What does a Coffee Plant Look Like?


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Do you know what does a coffee plant actually looks like?

While the delicious coffee beverages we enjoy every day come from this plant, most of us don’t give the attention to really delve into it.

Not every coffee enthusiast knows how to describe what a coffee plant is, its importance in many farmers’ lives, and how it impacts the specialty coffee industry.

Remember that every coffee has a story and each has a unique identity defined by its respective botanical origin.

This article will talk about the things you need to know about a coffee plant and understand how this shrub is transformed into your daily cup.

What is a Coffee Plant?

A coffee plant is an evergreen shrub with a straight trunk and horizontal branches that can grow to over 30 feet high. Coffee plants are also trees, mostly grown under the canopies of other trees, which sometimes serve as their shading protection. 

They are found naturally in tropical counties, to which they extend into the kind of environment that resembles their natural habitat – which is the forest. 

While they take more than a year to begin producing coffee cherries, these kinds of growing conditions are needed for having healthy crops possible. Most coffee plants also undergo lots of field management, planning, and proper implementations to maintain sustainability and productivity in coffee cultivation.

For many years, and until now, coffees have been farmed by humans in particular regions. They also have a considerable impact on the livelihood of some farmers in the industry. 

And nowadays, we’ve seen the importance of growing coffee, its effects on our daily lives, and most importantly, its role as one of the monetary sources of many farmers worldwide. 

History of How Coffee was Introduced to the World

If you’re aware of how coffee is introduced to your country, you already know that coffees are grown and cultivated worldwide for so many years. Coffee has been introduced to other counties, and it traveled the globe back in the old days. 

While there are many legends about the coffee’s origin, there’s no really exact concrete story pointing to the origin and discovery of coffee. I believe some countries have their own stories and facts about this evergreen plant.

However, it is believed that the coffee plant, or rather call it “coffee,” was discovered and originated in Ethiopia, Africa. The legend says that a young goat herder named Kaldi discovered it when he noticed that his goats have an unusual behavior after eating some of the fruits from the plant.

It is backed up by evidence that the consumption and knowledge about coffee have started in the early 14 or 15th century, traced to the ancient coffee forest in the Ethiopian region.

And for the past centuries, coffee was spread throughout Africa and eventually reached the rest of the Middle East and North America. Through global trades and expeditions, it is then popular to the rest of Europe and Southeast Asia. 

Nowadays, coffee is now a universal thing that became the second most traded commodity globally.

What does a Coffee Plant Look Like? (The Anatomy)

A coffee plant can grow as high as other typical trees. The essential parts of it include the root system, branches, leaves, flowers, and fruits. 

Let’s take a look at the basic anatomy of a coffee plant and provide an overview of a coffee tree’s overall structure.

The Roots

Coffees can survive for straight years once a sound root system is well established. Like any other trees, the root growth system has a prominent role and is the foundation of the coffee tree’s growth and health.

Over time, while the roots penetrate the soil, it affects farmers’ production that benefits them throughout the entire plant’s lifetime. It is because this component is the critical element in providing sufficient water.

In the end, the root system has so many benefits, not just to the coffee plant itself but to the environment as well… Controlling soil erosion, for example. 

They say that it is impossible to define the accurate root structure pattern of coffee plants as somewhat complicated. But there are two primary roots (although some features may include the lateral roots, feeder roots, and axial roots) that define the structure pattern to consider:

  • The taproots – primary roots that go straight down with a depth of fewer than 0.5 m into the soil.
  • The branch roots – secondary roots that go down very deep into the ground.

However, if the root system’s size and patterns are affected negatively, this may result in an abnormal condition throughout the growth of coffee. 

It generally happens if standard land preparations have not been implemented effectively. The improper application of fertilizers, including pests and disease attacks, is also the other factor that may clash the roots.

The Branches

A mature coffee plant has a central vertical trunk (which is scientifically called “orthotropic stem”), representing the most body of the coffee tree.

This trunk produces several horizontal branches (also called the “plagiotropic branches”), which the leaves and coffee cherries grow. From these branches, it may also create secondary and tertiary units. 

