Thursday, March 1, 2012

Caffeine: the most widely consumed drug in the world

By Carrie Lamont (carrielamont)
February 21, 2012

Before Meeting on Tuesday Mar 6th

Caffeine: you can chew caffeinated gum, use caffeinated soap or even caffeinated lip balm. Cosmetics promise you will look brighter and more alert if you use their caffeine-containing creams. More plants contain caffeine than you're probably aware of, some of which you can grow and some of which are found only deep in the Amazon jungle. It is the only known psychoactive drug that can be sold with absolutely no regulation. Caffeine has been keeping humans awake for thousands and thousands of years. Exactly where does this enervating chemical occur, and how does it benefit the plant producing it?

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.

CSurprisingly, 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!

No comments: