Coffee is one of the most popular drinks on the planet, trailing only water and tea in global daily consumption. Although it’s a drink many people rely on for a morning pick-me-up, it can be easy to overlook the plant that produces this culturally and economically important caffeinated beverage.
What is Coffee?
Coffea is a genus in the Rubiaceae family. Although it is often referred to as the coffee family, Rubiaceae contains other important or well-known plants such as Cinchona (some plants of this genus are used to make quinine), Gardenia, and Missouri-native buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). Members of the Rubiaceae family are found all over the world. The greatest centers of diversity are found in Central and South America, Africa, Madagascar, Asia, and the tropical Pacific islands.
The genus Coffea contains more than 50 species, nearly all of which are native to Africa and Madagascar. These evergreen plants typically grow as a shrub or small tree. Coffea species have opposite, glossy, dark green leaves, and produce clusters of small, sweetly-scented white flowers which give way to small, usually red, drupes (berries).
Although commonly referred to as coffee “beans,” the drupes actually house the seeds of the coffee plant. The seeds contain caffeine, a stimulant, and are dried and roasted to create varying flavor profiles.
Much of the commercial coffee consumed today is from one of two species, Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora (syn. robusta), with C. arabica making up more than half of the coffee commonly sold in American stores.
Although originally from Africa, Coffea arabica is grown today in tropical and subtropical regions across the globe. Brazil produces more coffee annually than any other country. Other top producers include Vietnam, Indonesia, Ethiopia, and Colombia.
The Dark Side of Coffee
Coffee is not without its problems. Because of the growing demand for this commodity, tropical forests have been cleared and converted into coffee plantations. Whenever possible, look for coffee that is sustainably produced and fair trade. This helps ensure that existing forests are not destroyed and the people working on the plantations are paid and treated fairly.
Coffee at the Garden
The Garden’s living collection includes several coffee trees. The largest live in the Climatron, near the entrance to the Brookings Exploration Center. Several smaller trees are kept in the greenhouse and brought outside seasonally.
The Garden horticulturists generally do not harvest the coffee, to allow visitors more opportunity to see the fruits on the tree. However, staff did harvest some of the fruit in 2018 to make a video showing how coffee is processed for drinking. Please do not pick any fruits or vegetables at the Garden.
Rubiaceae Research and Coffee Conservation
Garden researchers also encounter coffee quite a lot, and not just when working late hours to describe new species. Our botanists work both in coffee’s native range in Africa and Madagascar, and in many of its cultivated homes across the Neotropics.
Dr. Charlotte Taylor is an expert on the Rubiaceae family, specializing in the genera Palicourea and Psychotria. Taylor has published more than 400 new species in her career, utilizing the Garden’s expansive herbarium collection to identify and describe plants. Look at the specimens below. Can you spot the similarities and differences between these three species?
Dr. Roy Gereau, who oversees the Garden’s research and conservation program in Tanzania, has contributed to IUCN Red List assessments of Coffea species in East Africa. Some species, such as Coffea mufindiensis, are relatively widespread in the region, while others such as Coffea kihansiensis are extremely local. Of the 15 species assessed, nearly 75% have some level of threatened status—meaning they face the very real potential of going extinct in the wild.
Another useful resource for researchers, the Garden’s Peter H. Raven Library contains more than 100 books and publications about coffee—dealing with everything from botany to economics, chemistry to culture, and production to history. Several striking illustrations of Coffea arabica have been digitized from the Garden’s rare book collection for the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
The Garden’s biocultural collection also includes several coffee-related items. One of the more interesting artifacts is a coffee filter used in Madagascar. The filter, made from a sedge, is much different than the coffee filters you would find in an American grocery store.
No matter the filter you use, or the roast you prefer, or whether you take it with cream or sugar, coffee is a drink that connects millions of people across the globe.
Cassidy Moody — Senior Digital Media Specialist