However, these branches’ development is dependent on variety and the coffee tree’s climatic growing conditions. Some species that reached maturity develop more than six levels of branches. 

The Leaves

Although some of the coffee trees’ structure varies according to species and some other factors, it’s still generally recognized as an evergreen shrub.

This means that they have thin and spear-shaped, green to dark-green, and sometimes shiny leaves, depending on the variety.

You can easily recognize the leaves of a coffee with their netted-veined appearance, which typically appears once they reached maturity.

For a grown coffee tree, the leaves grow in pairs on the side of the horizontal branch. But even a young coffee plant can produce over ten pairs of leaves on its main trunk. 

The leaves of a Robusta plant are much smaller than those of an Arabica, even though Robusta species are often identified as large trees.

On the other hand, one thing that stands out in the appearance of Arabica leaves is the glossy or waxy upper surface. While Robusta leaves are associated with a lighter color, making the body less shiny.  

The Flowers

The flowers are described as beautiful white blossoms that also grow in arrays along the coffee tree branches.

Usually, the smell is similar to jasmine and sometimes the scent of citrus orange. You can even smell something unique once the bees are there to help with pollination.

Just like some other plants, the flowering is the start of the coffee’s reproduction to preserve its identity. It also plays the most crucial role in ensuring vital crops. Without flowers, the plants can’t produce fruits. And without fruits, no coffee beans, then there’s no cup of coffee.

Once the coffee reached its appropriate maturity, which typically three years after it has been planted, expect it to flower at least once a year.

However, depending on the climate condition and geographic location, the white flowers will appear twice or even more in a year. Also, rainy months are the perfect time because rain is the one that triggers the flowering of the coffee.

The Fruits (Coffee Cherry)

The coffee cherry is the coffee tree’s fresh and complete fruit. It begins with an unripe green cherry to a red ripen fruit generally cultivated in different intended use and processing stages. 

The products from these fruits (the seeds) are further processed to develop a good flavor for consumption, as well the products such as wastes are then recycled.

The green-colored cherries are considered unripe, and you need more time to develop their readiness. On the other hand, the ripened fruit is a small red cherry with a waxy or shiny appearance that grows in bundles along the coffee tree branches.

These fruits are ideally harvested within this type of maturity. And usually, it takes 7-8 months for the cherry to ripen after pollination.

The Coffee Plant’s Identity (The Genus Coffea)

The Genus Coffea, which we’ve also known as the coffee tree, is part of a large sub-kingdom of plants known scientifically as Angiosperm, or Angiospermae. This flowering plant belongs to the botanical family Rubiaceae

More than 100 species of Coffea are available, which are generally grown from seeds enclosed in a box-like container. Many of them are naturally grown in the tropics, and some of them existed due to several species’ mutations.

Coffea arabica  Coffea sp. Ngongo2  Coffea homollei  
Coffea humilis  Coffea sp. Nkoumbala  Coffea kianjavatensis  
Coffea stenophylla  Coffea kapakata  Coffea lancifolia  
Coffea canephora  Coffea eugenioides  Coffea leroyi  
Coffea liberica var liberica  Coffea costatifructa  Coffea mcphersonii    
Coffea anthonyi  Coffea mufindiensis  Coffea perrieri  
Coffea brevipesCoffea pocsii      Coffea resinosa  
Coffea charrieranaCoffea pseudozaguebariae  Coffea tetragona  
Coffea congensisCoffea racemosa  Coffea tsirananae  
Coffea heterocalyx  Coffea salvatrix  Coffea vatovavyensis  
Coffea liberica var dewevrei  Coffea sessiliflora  Coffea vianneyi  
Coffea sp. Congo  Coffea rhamnifolia  Complexe Millotii    
Coffea sp. KotoCoffea farafanganensis  Coffea humbertii  
Coffea humblotiana  Coffea mauritiana  Coffea bengalensis  
Coffea mannii  Coffea brassii   
Coffea travencorensisCoffea ebracteolatus   
Source:Researchgate.net

The 4 Main Identities of a Coffee Plant 

Although there are over 100 types of genus Coffea, most of them are challenging to grow and aren’t for consumption. Therefore, only a few of them are commercially viable.

