Cola (cola nitida)

Perhaps best known as an original ingredient in the popular carbonated beverages of the same name, cola is one of approximately 125 Cola species native to the lowland and mountain rainforests of west Africa. The tree bears fruits (called “nuts”) valued for their stimulatory properties, which derive primarily from caffeine (2.0 to 3.5 percent by weight) and theobromine (1.0 to 2.5 percent by weight).

In Africa, people traditionally chewed the bitter-tasting nuts to lessen fatigue and hunger, or they ground the nuts to make a beverage. Today, cola nuts are still used ceremonially, presented as a sign of hospitality to visiting guests or to mark an important event, such as a wedding ceremony. In some regions, the nuts have sacred significance and are used in divination.


Plant profile

Common Names: Cola, Kola

Description: Evergreen tree, 40 to 60 feet tall; greenish yellow to white flowers have purple margins; rough-textured fruit, up to 8 inches long, contains more than 10 individual seeds

Hardiness: To Zone 10

Family: Malvaceae

Flowering: Periodically

Parts Used: Nut

Range/Habitat: West African rainforests

Culinary use

Together with the coca leaf, the source of cocaine, the cola nut was a key ingredient in the original Coca-Cola drink, invented in the late 19th century. In 1903, cocaine was removed from the coca leaves used to produce the drink, but the coca leaf and cola nut are still used to flavor this much-loved beverage.

Medicinal use

The cola nut stimulates the production of digestive system acids, speeds up your heart rate, and acts as a diuretic. The herb has been used to suppress hunger, as well as to treat diarrhea and asthma. (Caffeine acts as a bronchodilator, helping to open air passages.) In contemporary European herbal medicine, the powdered nut, liquid extract, and tincture are approved to treat mental and physical fatigue.

Other uses

The wood of the cola tree is used for carpentry and construction. The seeds are also used to make a dye, as well as soaps and fertilizers.

How to grow it

This tropical tree thrives in full sun or partial shade and wet, humid conditions where the temperature remains above 40°F. In Zone 9 and colder, it can be grown in a large container kept indoors during cold seasons. Cola is easy to grow from seed. To speed germination, soak the seed in water for 24 hours before sowing. Germination occurs best at 85°F. Add compost to the potting medium to help retain moisture and provide nutrients, and water and mist the plant regularly. Cola can be propagated by seed or cuttings. Be patient if you hope to obtain cola nuts: The trees generally require 7 years to begin fruiting.