Long before that gorgeous, fragrant brew trickles into our coffee cups, it starts life as a rather lovely evergreen plant. While we typically think of coffee as growing on an airy hillside in South America or a sub-tropical farm in Indonesia, many varieties happily grow in a domestic setting.
Since we all know plants are generally good for us, and we need each other to survive, why not think about a coffee plant as a new addition to your household? Not only do you get to breathe in the lovely oxygen they give out in return for breathing in our carbon dioxide, but your coffee plant will also make a great conversation starter.
A Short History Of Coffee
Legend has it that the coffee plant was discovered, many centuries ago by an Ethiopian goat-herder. Noticing how lively his flock became after eating the berries of a particular plant, the legendary Kaldi tried the fruit himself, with similar results.
Local monks were very interested to learn they too became more alert after consuming the berries. After early recipes combining the berries with animal fat to make a sort of protein bar, various drinks were made from the pulp. Coffee quickly became popular throughout the Arabian peninsula and elsewhere.
In the early 17th century, the Dutch started growing coffee in what is now Ceylon. Around the globe, the French, Portuguese and Spanish began planting too. The drink quickly became popular in Italy, France, and Europe.
Coffee was known in the New World in the early eighteenth century, although it wasn’t until after the 1773 Boston Tea Party that its popularity soared. Americans now enjoy a whopping 39.5 gallons of the stuff per capita every year.
What Does A Coffee Flower Look Like?
A healthy coffee plant has dark green, glossy foliage with waxy, slightly ribbed leaves that can grow to around 4 or 5 inches. New plants take at least a year to flower. Coffee flowers are white with a sweet scent, similar to jasmine.
The flowers give way to green cherries which gradually turn yellow or red and then almost black. The process of turning red takes around nine months. Each cherry usually contains two coffee seeds. These evergreen plants can grow up to 30 feet tall. In the commercial coffee-growing world, the fruit is usually harvested when shrubs are about 8 feet high. Indoors, they usually grow to about 6 feet.
Is Coffee A Fruit?
There’s often some confusion about whether coffee is a fruit. The cherries are the fruit of the Coffea plant or tree; the part of the plant that later becomes what we call a coffee bean is a seed.
Growing Coffee – The Life of A Coffee Plant
Coffee plants start life as a seed. In commercial settings, seeds are usually planted in large, shady beds, which are watered frequently. Plants are kept out of direct sunlight. Ripe cherries are harvested either by machine or by hand. The beans, or coffee seeds, are then extracted, washed, fermented and dried.
Once the seeds have been milled, the resulting green coffee is exported worldwide for roasting and blending. It’s then turned into the gorgeous whole bean or ground coffee we know and love. To complete the cycle, some green-fingered folk even like to add the coffee grinds to their gardens – although we’re not convinced about whether this does, in fact, deter snails!
How to Grow Coffee Plants at Home
Coffee houseplants are relatively easy to grow. Once established, they are hardy, long-lived plants. Just don’t expect to be able to harvest enough beans from them to make your daily cup of joe, especially in the early years. 1If you persist, however, you might, in time, get enough beans to make a cup of coffee. You’ll need around 15 coffee cherries for each cup, assuming each one contains two seeds.
You have two choices if you want to grow your own coffee plant. You can buy coffee plant seeds, and plant them, ideally in the spring. The other option is to buy young plants or seedlings. In this case, choose one with healthy foliage and no yellow leaves towards the bottom.
It can also be helpful to know the scientific name. The coffee plant belongs to the Rubiaceae family, and there are at least 90 plants in the Coffea genus. More are being added all the time. The two main varieties are Coffea Arabica and Coffea canephora – the latter produces Robusta coffee.
Where Coffee Grows Best
Different varieties of coffee prefer different growing environments, but most plants are happiest in a cool to warm equatorial location with rich soils. Top coffee-producing countries include Indonesia, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya, and Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica. The top producer is Brazil. You know a coffee plant is happy if it’s producing plenty of seeds.
A little plant biology 101 comes in handy to understand what your new coffee plant needs to thrive. Like us, plants inhale and exhale. In the case of plants, the inhale is described as photosynthesis, while the exhale is respiration. Plants absorb nutrients and water from the soil through their roots.
All plants need sunlight, just the right amount of water, good soil, and air. So if you’ve taken the plunge and bought an indoor coffee plant what kind of growing conditions are best for your new acquisition?
Coffee Plant Care Tips
Coffea plants like bright light, but not direct sunlight. They don’t like temperatures under 65 degrees Fahrenheit (around 18 degrees Celsius). If you are growing the plants on a patio or in a garden bring them indoors once temperatures start to dip a little in the Fall. They are unlikely to survive temperatures below freezing.
If you buy a young plant, try to resist repotting it immediately when you get home. Assuming you’ve bought a single plant, it’s best to wait until it’s about 6 inches or so tall. When you re-pot, ideally in the spring, choose an acidic soil. Many gardening experts suggest a soil with a pH of around 6.0 to 6.5.
Keep the soil moist, but not too damp, with good drainage. Use a light fertilizer every two or three months in spring and summer, and mist the leaves regularly. The plant needs slightly less water in the fall and winter. Spring is also a good time to prune the plant slightly.
When considering where to locate your plant, bear in mind that until the seeds are turned into coffee beans, the plant can be somewhat toxic. This is especially important to remember if you have children and pets in the vicinity.
Coffea Arabica & Other Varieties Of Coffee Plant
So what kind of coffee plant should you buy? While they’re all pretty hardy in the right conditions, some produce large fruit and seeds; some produce red cherries, others a more yellowy fruit. Some varieties are particularly tough and insect-resistant.
If space is an issue, compact varieties include Coffea Arabica ‘Nana’. If you’re looking for outdoor plants, you might enjoy the landscaping plant Psychotria Nervosa, which is not uncommon in Florida. It’s not directly related to the coffee plants we’ve outlined above but it is often described as wild coffee.
In The End….
Once you’ve found a suitable location for your new coffee plant and established a care regime, there’s not much more to do than enjoy it. As well as adding to the health of your home or garden, it provides a great talking point – preferably, over a freshly brewed cup of delicious coffee.
Hi my name is Larry, a coffee aficionado from the US. I have already visited Colombia, Sumatra, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ethiopia and Jamaica in my pursuit of finding the best-tasting coffee beans. I currently write from Bali and enjoy the relaxed life that you can find only in Indonesia. Welcome to my coffee world!