Paullinia yoco, a woody vine of the Sapindaceae family, is of enormous cultural importance to the indigenous tribes of the Amazonian regions of Ecuador, Colombia and Peru. The inner bark of the vine is rasped into cold water and drank in early morning for its stimulating effect attributed to high concentrations of caffeine and theobromine. Within recent years, however, diminished territory due to colonial encroachment has disrupted the balance of a once sustainable harvest of wild vines. In response to this shortage, members of the Secoya tribe of Ecuador have attempted to cultivate the yoco vine within a swidden agricultural systems through cuttings, seeds, and seedlings, but with minimal success.
The purpose of my 2014 summer research was to gain a better understanding into what are the ecological and habitat requirements for a more productive cultivation of Paullinia yoco. Over the course of the summer I was accompanied by several elders of the Secoya Nation and guided to the location of a total of eighteen yoco vines. At each site, a general description of the area was recorded, that included forest/soil type, elevation, presence of past/present forest disturbances such as gaps or the presence of early successional species and guilds, and the sites vicinity to water bodies, and other openings that may influence light dynamics. Each vine was identified according to its indigenous classification, and base measurements were taken. The host tree was also identified by its native name and when necessary botanical samples were collected to identify its scientific classification to its genus and sometimes species name. Host tree dbh were recorded and height was approximated using an angle gauge. Furthermore, samples of the inner bark (approx. 1-2 g) from various vine diameters and also leaves (when accessible) were collected from the vines to measure the percent content of the active purine alkaloids- caffeine and theobromine. The analysis of the approx. 50 samples are currently being carried out during the fall term 2014 using HPLC (High Pressure Liquid Chromatography) in the ESC lab. The purpose of this analysis will be to determine a range for the percent content of caffeine and theobromine, as well as a better understanding of the within-plant distribution. These results will be instrumental in selecting the best seed source, and also during cultivation experimentations designed to optimize the growth of the vine’s anatomical feature highest in the stimulating purine alkaloids. This knowledge and understanding will provide the basis for a longer term project to incorporate Paullinia yoco into a suitable community agroforestry system with positive cultural and economic implications.
In addition to the habitat analysis and analytical work, I also began the next steps in learning to cultivate the yoco vine. Sprouted seedlings from 6 of the sites were collected and placed in a nursery. Next, several potential host tree timber species were obtained from the local municipal nursery that included: Cedrela odorata, Caryodendron orinicense, Cedrelinga cateniformis, Tectona grandis, and Inga edulis. These trees were planted at a spacing of 4m x 4m with various yoco provenances planted at the 2m mark between each timber tree. Initial tree height and yoco plant height were recorded and measurements will continue to be taken over the course of this year.