Back in 11th century Ethiopia, people used the leaves of the coffee plant like a tea – boiled in water. It probably won’t surprise you the ancients believed it had medicinal properties, or that it was known as a “magical fruit” at the time. I’ll write about the progression from leaves to beans another time. Right now, being a gardening geek, I’m fascinated by the plant itself and use of its fruits.
I recently visited two botanical gardens – one in Buffalo, NY, and another in Burlington, Ontario – and both had coffee trees. Or shrubs, or … well, coffee plants can be shrubby or tree-like depending on the variety. Several of these five- to six-foot tall potted plants had little green fruits. None were blooming during my visits, but the flowers are said to smell like jasmine.
While there are hundreds of species of coffee plants, only two produce the majority of coffee for the planet: Coffea Arabica and Coffea canephora. All coffee plants are members of the Rubiaceae family, which are tropical plants that produce fruit with bean-like seeds and usually have oval to pointed oval evergreen leaves. Evergreen in tropical settings, not near Pittsburgh, PA. Here, these plants need to be taken indoors before any frosty weather. This tropical plant family also includes the sources of quinine, ipecac, and common madder, which is one of the oldest sources of red dye.
Back to our bean. Each coffee “bean” is actually half of the pit of a cherry-like fruit, which is also edible. The fruits are red or purple when ripe. To me, they look a lot like cranberries, and web postings say they taste mild to tart, like a mix of more common berries. I’ll tell you more when my new coffee plant has some ripe fruits (in two to four years!). The plants can take full sun, but many prefer light shade. Most of the time, they do best with a lot of water; some varieties (like the popular Arabica) then need two or three months that are drier. The coffee cherries can take seven to nine months to ripen, and are hand picked.
You can make coffee cherry tea called cascara (Spanish for “husk”) from the skins of the dried berries. Don’t confuse this with cascara sagrada tea, though, which is a strong laxative. Cascara tea is difficult to find outside of those areas that produce traditional coffee, but it is said to be slightly sweet, cherry-flavored, and has caffeine, about a quarter of what a regular cup of coffee has. I like the idea of herbal tea with a natural kick!
You can find lots of coffee cherry references on the Internet, if you’re interested in more on these. But for today, here’s your trivia … the average coffee tree produces 10 pounds of coffee cherries per year, which translates to two pounds of green beans; so you would need 16 coffee trees to meet the average American's coffee drinking habit of 1.6 cups per day. Most coffee drinkers use sugar and/or cream (65%), while the rest take it black (35%).
Do you prefer your coffee black, or with cream/sugar? Do you use real cream, or another kind of creamer? I use turbinado sugar or honey to sweeten mine. What other sweeteners have you tried? Let us know!