By Maryann Readal
Coffea arabica is certainly an interesting herbal plant. This simple, evergreen, small tree or shrub with white flowers is grown in tropical climates. It is native to southern Ethiopia and South Sudan and has been naturalized in Brazil and other South American and African countries. It takes three to four years for a tree to produce the red berries, sometimes called “cherries.” The fruit is hand-picked and the pulp removed to uncover the two seeds in each fruit. These seeds are dried, roasted, and ground to make the coffee that we drink. Scientists at Kew Gardens in England (Kew, 2019) say that the arabica species is now endangered due to deforestation and climate change. However, the less popular robusta species, which is already used in instant and decaffeinated coffees, grows well in Africa and other areas of the world and can fill the needs of the world’s coffee culture.
It is said that coffee was discovered around 850 CE in the Ethiopian highlands by a goat herder who noticed that his goats became lively after eating the berries from the coffee plant. The herder took this observation back to a monk in a nearby monastery. The monk thought it would be worth trying the bean to help him get through his all-night prayer vigils. It worked! Coffee beans then became a way for the religious to sustain their long nights of prayer. From there, the use of the bean spread to Yemen and Turkey, where the Arabs began using the bean both as a medicine and as a stimulating drink.
The first coffeehouse in Constantinople (now called Istanbul) was established in 1475. There was debate within the Muslim religious community whether or not coffee was an inebriating drink prohibited by the Quran. It was finally decided that since the Quran did not specifically mention coffee, it was allowable for Muslims to drink it. Until 1690, Arabia monopolized the coffee supply. Foreign visitors were forbidden to visit coffee plantations, and only beans that had been roasted or boiled could be exported since the processing made them infertile. The coffee monopoly ended when a man named Sufi Baba Budan smuggled coffee beans taped to his stomach out of Yemen to his native India. The beans grew into coffee plants, plantations followed, and the rest is history.
With the beginnings of coffee production and trade in India, coffee spread throughout Europe. When the drink came to Italy, it was believed to be a Muslim drink and was associated with Satan. Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) tasted the coffee drink, liked it, and declared that coffee was not the drink of Satan and subsequently baptized it; the popularity of coffee in the Christian world then soared.
The first coffeehouse in Europe was opened in Oxford, England, in 1650, and by 1700, there were 2,000 coffeehouses in London alone. The popularity of coffeehouses in Europe coincided with the Enlightenment period, and they became the place where writers, philosophers, and political activists exchanged ideas. British coffee shops became known as “penny universities,” because a cup of coffee cost one cent and you could learn a lot while drinking it and listening to the discussions. In 1675, King Charles II tried to abolish coffeehouses, because the open discussion that occurred in them was perceived to be a danger to the government. However, it was an unpopular decision and did not succeed. The coffeehouse movement continued to grow in England, and many coffeehouses even became specialized. Some became institutions that still exist today, such as the London Stock Exchange and Lloyds of London.
The French Revolution was born in the Paris coffeehouses. The Café de Foy was the place where those who made the call to arms and then stormed the Bastille gathered.
In America, the American Revolution was plotted in the Green Dragon Tavern, a tavern/coffeehouse in Boston Massachusetts following the Boston Tea Party, which did much to unseat tea as the beverage of choice in the new world. Today, Americans drink 517 million cups of coffee per day (2 cups per day per person) (National Coffee Assoc., 2022) and spent $74.2 billion on coffee in 2015. Coffee is the second largest traded commodity in the world after oil. It battles beer for third place as the most popular drink in the world after water and tea. Starbucks, created in 1985 with just a few coffeeshops, has grown to over 9,000 shops worldwide.
The medicinal effects of coffee have been one of the factors responsible for its early success. The stimulating caffeine in the beans is what brought it to the attention of the Ethiopians in the first century. Avicenna, the Arabian physician, wrote of the medicinal qualities of the coffee beans in the 15th century. Today, coffee, in many forms, is still used in traditional medicines of Africa and Asia to treat stomach ache, diarrhea, and low blood pressure. Some aspirin products, such as Bayer® Back & Body aspirin, contain caffeine to relieve headache, body aches, and arthritis pain.
According to Sampath Rarthasarathy, Ph.D., “Coffee is one of the richest sources of phenolics and polyphenols, which are antioxidants. Research shows that these compounds may help prevent or even repair some types of cell damage. A 2018 study found that those who drank coffee were less likely to die early than those who didn’t. And prior research suggests that coffee may reduce the risk of cancer, stroke, and diabetes” (Rockwood, 2019).
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported the results of another study done on patients who had suffered prior myocardial infarctions. This study concluded that, “Drinking coffee, either caffeinated or decaffeinated, may lower the risk of CVD (cardiovascular disease) and IHD (ischemic heart disease) mortality in patients with a prior MI (myocardial infarction).“
As if all of these qualities of coffee were not enough, scientists have also discovered that caffeine is a natural pesticide and speculate that caffeine developed along with the coffee plant as a protection for the plant against harmful insects. They have found that adding caffeine to other natural pesticides increased their effectiveness against insects such as mosquito larvae, hornworms, mealworms, and milkweed bugs.
I wish I did not know that coffee can also be used as an insecticide. However, I won’t let that fact stop me from enjoying my cup of strong morning brew.
Coffee is the Herb Society of America’s Herb of the Month for September.
Photo Credits: 1) Coffee tree (Creative Commons; 2) Coffee “cherries” (Creative Commons); 3) Turkish coffee “mug” with a side of chocolates (Stacy Readal); 4) Arabian coffee break (Wikimedia Commons); 5) Arabian coffee urn (Creative Commons); 6) Coffee harvest (Creative Commons); 7) 1952 coffee break with June Allyson and Dick Powell (Public Domain); 8) Bayer Back & Body medication (Public Domain); 9) Coffee break (Creative Commons).
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Coffee facts and statistics. (n.d.) Accessed 7/18/22. http://www.professorshouse.com/food-beverage/beverages/coffee-facts-statistics.aspx
Dongen, Laura H., et al. 2017. Coffee consumption after myocardial infarction and risk of cardiovascular mortality: a prospective analysis in the Alpha Omega Cohort. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 106, Issue 4, October 2017. Accessed 8/3/2022. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.117.153338
Feleman, Ellen. 2022. Coffee and tea: drink choice and effects on stroke, dementia, and post stroke dementia. Relias Media, February 21, 2022. Accessed 7/19/22. Consumer Health Complete Database.
Kew Gardens. 2019. Kew scientists reveal that 60% of wild coffee species are threatened with extinction, causing concern for the future of coffee production. Accessed 8/3/22. https://www.kew.org/about-us/press-media/kew-scientists-reveal-that-60-of-wild-coffee/
National Coffee Association. n.d. History of coffee. Accessed 7/18/22. https://www.ncausa.org/about-coffee/history-of-coffee
Paterson, Cathy. 2012. No. 2846: Coffeehouses. Accessed 7/18/22. https://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2846.htm#:~:text=In%201675%2C%20King%20Charles%20II,%2C%20percolated%20to%20America%2C%20too.
Rockwood, Kate. 2019. 5 myths about coffee. Prevention, Vol 71, Iss. 10, p. 68-71.
Rotondi, Jessica Pearce. 2020. How coffee fueled revolutions–and revolutionary ideas. Accessed 8/3/22. https://www.history.com/news/coffee-houses-revolutions
Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America and a Texas Master Gardener. She is a member of The Society’s Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She lectures on herbs and does the herb training for several Master Gardener programs. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.