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Plant of the Week

Latin: Coffea arabica

Picture of coffee cherries.
Arabica coffee cherries ready to pick.

We drink a lot of coffee in this country. Estimates claim we imbibe one third as much coffee as we do water, an estimate I question because the people I know seem to drink much more coffee than water.

About two-thirds of the world's coffee is derived from Coffea arabica which prefers cool, moist, lightly shaded mountainside habitat, just like the commercials say. C. canephora, the Robusta coffee, is easier to grow, cheaper to produce, grows in full sun and is less demanding with regard to temperature. Its beans contain twice as much caffeine as Arabica beans, but it commands a lower price on international markets. It is primarily used in blending the ground coffee most of us have in the cupboard at home and in formulating instant coffee products.

Coffee plants are small, evergreen understory shrubs growing to 25 feet tall in the wild, but growers prune them back severely after each berry harvest to maintain plants at more manageable heights of 8 to 10 feet. C. arabica is native to the highlands of Ethiopia and southern Sudan while C. canephora originally grew in western sub-Saharan Africa. Today they are grown throughout the tropical world, with Brazil and Viet Nam the two leading producing nations.

I recently returned from Hawaii where I found coffee growing in the wild on Maui as an escaped weed. On the Kona coast of the Big Island, a 20-mile long stretch of land having bright, sunny mornings and afternoon cloud cover, the world's most expensive coffee is grown, where some brands go for as much as $40 a pound.

Exploring the Kona coast, I was surprised to find coffee production to be a decidedly small-scale operation. The industry had its start more than a century ago when Japanese immigrants brought in to work the commercial sugar cane fields began acquiring steep hillside land useless to the big planters. Coffee production was a family affair with the size of the planting determined by how much the family could manage. Mechanization has never worked well for Arabica beans because the "cherries" ripen at different times over several months, usually requiring four or five separate harvests.

Coffee is marketed as a commodity with beans bought and sold on world markets just like gold bullion and oil. Because of the hand labor involved in coffee production, big producers in countries with cheap labor costs dominate the market. The Kona coffee market is a small niche connoisseurs market catering to those with discriminating taste buds and the financial resources to afford to do so.

The free trade movement for commodities such as coffee began in the late 1980s and has developed into a small, but growing segment of overall coffee sales. The goals of the movement are to get more of the money to the actual growers who produce the crop and help establish sustainable farms in the third world. Because of the premium given to producers participating in the free trade program and inherent inefficiencies in distribution channels, free trade coffee is 25 percent more costly than conventionally marketed coffee. At the present time, less than 1 percent of coffee bean sales are free trade.

The price of coffee beans illustrates one of the issues facing consumers as we each wrestle with how to spend our food dollars. The idealistic goal to buy locally or buy fair trade goods is strong and can help make a community more sustainable, but it comes with a cost.

Coffee plants actually make good houseplants and are occasionally seen in houseplant offerings. They can also be grown from fresh - non-roasted of course - seeds. Because the plants tend to be open with their right-angled limb branching pattern, plant three to five seedlings together in a clump to give a fuller effect. Give them a bright, window-side location in the winter and move them outside to the shaded patio in the summer.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - January 22, 2010


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.