In fact, only two are actually the most important in the specialty coffee industry (which we’ll then further discuss).

Here are the four primary types of coffee species that are currently farmed by most producing countries. Their products are processed, roasted, and brewed to make the cup of coffee we enjoy every day.

1. Coffea Arabica (Arabica)

Coffea Arabica, or simply called Arabica, is just like any other coffee tree but of higher quality.

It has a shrub with evergreen leaves, and it’s pruned to a height of six feet to harvest it with ease. But it can typically range from 14 to 20 feet when fully grown, depending on how it’s taken care of. 

However, compared to other types of coffee, it is prone to disease. Therefore, it must be raised with proper care and keep them healthy to produce the perfect cup of coffee.

Arabica is the most farmed coffee plant among the rest. And according to the United States Department of Agriculture, it is believed to be the first species of coffee to be cultivated, whereas it originated in Ethiopia.

The good thing about Arabica is autogamous, which means it’s capable of self-pollinating. Good pollination helps to increase yields. But since it pollinates mostly before the flower opens, bees help enhance the quantity and quality of the product.

2. Coffea Canephora (Robusta)

Coffea canephora, also known as Robusta, is no far different from Arabica, aside from their taste profiles and growing conditions.

It can be developed at any altitudes and can grow to over 30 feet. But most farmers want it to as low as possible for easy harvesting. In addition, Robusta depends on cross-pollination, which occurs after the flower opens. 

This plant is far more expansive than the other species, producing a coffee with exceptionally high caffeine levels. This caffeine gives a robust or strong flavor to your cup. In fact, its caffeine content is almost twice the content of an Arabica coffee.

Robusta plants usually grow in the lower altitudes, which is vulnerable to pests and bad weather conditions. But luckily, its high caffeine element helps it be more resilient and more tolerant of its environment and protect itself from disease. 

3. Coffea liberica (Liberica)

Image Credit: philcoffeeboard.com

Coffea liberica is one of the coffee species that rarely farmed. It may be because it is hard to develop or mainly, after all, it’s sensitive to climates and diseases. But Liberica is still significantly produced in some countries.

In the late 1800s, where coffee rust attacks the Arabica species, which dramatically affects its production, the industry tried to disseminate this plant into other countries.

Liberica was fairly widely cultivated in certain regions. And since this coffee plant was believed to be resistant to rust disease, it was rapidly introduced to the world.

It reached most of Southeast Asia, which includes India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The Philippines is said to be the first country to try the cultivation of Liberica, which was remarked as a famous crop in the country and helped the country’s economy.

When it comes to its appearance, Liberica is the only one that has unique characteristics. This plant has larger leaves, fruits, and beans. The beans are far different from other species, having an irregular shape, almost like an almond’s shape. 

4. Excelsa

Image credit: pihattcoffee.com

And lastly, the Excelsa coffee plant is another coffee variety that grows to large trees defiant to pests and diseases. It can also tolerate dry environments like the Robusta and Liberica trees.

However, it is also not that popular in the specialty coffee industry. The bearing is not that even significant to global coffee production.

It is not because of its taste profile but because it’s found primarily in few countries, which is explicitly some parts of Southeast Asia.

Besides, it is included nowadays as one of the varieties of Liberica species. In that case, most new coffee wannabes wouldn’t probably recognize it.

Excelsa has similarities with Liberica, where both of them can grow in low to medium altitudes, and they have indeed almost alike beans’ structure. However, we can’t still ignore the fact that they’re likely different from each other.

Final Thoughts

There you have it! There’s indeed a comprehensive discussion about the coffee plant, and you may not know everything about it. But what matters is you have this little knowledge about the plant that makes you love those cups of coffee you make at home or order at cafes. 

And the next time you choose coffee beans out there, just remember that each coffee variety tastes differently. With all the knowledge you’ve gained about coffee, you have the guide to the taste that suits your preference.

Like this Article? You Might to Read: The Ultimate Guide To Planting and Growing Coffee Tree