Coffee is a popular drink in every corner of the world. It is highly valued for the stimulating effects as much as the bitter flavor. It might be hard to believe, but coffee, as we know it, is a relatively new drinking experience.
According to Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer’s The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug, the first recorded people to drink coffee lived in Yemen in the 15th Century. The stimulating effects initiated concern and this led to an attempt to curtail use – although these efforts were ineffective. Increased distribution continued to radiate out from this region.
Even the Ottoman Empire through the early 17th Century prohibited this drink, but all the effort was to no avail. Once coffee reached Italy, popular desire soon overwhelmed law.
Growing Coffee Plants
Today coffee is grown in all equatorial regions of the world. Most production is in Latin America, India and South East Asia. Coffee is a dark green, small evergreen tree that is normally about 15 feet tall at full maturity. While some specimens live quite a number of years, 15 to 25 years is a reasonable productive life span.
Harvest yield is fertilizer-and-light-optimized. The better fertilized the tree, the better the crop. The same holds true for light. Coffee is able to live in full sun through shade. The best situation, however, is to fertilize trees in full light.
The next best situation is to fertilize coffee in shadier locations followed by full sun and little fertilizer. Those trees that have the lowest yield are under fertilized and grown in shade. There are some connoisseurs, however, that devotedly believe that trees grown in shade produce the best-tasting coffee.
The slight stature of the tree, combined with the ability to grow in variable light levels, suggest that this plant works well as a decorative house plant that provides a reward. Coffee prefers to grow in environments we find comfortable. It’s true that they would prefer more humidity than our homes generally have in the winter. Still, the amount of leaf drop is within reason for a typical home’s low light and humidity levels. The saving grace is the berry– these ripen just on the doorstep of the end of winter and the beginning of spring.
Cultivar Considerations for Gardeners
There are two primary species grown in the world. The first is known as Coffea robusta. This coffee is grown in about 20% of the world. It has half again as much more caffeine and a stronger flavor than Coffea arabica.
This second species is a better tasting coffee so more preferred. However, C. arabica is more disposed to coffee rust, which has become a major disease problem that is difficult to treat.
There are now efforts to produce new cultivars that are resistant to this rust yet have a delicate full-bodied flavor. Concern about this disease shouldn’t affect your decision about which variety to grow, since you will probably be living in an area outside of coffee’s primary growing zone, anyway.
Temperate habitats should insulate individual plants from this problem. The large distance between infested areas is insurance against infection. The scale tipper is that C. arabica is self-fertile.
Some coffee cultivars, including C. robusta, require cross-pollination with another plant to fruit. Some sources will call this outcrossing. Growing C. Arabica means you only need one plant to get beans.
Cuttings to Produce New Plants
Cuttings are a favored method for producing new plants, using short 5 or 6 inch tip cuttings. Take off all but the last 2-4 leaves at the tip. Dip the slanted cut in a high quality rooting compound. Cloning machines have a fine mist that constantly bathes these cuttings in a highly oxygenated environment.
Rooting is faster and more reliable with this technique. Yet, the propagator can carefully pack the treated cutting in damp soil with a humidity dome as one would for any softwood cutting. Take care to remove the dome periodically. This prevents pathogenic fungus from establishing; the cutting will benefit from the exchange of new air too.
Gardeners should make cuttings in the spring after berries have ripened and before flowering begins. This is the time when the tree is preparing to grow new leaves in its annual cycle. Even though this is an evergreen, periodic leaf drop will happen. Expect the greatest loss to happen about the time the berries ripen. The plant is preparing for a new season.
Growing Trees From Seed
Green berries that have not been roasted will germinate. The rate will be low because of how processors cleaned the berries in preparation for shipment. There is also a significant decrease in germination with age. Gardeners should keep seed as fresh as possible because even a half-year from picking means that one can expect poor germination rates.
There is another reason to avoid buying green beans from your local food co-op. Remember that C. arabica is self fertile coffee and C robusta is not. Since C. arabica is about 75 percent of the world coffee planted, you have fairly good odds with beans from your grocer.
A more reliable source would be to shop from a trusted seed vendor. You only need one tree. A handful of seed from your market will definitely be less expensive than a specialty garden source. Economic concern may encourage experimental curiosity.
Each berry contains two beans. Both are capable of sprouting. Beans at the grocer have had their fruit pulp removed. You will need to remove the fruit pulp should you have access to berries instead of seed.
Soaking the dried berry in water for a day softens the pulp as well as hydrates the beans for planting. Simply plant your beans in a damp rich sterile potting media. Coffee is slow to germinate. Expect germination to begin in about 2 months or more. Continue to water and begin a mild fertilizer once true leaves emerge.
Culture For Both Cuttings and Seedlings
Once the cutting has rooted or the seedling has emerged, provide plenty of light. Hopefully this will be in the summer when you can place your container in as much sunlight as the young leaves will tolerate without burning.
A safe rule is morning sun with afternoon light shade. These young plants will benefit from supplemental light in the house the first winter. Fluorescent lighting provides wide spectrum light with little heat and low energy consumption that works well. Established plants will accept normal household lighting once established. An east or south facing window is best.
After the first winter you will find a hardy dark green plant that encourages closer inspection each time you pass by it. The tree is inviting. A 6 foot tree will be your result after 5 or 6 years. Some guides suggest that berries will begin to set in 3 years from sprouting.
Realistically, allow a few extra years. Once the tree achieves the desired 5 to 7 feet house tree, you will begin to see flowering and fruit set. This size tree will fit nicely in a 15 gallon container.
Each and every spring thereafter, gardeners should include root trimming as one would any bonsai and apply fresh rich soil. While citrus trees are more susceptible to pathogenic soil disease because the trunk dips down in a container over time, you should discourage this situation for your coffee tree also.
Be sure to raise the soil level so the tree is at or above the soil line (not sinking into the container). This encourages excess water to flow away from the tree.
This is the best time to prune the tree too. Pruning will encourage thicker growth in an appealing shape with this once a year haircut. You can encourage these trees to assume a slimmer profile to accentuate your interior space through proper pruning. Rooted cuttings of coffee trees are still a special plant at local garden society exchanges. There won’t be any difficulty finding homes for any starts produced each year.
Coffee for the Home
Providing adequate water and regular fertilization along with a bright outdoor location will reward the owner with an annual supply of berries. These unusual house plants always draw interest. Children and adults alike love to see the ripe berries. The tree is easy and carefree. It loves the same environment we enjoy. No wonder there is fascination with this plant no matter the age or location where one lives.