Sunday, December 30, 2012

For all you caffeine addicts...

Species name: Coffea arabica

Common name: coffee

Location: UWO Greenhouse

I was contemplating skipping this plant and blogging about it later when I finally found my pictures of wild coffee plants growing in Cuba, Dominican and Jamaica, but then decided that no, I'll just make it two blogs! Ah, the joy of being my own boss...

Despite coffee being grown in multiple locations around the world (with Colombian coffee gaining the most press recently as being the most prolific source of the world's coffee), it is actually incredibly rare in its native habitat in Ethiopia. There are some protected natural populations, and some equally protected populations in neighbouring South Sudan (no one is quite sure if that is a native population or a population that was introduced there very early on in the domestication process). There is also one very old population in Kenya, but it is believed to have started there as a result of trade with Ethiopia hundreds of years ago and not an independently domesticated population. Due to climate change, the "growable range" of coffee is shrinking. It requires cool, humid climates usually on mountain sides. There have been many attempts to grow coffee in North America in the great outdoors, but every single one of these ventures has failed. Coffee is very sensitive to rainfall, and if it is in an area with too much or too little rainfall it will not survive. To say it's a finicky plant would be an understatement! It is possible that with further climate change the Rocky Mountains or the Alps might one day be hospitable for coffee growth, but by then we will have significantly more problems than just not having coffee!

Believe it or not, the British used to be avid coffee drinkers, not tea drinkers. So what happened? Well, one of the areas of the world during the British Empire that was the most productive for coffee was Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. Unfortunately, there's a fungal pathogen of coffee called the coffee rust that was spread from Ethiopia into Yemen and then to Sri Lanka that completely destroyed their coffee crop since it had no resistance (native populations do have some resistance to this pathogen; we have also now developed fungicides and genetically modified crops that show much higher resistance). The British noticed that the Chinese and Japanese made a beverage very similar to their coffee drink, and decided to "borrow" some of their crop to replant Sri Lanka. The British had discovered tea, and have been tea drinkers ever since (and tea is still the leading export of Sri Lanka, even 400 years later!). Tea and coffee, the main sources of the drug caffeine, are the most consumed beverage around the world. One could argue that caffeine is also the most abused drug in the world!

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