Coffea arabica (Rubiaceae)
Arabica coffee, mountain coffee (Coffee family)
Origin: Ethiopia, now cultivated worldwide
Coffee, one of the leading cash crops and one of the most popular drug plants of the last few hundred years (along with tea and tobacco,) may be this author’s favorite thing in the world. Once found only growing at high altitudes in a limited range in Africa, Coffea arabica is now planted all over the West Indies, South and Central America, Tropical Asia, and the South Pacific, from Hawaii to Jamaica to Java. Almost all of the production takes place in developing countries, while most of the consumption goes on in the first world, which has historically riddled the industry with ethical problems. With the advent of fair trade and shade grown coffees this is getting better, but we still have a ways to go.
Coffea arabica is an attractive shrub or small tree, usually kept under eight feet in cultivation, with lush, evergreen leaves and heavily scented white flowers. The gardenias are in the same family, and the fragrance of the blooms is similar. After the star-shaped white flowers are pollinated and fall, the “cherries” form, which are really 2-seeded berries. It takes several months for the berries to ripen and turn from green to bright red. The seeds, or “beans,” are removed, dried and roasted, then ground and brewed in hot water, then maybe mixed with cream, or sugar, or both. Yum. Of all of the species of cultivated Coffea, C. arabica is renowned for its superior flavor, and contains the lowest levels of caffeine.
The cultural stories behind the coffee plant are too many to list here, and have filled entire books but to summarize, it was a well-guarded plant for many years by those who possessed it, and moving it around the globe was no small task. Deception, thievery, seduction, betrayal, all helped establish it as one of the most world’s most commonly cultivated plants, in a very short period of time. Many growing regions can trace their stock back to a single plant. Certain regions, such as the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, or Kona in Hawaii, have become famous for their exceptional coffee beans, grown in rich acidic soil in high misty elevations. These plants do best in mountainous areas with tropical climates; Florida is a little too cold and a little too low for commercial production of coffee, but we can grow the plants outside if completely sheltered from frost. Here at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens we have a few in our Tropical Fruit Garden, complete with ripe, red berries. Come check them out while having a cup of joe from Local Coffee & Tea.
Text by David Troxell