Posted on December 09, 2014
We have brought a lot of different plants into the home over the years. A lot.…Like, the goal is to slowly recreate the tropical rain forest exhibit in the National Aquarium, but with a couch, a computer, and Persian cats instead of sloths (basically the same thing). We are lucky enough to have local greenhouses that specialize in exotic tropicals, and we have a tendency to want to take every unusual thing we see home with us.And by “want to,” we mean “do.” Naturally, this yields mixed results.
We have had some failures (R.I.P Miracle Fruit Tree, 2013-2014), but we’ve had some pretty sweet success stories, too, and often with plants we…pretty much expected to kill immediately. The most loved plants in our collection? Two little coffee trees that have nearly doubled in size sitting in a sunny window over the past few months.
Visitors are usually surprised to learn that these pretty green foliage plants will one day produce the glorious magic beans that many of us need to be fully realized human beings before 10:30 AM, but given a few years and some light maintenance and encouragement, they certainly will. The fact is, not only can coffee be cultivated indoors, but it makes an excellent houseplant overall.
The History of the Coffee Tree and the Discovery of the Most Important Beverage in the World
The coffee plant was first discovered in Ethiopia somewhere in the 11th century. Legend has it that we owe all of our workday morning energy to a goat herder during that time named Kaldi. Observing his herd, Kaldi noted a certain spring in the step of the goats that had eaten the dark red berries off of a local shrub. Wanting to get on the energy train right along with them, Kaldi also began snacking on the berries, and was pleased to find that they increased his energy and alertness. Depending on which version of the story you read, Kaldi becomes involved with local monks either because he got revved up on berries and ran to the nearest monastery to report his discovery or because a passing monk noticed Kaldi and his flock bouncing off of the walls and figured he’d stop to ask. Either way, according to the story, the monks decided to dry and brew the berries, creating a drink that kept them awake and focused for study and prayer. And there we have it: the first appearance of Magic Bean Juice (or MBJ).
Of course, we don’t know if that story is true. What we do know is that people were officially cultivating coffee plants for harvesting and brewing coffee beginning in 15th century Yemen. Coffee consumption spread across the Arabic world after Yemeni traders brought coffee seeds and plants back from Ethiopia to grow in their own land. Their climate was excellent for cultivation, and despite some back and forth between politicians, religious authorities, and the population about whether or not the stimulating effects of the drink and the newly developing coffee culture were moral, coffee nevertheless became a staple crop and commodity in Arabia. In fact, as the popularity and demand for coffee began to increase beyond the Arabic world, exporters of coffee beans were banned from selling coffee beans without being boiled or roasted first, making it impossible for importers to use the beans to grow their own plants. Obviously, these efforts to protect the control of the coffee crop failed, thanks to the Dutch.
With a few smuggled seeds and live plants (YOU DIDN’T SAY ANYTHING ABOUT LIVE PLANTS!), the Dutch became the next nation to cultivate coffee for trade, using their colonies in Indonesia for coffee-growing.Now, there is variety and competition.Meanwhile, traders, universities, and diplomatic and military campaigns bring the drink into Europe, introducing Venice, England, France, and Vienna to the benefits of MBJ, and soon, there are flourishing coffeehouses all
over Europe.These cafes act as intellectual salons for the common man, mirroring those held in the homes of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy.These were places where, for a cup of Joe, you could sit with the likes of Rousseau and Voltaire (both café-goers in Paris) and chat it up about literature, philosophy, and science, making ordinary coffeehouses function as miniature colleges.
In this same way, coffee is brought to the New World and the colonies, and by the 1700s, coffee is a popular drink just about everywhere. Gabriel Mathieu de Clieu, a French naval officer, is largely credited with spreading coffee cultivation in the Americas by bringing a single coffee plant from the royal botanical gardens (a gift to the Sun King from the Dutch plantations in Java) to Martinique, and from there, cultivation began several places in Central and South America. By the 1900s, Brazil was the new leader in the coffee producing game.
Today, this humble little shrub with the little red berries remains one of the most important crops on the planet. Actually, it is THE most important crop on the planet when it comes to trade. Coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world (crude oil, of course, is #1), and in a given day, human beings consume well over two billion cups of coffee. Brazil is still the world’s leading producer, cultivating about a third of the global supply of coffee beans, followed by Vietnam, Indonesia, Colombia, and Ethiopia, respectively. Who is drinking all of that coffee? New York and Seattle, right? A quick glance at the numbers might lead you to believe that the United States never sleeps, but when coffee consumption is broken down per capita, it’s clear that we don’t even know what the jitters are. The leading consumer per capita of coffee is indisputably the Netherlands, with each citizen on average slurping down nearly 2.5 cups a day (we actually fall just short of even one cup a day). The Netherlands is followed by Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany on the ranking of coffee-loving countries.
