More than gas, oil, or electricity, coffee fuels the world — at least my world. And yes, we can grow coffee in Florida, but it might not be exactly what you think.
Point out our native wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa) to out-of-town guests and they invariably ask “Can you make coffee from it?”
Some people harvest the wild coffee berries and go through the process of roasting and grinding them to make a cup. But it takes a whole lot of beans to supply a decent amount, plus I’ve read it’s quite insipid and might give drinkers a headache. Besides, it contains no caffeine, so what would be the point?
The presence of caffeine in plants seems to have evolved independently in numerous unrelated plant families, and not all members of the coffee family, Rubiaceae, produce it. Research has indicated it likely developed as an insecticide to deter plant-eating insects, and it may inhibit harmful fungi. Also, it might be difficult for competing plants to germinate in soil near a caffeine-producing plant.
Besides leaves, some plants produce caffeine in flower nectar, which might be a reward for pollinating insects, who would get a caffeine buzz in a non-lethal dose.
The Rubiaceae family boasts over 650 genera, and thousands of species, but the source of the heavenly drink that is coffee derives from two other plants: Coffea arabica, the source of Arabica coffee, and Coffea canephora, yielding Robusta coffee. Along with about 130 other Coffea species, they are native to Africa and Madagascar, but of course cash crop varieties are intensively cultivated in Central and South America, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and other locations.
The two Coffea species we use for drinking require seasonally moist conditions, and can be grown in Florida. In fact, I was surprised to find small Coffea arabica plants for sale recently at a big box store. Our Arabica at Fairchild regularly flowers and fruits.
While coffee rust, a debilitating fungal infection, is making the news lately, it has been harming crops for well over a century. As is often the case, monoculture makes the industry more susceptible to devastation by a pathogen like this, but growing resistant strains is not so easy. Robusta coffee is rust resistant and less sensitive to extremes of cold and heat than Arabica, but is of lower quality where taste comes in. It also contains nearly twice the caffeine of Arabica.
On the question of whether we can grow coffee: technically, you most likely already are. The family also contains Gardenia, Cubanola dominguensis, Ixora, Hamelia (firebush), Pentas, Portlandia, Rondeletia, Cephalanthus (buttonbush) and many, many others. Though generally tough, Rubiaceae are susceptible to lobate lac scale.
And of course, native Psychotria. The native wild coffee forms a perfect bush, tall enough for a hedge, small enough for containers. It’s versatile in sun to part shade, but best sheltered from the harshest midday sun. The glossy leaves appear pleated, and the plant is even more attractive when the fruit (drupes) appear in cheerful deep red clusters. Skippers, butterflies, and bees love the flowers; birds may eat the fruit.
Should you tire of wild coffee, there are many other strange and wonderful Psychotria species to grow. Bahama wild coffee (Psychotria ligustrifolia) is a state-listed endangered native plant. Leaves are much less pleated and, to my eye, not as glossy green as P. nervosa. Flowers are similar though, small and white. Its great similarity to wild coffee makes me wonder what separate niche it fills in comparison. Why did it develop as a separate species?
The really rare native Psychotria sulzneri, shortleaf wild coffee, produces small greenish-white flowers and duller leaves that look like they’ve been ironed flat.
Or get exotic with Psychotria elata or poeppigiana, aka hot lips plants whose flower bracts look like puckered pouty red lips. The actual whitish-yellow flower even looks like teeth if you squint and may be followed by small blue fruit. Grow these neo-tropical natives in a sheltered location.
I’ve seen reports that the non-native species from southern Africa, Psychotria punctata, has escaped landscaping and gotten into natural areas, though I have not seen this myself. Its foliage features tiny raised nodules, like pin pricks, hence its name of dotted wild coffee.
There are so many more. And don’t forget, you can grow Coffee arabica in Florida, it just takes a lot of space to grow enough for a cup.