Coffea arabica



Coffea arabica

L. 1753

pronounced: a-bell-MOSS-kuss ess-kew-LEN-tuss

(Rubiaceae — the gardenia family)


common name: coffee

The word coffee is derived from the Turkish kahve, in turn from Arabic qahwah; arabica is from the Latin arabicus, Arabian.

Coffea arabica is a species of coffee indigenous to Ethiopia and Yemen, and is believed to be the first species of coffee to be cultivated, having been grown in south-west Arabia for well over a thousand years, and is considered to produce better coffee than the other commercially grown coffee species. It also contains less caffeine than the others. According to legend, human consumption of coffee began after goats in Ethiopia were seen mounting each other after eating the leaves and fruits of the coffee tree. In reality, human consumption of coffee fruits probably began long before humans took up pastoralism. In Ethiopia there are still some localities where people drink a tisane made from the leaves of the coffee tree. The first written record of coffee made from roasted coffee beans comes from Arabian scholars, who wrote that it was useful in prolonging their working hours. The custom then spread to Egypt and Turkey before making its way around the world.

The plant is an attractive shrubby evergreen that grows to a height of 9–12 m in the wild with an open branching system. Commercial cultivars usually grow only to about 5 m, and are frequently trimmed as low as 2 m to facilitate picking. The leaves are opposite, simple, ovate-elliptic to oblong, 6 – 12 cm long and 4 – 8 cm broad, and a glossy dark green, with a prominent decorative vein pattern.

It produces axillary clusters of fragrant white self-pollinating flowers in summer. Individual flowers are 10–15 mm in diameter.

The ripe fruits are bright red or purple, sometimes yellow, berries 10 – 15 mm in diameter, each containing 2 coffee beans. The beans are surrounded with a sweet pulp. The fruits do not all ripen at the same time, and a tree will often contain both blossoms and berries in various stages of ripening. Only the ripe berries are picked, as green berries will not ripen after they are picked.

Coffea arabica takes about 7 years to mature fully, and does best with about 1000 – 1500 mm of rain evenly distributed throughout the year. It is usually cultivated at 1300 – 1500 m altitude, but there are plantations as low as sea level and as high as 2500 m. The plant can tolerate low temperatures but not frost, and it does best when the temperatures hover at about 20ºC. This species prefers to be grown in light shade.

Two to four years after planting Coffea arabica starts to produce flowers, which have a fragrance resembling those of jasmine. When flowers open on sunny days, this results in the greatest number of berries. This can be a nuisance, as over-production of berries can lead to an inferior crop, and even damage the yield in future years: the plant will put its energies into ripening the berries, rather than into maintaining its own health. On well-kept plantations this is prevented by pruning. The fact, mentioned above, that the berries do not ripen simultaneously, complicates harvesting, and the best coffee is produced from beans that have been picked by hand. Sometimes the berries are shaken off the trees on to mats, but many unripe berries will be shaken off, as well as the ripe ones.

This is a food plant for the caterpillars of several Lepidoptera, including:
     • the moth Chalcocelis albiguttatus;
     • the Cacao Armyworm Tiracola plagiata;
     • the Avocado Leafroller Homona spargotis; and
     • the moth Diplodesma celataria.

The wood is hard, dense and durable. It is suitable for woodturning, and is sometimes used to make chairs and tables. It takes a polish well.


they are actually drupes, but are commonly called berries


Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2010-2012
Page last updated 15th November 2018