What is a Coffee Plant?
The coffee plant is a shrub or small flowering tree that grows to around ten feet, though they may be pruned much smaller or left to grow several feet taller.Pairs of large dark green waxy leaves grow out of a woody straight trunk, and when in bloom, small clusters of white flowers open on the stems of the plant.These flowers are incredibly fragrant, and many describe them as smelling and looking very similar to jasmine.After fertilization, the flowers quickly die back, and coffee “cherry” production begins.Coffee trees will replace spent blooms quickly, so it is very common to see flowers blooming right alongside ripening coffee cherries.
Coffee cherries begin as little green balls growing in clusters on the stems of the plant.As they ripen, the color will change from green, to yellow, to red, and to a very dark brown red. They are harvested when they are bright red. Inside each cherry are two coffee “beans,” or seeds that must be removed from the pulp and roasted before they are consumed.
Humans prize the drink that is brewed from these roasted seeds for its caffeine content, a chemical that scientists recently determined serves three purposes for the plant: it prevents competition for space with other plants that can’t deal with the caffeine in the soil surrounding the coffee plant, it is toxic to several common pests, and it provides energy to pollinators, giving them the quick zip they need to move from flower to flower.
We cultivate primarily two types of coffees, arabica and robusta. Arabica coffee makes up around ¾ of the coffee that is sold commercially. Arabica produces the refined flavor desired by roasters, and is more expensive than robusta, a high yield, high caffeine coffee. Though Arabica beans are generally considered to be more flavorful and of higher quality than robusta beans, they don’t have the pest and disease resistance of robusta, and must be grown at much higher altitudes for best flavor. Robusta is a much cheaper crop overall, being used for instant coffees and blends.
How to Grow Arabica Coffee Indoors
Being amateur coffee growers at home, we can tell you that the key to a happy arabica plant is DO NOT LET IT DRYOUT. Coffee plants will begin to show the effects of being dry almost immediately, with repeated incidences damaging leaves and growth. So, if you remember to water your coffee plant once a week, it’ll probably stick by you. Since it requires a lot of moisture to stay healthy, you’ll also need to be sure that the soil has excellent drainage to prevent rot or fungus. Some recommend planting your coffee in cactus mix to improve drainage. If you don’t have that, you can simply mix your potting soil with a bit of sand. Be sure that your container has drainage holes.
Coffee plants like bright, indirect light, so put it by a relatively sunny window such that the light doesn’t shine directly on the plant. A plant stand just in front of the window would be a great spot. Coffee plants will also respond well to grow lights if you don’t have any sunny windows.
Arabica likes a lot of humidity, so it’s a good idea to sit the container on a tray of pebbles and water or, if small enough, place it under a bag or dome. Misting a little bit of water under the dome will create a nice humid environment. If you have a sunny window in your bathroom, you could also consider keeping your coffee plant in there—the humidity produced by the shower, sink, and tub would be more than welcome.
You can fertilize your coffee plant with an all-purpose liquid fertilizer every two weeks during the spring and summer.
In three to five years, with all of these conditions met, your coffee should bloom for the first time. You may want to hand pollinate the flowers to ensure you get the most beans possible, but it isn’t necessary.If all goes well, you may get a few beans, but not enough to actually brew. Your plant will yield more and more as it grows, but don’t expect your plant to yield as many beans as a commercial plant, nor should you expect your beans to be of the same quality. That being said, ripened cherries can be peeled away from the bean and roasted right in your kitchen for use—they may not be grown or roasted by professionals, but nothing beats the taste of something you grew yourself.
Lastly, watch out for mealybugs. They sort of have a thing for coffee plants. If you notice any blackening of the leaves, white cottony build-up in the joints between stems and leaves, powdery grime on the leaves, or see the jerks themselves hanging out shamelessly on new growth, go ahead and wipe them off with a cotton swab soaked in rubbing alcohol. Try to remove as many of them as you can, and after, you can wipe down the entire plant with neem oil to discourage them from coming back or treat your plant with insecticidal soap.
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