon Holly, or Ilex vomitoria, which is native to North America, found along the southeastern coast from as far north as Maryland and west to parts of Texas. In fact, I. vomitoria is a popular landscaping plant for xeriscaping conditions today and has several cultivars. Early Europeans in the area observed Native Americans drinking a beverage made from boiling or infusing the leaves or the twigs of I. vomitoria and then vomiting, hence the name "vomitoria." It is believed these days that the beverage in question contained nothing stronger than a very large dose of caffeine, and the ritual regurgitation came from other substances that were added before it was consumed. Never-the-less, the name I. vomitoria is what the plant got stuck with. I. vomitoria is a high caffeine-producer, and infusions of leaves or twigs are still drunk by some locals. Please check with your health care provider first!
Our next big caffeine-producer is probably a little more well known; it is Yerba maté, or Ilex paraguariensis. Consumed by the Guaraní people for thousands of years as a morning beverage in Paraguay, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Bolivia, Yerba maté was embraced as a stimulating beverage by the Jesuits, who colonized South America in the 16th century, and the leaves were even exported to Spain. The Jesuits managed to uncover the secret of cultivating Yerba maté, and the European colonists drank it all day (in distinction to the once-a-day Guaranís). Some time in the 18th century the maté plantations were largely converted to coffee production. Yerba maté is currently consumed in Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Paraguay, Peru, Argentina and Uraguay. It is drunk as a soft drink, iced, with juice, with milk, hot, and the method of consumption may be culturally dictated.
Another source of natural caffeine is Ilex guayusa, found primarily in the Amazon basin. A 1,500 old bundle of I. guayusa leaves was found high in the Bolivian Andes, outside of its natural range. This indicates to archeologists that I. guayusa was known and used throughout the region for thousands of years and was a trade item. I. guayusa is made into a popular soft drink in South America, and in the USA, is occasionally added to teas or other beverages which are marketed as "energy enhancers" in the US such as this one.
The only other known natural source of caffeine is kola nuts, harvested from Cola vera, C. acuminata or C. nitida, a bitter nut from a tree which grows in West Africa. Kola berries or nuts are chewed by various African peoples in a ritualistic way. It is a close botanical relative of Theobroma cacao, and is, of course, half of the original formula for cola soft drinks. If you wish to learn more, you can look at Botanicals.com.
what about chocolate?
Hershey, Nestle, and other artisanal chocolate companies (Amano, for instance) insist that chocolate has small amounts of caffeine. Chocolate does contain an alkaloid, theobromine, which acts on the central nervous system in a similar way; it opens the airways and speeds up the heartbeat. Xocoatl.org says chocolate contains no caffeine, just theobromine, which can be mistaken for caffeine in a chemical analysis. Caffeine can sertainly be added to any product up to the US Food and Drug Administration's legal limits. Because of all the caffeine removed from decaffeinated coffees and teas, there is plenty of caffeine available to add to other things.
energy drinks and other products?
The makers of energy drinks like Red Bull™ get around the FDA's limits for food additives by maintaining that their products are not foods! Caffeinated drinks packaged together with alcoholic beverages are extremely dangerous and should be avoided; caffeine is a stimulant and alcohol is a depressant. The caffeine overrides the initial natural impairment that results from consuming the alcohol. A person feels able to concentrate, and alert instead of drowsy or tipsy. Some pre-packaged beverages have as much caffeine as several cups of coffee and as much alcohol as four drinks, all in a can of something that tastes like fruit punch! Also, caffeine is added to Excedrin, Midol, NoDoz, and is even used medicinally in certain situations.
If caffeine can do that to a spider (left), inagine what it can do to your brain! Caffeine overdose (of course it exists) is also called caffeine intoxication. It is usually self inflicted, via caffeine tablets or so-called "energy drinks." My husband, never one to do anything halfway, took 28 caffeine tablets to get through an all-night driving trip. He showed up at a hospital with heart palpitations, irregular heart rhythms and a wildly racing heartbeat. The ER doctor called him a bad name and sent him home to walk it off. My own experience was similar: I took three to finish a paper on the last day of classes in college, then self-medicated with half a bottle of wine that I was too young to be drinking legally.
Anecdotes aside, caffeine intoxication affects children and teens, in particular. Caffeine is even sold in brightly colored dissolving strips. For even more disturbing information about caffeine, check out this website, called the energy fiend, which has commercials for caffeine nasal spray and bulk pricing on high-caffeine energy drinks. It also has many more stories of caffeine addiction and intoxication, including deaths attributed to caffeine intoxication. But you would have to drink a lot of very strong highly caffeinated tea or coffee (or buy some product with caffeine added to it). It would be nearly impossible to do with products grown in the home garden or even brewed at home.
I love my home-brewed coffee, twice a day. Caffeinated? Absolutely! But if I have more than my two cups, I have decaf. Otherwise, I feel like the spiderweb on the right—jagged, disorganized and spiky. Be careful with caffeine. It is a drug. Stick with the kinds you can grow or brew at home, and stay away from the kinds that have extraordinarily high doses and sugary flavors.
PHOTO OF YAUPON HOLLY THANKS TO FROSTWEED. PHOTO OF YERBA MATE THANKS TO LUNAVOX. OTHER PHOTOS AND DIAGRAM AVAILABLE THROUGH WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.