For many, the only way to start the day is with a nice cup of coffee. This popular beverage awakens the senses, offers comfort and warms the body when we need it most. The mere aroma of roasted beans can even energize the non-coffee drinker.

Flowering coffee plants

Flowering coffee plants are sweetly fragrant.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Coffee beans

After blooming, the plant’s attractive flowers give way to colorful “cherries.”

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Coffee branches

Coffee plants have a unique right-angled branching habit.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

Coffee plantation

While growing our own coffee plantations may be best left to our dreams, we can still enjoy the beauty of the coffee plant inside our homes.

Photo Credit: Gerald L. Klingaman

About two-thirds of the world’s coffee is produced from the seeds of Coffea arabica, a lovely evergreen shrub that prefers a cool, moist, lightly shaded mountainside habitat (just like the commercials claim). Another coffee plant, Coffea canephora, is easier to grow, cheaper to produce, grows in full sun and is less demanding with regard to temperature. Its beans contain twice as much caffeine as Arabica beans, but it commands a lower price on international markets. It’s primarily used in blending the ground coffee most of us have in our cupboards at home, as well as in formulating instant-coffee products.

Coffee plants are small understory shrubs that can reach 25 feet tall in the wild, but growers prune them back severely after each harvest to maintain the plants at more manageable heights of 8-10 feet. Coffea arabica is native to the highlands of Ethiopia and southern Sudan, while Coffea canephora originally grew in western sub-Saharan Africa. Today both are grown throughout the tropical world, with Brazil and Vietnam being the two leading producing nations. Another sub-Saharan species is Coffea liberica, which is used in some breeding programs.

When I was in Hawaii, I found coffee growing in the wild on Maui as an escaped weed. On the Kona Coast of the Big Island, a 20-mile-long stretch of land having bright sunny mornings and afternoon cloud cover, the world’s most expensive coffee is grown. (Some brands go for as much as $40 a pound!)

Yet while exploring the Kona Coast, I was surprised to find coffee production a decidedly small-scale operation. The industry had its start more than a century ago, when Japanese immigrants were brought over to work the commercial sugar cane fields and began acquiring steep hillside land that was useless to the big planters. Coffee production became a family affair, with the size of the planting determined by how much the family unit could manage.

Fortunately, home gardeners on the mainland – or in Hawaii – don’t need a mountainside to grow their own coffee plant. This beauty makes a nice, large houseplant for a warm, very bright room. It can also be grown from fresh seeds (the non-roasted kind, of course). Because the plants tend to be open with their right-angled-limb branching patterns, it’s best to plant 3-5 seedlings together in a clump to get a fuller effect. No matter how many you grow, give your coffee plants a bright, window-side location in the winter, then move your houseplants outside in summer to a shaded patio or similar area. Even if you don’t drink coffee, give this unique houseplant a try – you may find that it’s your cup of java after all!