Coffee Plant

( Originally Published 1900 )

THE coffee plant belongs to the genus Coffea of the natural order Rubiaceae, an assemblage of plants including also the cinchonas, which yield quinine ; gambier, furnishing the tanning material and dye of the same name ; madder, and other useful plants. The order is most abundantly represented in the tropics, and our British representatives—the bed-straws, goose-grass, and madder—do not possess the characteristic features of their relatives of the warmer regions of the world. Altogether there are about eighty recognised species ,of Coffea, of which only two are cultivated to any great extent, namely' Arabian Coffee (Co flea arabica) and Liberian Coffee (C. liberica), and of late years to a small extent, a third, Maragogipe Coffee (C. Maragogipi).


The beautiful Arabian coffee plant is a shrub attaining a height of fifteen or eighteen feet. Its leaves are of a fresh green colour, three to four inches in length, pointed and borne in pairs on the slender branches. The flowers occur clustered in groups of from four to sixteen in the axils of the leaves. They are white in colour and of fragrant odour. The fruits, or so-called " cherries," are at first a dark green, but as they ripen the colour gradually changes to yellow and then to red, and at last, when thoroughly ripe, to dark crimson. The outer portion of the fruit is fleshy like a cherry (whence the common name). Each fruit contains two seeds, covered in turn by a dry, smooth, straw-coloured husk, known as the " parchment." The seed itself is of a horny consistency, and should. be perfectly familiar to everyone, as it is the unroasted coffee-bean of commerce, of characteristic greenish-grey colour. Between each seed and the parchment is a thin membranous covering known as the "silver skin. The two seeds or " beans which each fruit contains lie with their flat sides together. It often happens, however; that only one of the beans attains full development, in which case it is no longer flat on one side, but more or less circular in section. Such beans form the so-called " pea-berry" coffee They are carefully separated when the crop is gathered, because they fetch a higher price. In Brazil there is a very rare variety known as the Hybrico-coffee, the fruit of which contains four or six seeds.


The native country of Liberian coffee is not only the negro-republic of that name, but also the other parts of the West Coast of Africa, from Sierra Leone to Angola. Its cultivation is of much more recent date than Arabian coffee, because the product is less valuable ; and its first appearance on the European market met with only very moderate success. The first Liberian plants were introduced into Ceylon and into Java after the fearful coffee-leaf disease broke out, in the years 1873 and 1878 respectively. At first it was thought that the Liberian coffee plant was not susceptible to the malady ; this opinion was, however, cruelly belied, although it was indeed less susceptible and offered greater resistance than its Arabian cousin. Hence some people have gradually learned to appreciate the Liberian plant, if not on account of any superior quality of its fruits, at any rate on account of its power of resistance and its vigorous growth--for which reason it has gradually gained a place for itself in Eastern countries by the side of the Arabian coffee. In this country and in America, however, the Arabian variety still holds its own.

The Liberian plant is distinguished from the Arabian by its greater height, which varies between eighteen and thirty-six feet, and also by the dimensions of its leaves, which sometimes attain the length of one foot. The flowers grow in clusters of six or eight together in the axils of the leaves, and exceed those of the Arabian plant in size, while the fruits are also much bigger, having a diameter of about an inch, and do not drop so readily when they are ripe as do those of the Arabian plant. The pulp is less rich in sugar and tougher than that of Arabian coffee, which makes the use of special machines necessary in its preparation.

The aroma of Liberian coffee is not very highly appreciated, which, considering its many other good qualities, especially its great fertility, is much to be regretted ; for this reason people in Java have endeavoured to improve the species.

Attempts have been made to attain this end by artificial hybridisation, and for a long time, in Java as well as British India, the hope was cherished of obtaining a race which would unite the merits of Arabian and Liberian coffee. These efforts, however, have not proved very successful, although in a book published in 1899 M. A. J. Thierry records that in Java, owing to the labour of van. Riemsdyck, a hybrid has been produced which, when grafted on to Liberian roots, is said to be resistant to coffee-leaf disease.

The grafting of Liberian on to Arabian coffee has not been successful ; although the results of experiments in the opposite direction were quite satisfactory. Among other things, it was observed that such plants suffered less from the attacks of parasites, especially from those parasites—such as nematode worms—which frequently attack the roots of the Arabian coffee plant but do not usually attack Liberian coffee, than those which had not been grafted. By grafting we thus obtain the advantage of the hardy root system of Liberian whilst the produce from the grafted stems is the more highly esteemed Arabian coffee.

The famous Buitenzorg Botanic Gardens, near Batavia, where experiments are made with all kinds of tropical plants, furnished the first seeds of Liberian coffee to the planters of Java in 1878. Since that time the cultivation of this kind of coffee has so rapidly progressed, that at present one-tenth of the State plantations are planted with shrubs of this sort, and one-fourth of the private plantations also.


Over and above the two chief kinds of coffee—Arabian and Liberian—which are described above, the following varieties deserve mention, on account of some peculiar characteristics. The Hybrico-coffee of Brazil, already mentioned, with its fruits containing four or six instead of two seeds. The Maragogipe, found in 1870 near the town of the same name of the Brazilian province of Bahia. The cultivation of this species has so increased that it certainly ranks third in the commercial world. In appearance the tree more resembles the Liberian variety, though the beans, excepting in size, the Arabian. The size of the berry is fully twice that of the latter, and in consequence realises a higher price. As the tree is of greater hardihood, and the price obtained for the berry in the various markets of the world is much greater than ordinary coffee grown on the same estate, it is not surprising to find that the seed has been taken to many other countries. In some, notably Guatemala, it has been very successfully grown and an increasing quantity has been sold from year to year on the London market. As the quantity increases it is doubtful if the difference in price will be able to be maintained, for after all, the quality of the infusion is in no way superior and hitherto it has attracted attention, more from a fancy for its size, than from real merit. We shall have to speak of this later under the head of " Valuing." Its introduction into India was tried on several estates, but with little success. After some years the trees seem to have lost their fruiting power, and the crops have not been worth picking. The principal country where it has obtained favour is Germany, and it is said that it is used exclusively in the Imperial household. In this country it has only been sold in the smallest of quantities, being mostly used for show purposes. Its high price and lack of any distinctive characteristic in flavour, being detrimental to its popularisation here.

The Botucatu (var. amarilla), discovered in the year 1871 in the district of the same name in the province of San Paulo, which has been introduced into India under the name of " golden drop coffee," but of which the cultivation is not very important.

Experiments have been and are still continually being made with numerous varieties in the hope of finding a sort fit for cultivation. These experiments are conducted in various parts of the world with the wild Congo coffee (Collea robusta) and in the Botanic Gardens of Ceylon, Trinidad, and elsewhere, with the Sierra Leone coffee (Coffea stenophylla), the beans of which are said to be superior in flavour to those of all other coffees. Another species of coffee (Collea excelsa) has recently been introduced into the Trinidad Botanic Gardens, and is reported to be of considerable value.

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