Coffee grows on a plant that could also be described as a small tree or even a shrub. Because there is no official definition of the difference between a coffee plant and a coffee tree the use of either is acceptable but we lean towards plant rather than tree.
Coffee plants do not grow in the UK because a very specific climate is needed to grow good quality coffee successfully.
Although coffee is grown in around 70 countries throughout the world, they all have one very specific thing in common and that’s a very warm climate that is consistently warm for the entire year.
So if you live in the UK or any other country that has real seasons where the weather changes throughout the year then you have probably never seen coffee growing and probably the only time you have ever seen it is inside a jar in the supermarket.
The reason for the confusion over whether coffee grows on a plant or a tree is that that it grows in all different shapes and sizes depending on the species.
Arabica and Robusta are the two most well-known species of coffee and they can grow on plants or trees that range in size from about 5ft to as much as 40ft.
In order to understand properly what coffee grows on we need to delve into things that we never thought we would have to. Weird things like…….
What is a tree?
This is something that I had never really considered before looking into whether coffee grows on a plant or a tree. A tree is a tree, right?
Can a tree be a plant? At what point does it turn into a tree?
Bizarrely, there are a number of definitions of a tree that are inconclusive and don’t really provide a clear-cut answer which is pretty frustrating but it seems to be the case that a tree is a plant.
Here is the Oxford English dictionary definition of a tree:
“A woody plant, typically having a single stem or trunk growing to a considerable height and bearing branches at some distance from the ground”
No wonder no-one knows whether coffee grows on a plant or a tree!
I think we automatically think of a tree as something that is tall and a plant as something that is not as tall as a tree.
The dictionary definition kind of confirms that there is no rule to determine when a plant becomes a tree because it says “some distance from the ground” and “considerable height”
That makes it open to interpretation. What does some distance mean and what is a considerable height?
Does a plant become a tree when it is 5ft tall or 25ft tall?
How many different types of coffee plant are there?
The name coffee comes from the species of plant that produces the coffee berry – Coffea.
There are over a hundred different types of coffee plants and trees but here are a few examples to give you an idea of the different sizes that coffee trees and plants come in:
It then splits down into the type of coffee that they produce with Arabica recognised as being the better quality compared to the Robusta which is the other most popular type of coffee.
If you are used to drinking instant coffee from a jar you bought in the supermarket then it almost certainly contains Robusta coffee and not Arabica.
There is a huge difference in the taste between freeze-dried instant coffee and freshly ground Arabica coffee beans.
If you want to understand the difference between cheap instant coffee from the Robusta coffee plant and gourmet coffee from the Arabica variety of coffee plant then here are some articles that explain in more detail what the differences are:
How long does it take a coffee plant to produce coffee?
Depending on the variety it can take anything from two to five years for a coffee plant to produce coffee beans for the first time.
Most coffee plants get harvested once a year but sometimes, depending on the variety, the plants can produce berries twice a year.
The complicated thing about harvesting the berries from coffee plants is that they don’t all ripen at the same time and so only the fully ripened berries should be picked otherwise it seriously impacts on taste.
Machines cannot tell the difference between ripe and non-ripe berries so harvesting of the berries is an extremely labour intensive process and is mostly done by hand for the good quality Arabica varieties.
The cheap instant coffee you find in supermarkets mostly comes from machine harvested coffee that combines the ripe and non-ripe coffee berries and has to be done that way to get to the low price it sells for.
The coffee berries that grow on coffee plants and trees are actually classified as fruit and are edible.
The seeds inside the coffee berry are what we know as the coffee beans they get dried and roasted before being ground down ready for making its way into your daily cup of coffee.
How much coffee does a coffee plant produce?
Only about 0.5kg of roasted coffee beans are produced from a single harvest of a coffee plant.
Considering that I use about 1kg of coffee beans each month on average that’s a lot less than I thought because it means that I use all the coffee from 24 coffee plants each year, and that’s just me!
The reason for such a low yield is that to get to 0.5kg of roasted coffee beans you need to start with about 2kg of coffee cherries and they are not very heavy.
Can you grow a coffee plant at home?
A coffee plant that you would find on a coffee plantation is completely different to a coffee plant that you would grow in your own home but for a bit of fun you can buy a coffee plant very cheaply and attempt to grow and cultivate it yourself.
It’s certainly not impossible for it to yield some coffee cherries that you could extract the coffee beans from and roast them yourself but the climate will make it a big challenge and you will have to be extremely patient.
A young coffee plant will need repotting a number of times and will take 3-5 years before it starts to flower and produce coffee cherries!
If you like a challenge then take a look at our full review of a great coffee plant that you can try and grow through to bearing coffee that you can roast and drink.
What do you think? Does coffee grow on a plant or is it a tree?