Coffee, Botany of

Coffee is made from the bean of the coffee plant, Coffea arabica or Coffea canephora, in the Rubiaceae family. It is native to the forest understory of the east African highlands. It grows best with frequent rains, warm but not extreme temperatures, and hilly ground 600 to 1,200 meters (2,000 to 4,000 feet) above sea level and therefore has been cultivated in high tropical regions around the globe.

The coffee plant is a woody shrub, and it grows in the wild as high as 12 meters (39 feet), but cultivated trees are pruned to 2 meters (6.5 feet) to make harvesting easier. Small, white flowers give rise to a red, fleshy fruit, the "coffee cherry," which contains a pair of beans. A single coffee tree produces enough beans for about forty cups of coffee per year. Because fruit does not all set at once, most coffee cherries are harvested by hand, rather than by machine. The bean is removed from the fruit for drying. Dried beans can be stored for a year or more before roasting. Once roasted, the bean begins to lose flavor and is best used within several weeks.

Though native to Africa, the majority of coffee is now grown in South and Central America, with Brazil being the single largest producer. In 2000 world coffee production was more than 6 billion kilograms (6.6 million tons), almost all of which was exported, making coffee one of the largest commodities traded on the international market. Almost one-quarter of the world's coffee is imported by the countries of North America.

Desire to increase yield has led some growers to cut back the forest trees under which most coffee is grown. This has the undesirable effect of reducing biodiversity, especially of birds, and increasing soil erosion. Some coffees are labeled as "shade-grown" to alert consumers to its more environmentally sensitive origins.

SEE ALSO Agriculture ; Beer-Making, Biology OF ; Biodiversity ; Wine-Making, Botany OF

Richard Robinson


Dicum, Gregory, and Nina Luttinger. The Coffee Book: Anatomy of an Industry. New York: New Press, 1999.

Pendergrast, Mark. Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

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