As a coffee nerd, how and where coffee is grown has always fascinated me, and learning how these hardy shrubs thrive in a rainforest environment is all part of this. So how do coffee plants adapt to life in the rainforest?
The humid environment and canopy of the rainforest are ideal conditions for growing the coffee shrub “coffea”. This tropical plant prefers high altitudes, shade, and both wet and dry weather. Two-thirds of the world’s coffee is produced in Latin America, in places such as the Amazon rainforest.
Let’s explore this fascinating subject in greater detail, and discover more about how the coffee plant has evolved to not merely grow – but thrive – in the world’s rainforests…
Does Coffee Grow in Tropical Rainforests?
A tropical rainforest is the perfect environment for the coffee shrub, the “coffea”. This tropical plant prefers high altitudes, shade, and a combination of wet and dry weather.
The humid environment and canopy of the rainforest is ideal. Two-thirds of the world’s coffee is grown in Latin America.
How is Coffee Grown in the Rainforest?
Traditionally, the coffee plant was grown under the rainforest canopy. This was perfect for the shade-loving plant, as the tall trees provided some protection from the sun, but were high enough to allow some sunshine to filter downwards.
What about the medium-height trees that grow between the coffea shrubs and the canopy? Here’s the problem: farmers would remove this layer of trees, leaving only the coffee plants and the shade trees. This led to the destruction of trees that didn’t fit the cultivation model.
So now, there’s a different approach. A new strain of coffee plant evolved, which became known as “sun coffee”. This plant actually loves full sun so doesn’t need the intense shade of the rainforest canopy.
“Sun coffee” happily grows in tropical regions in full sun, while organizations like the Rainforest Alliance work with farmers to find more sustainable methods of growing more shade-loving varieties.
Sustainably farmed, shade-grown coffee is the most environmentally friendly of the two methods. This is because the biodiversity of the forest environment naturally protects the plants, while coffee grown in full sun requires more pesticides, and is generally a higher-maintenance crop.
Does the Coffee Plant Grow in the Amazon Rainforest?
Yes, the coffee plant grows in the Amazon rainforest, and around two-thirds of the world’s coffee is produced in Latin America.
Surprisingly, the coffea shrub isn’t native to South America. It’s originally an African plant from Ethiopia. It was brought over to America by the Dutch in the early 18th century.
How Does a Coffee Plant Adapt to Its Environment?
Clearly, the coffea bush adapted to being transported across the world, from Africa to Latin America. It’s a tropical plant, so it needs heat and water, but doesn’t generally like full sun.
It can’t deal with frosts (which is why it’s cultivated on the slopes rather than the bottoms of valleys. Most coffee is grown at high altitudes.
One big adaptation was the evolution of “sun coffee”, which could survive without the protective shade of trees. This made coffee cheaper and easier to grow, and reduced deforestation.
However, the plant still doesn’t thrive as well as it would in its original natural habitat, and needs more intervention than shade-grown coffee shrubs.
Over time, the coffea plant developed a big adaptation that helped it survive: caffeine. Before caffeine became an essential wake-me-up hit for humans, it was a natural bug repellant for the coffea shrub.
Plants grown at higher altitudes (like the Arabica coffee shrub) contain less caffeine as there are fewer bugs up in the mountains. The Robusta bean is planted in lower altitudes, and so has more caffeine as it has more pests to contend with.
What Does a Coffee Plant Need to Survive?
The tropical coffee plant needs warmth and water to survive. It needs some sun, but can’t deal with full sun (unless it’s a “Sun Coffee” variety), so grows best in the shade. If it were a houseplant, we’d be talking about “indirect sunlight”.
In the rainforest, the coffee plant is part of a biodiverse system, protected from the worst of the sun and wind by the trees. Plants grown on terraces away from the rainforests need more care, which can mean more chemicals. These coffea plants also have a shorter life.
There’s an increasing move towards an agroforestry approach, which gives the plants that rainforest environment they love, but without thinning out too many trees.
Can a Coffee Plant Grow in Any Climate?
Coffee plants are tropical, so have very specific needs: warmth, water, some sunlight, shade, and no risk of a frost. The South American rainforests really are the ideal climate for these shrubs.
You can have a coffee plant in your home, as a houseplant. They’re attractive shrubs, with glossy evergreen leaves. Are you a keen gardener that likes a challenge?
Here’s a video that shows you how to grow your own coffee plant at home (filmed in Michigan!). It’s an involved process, but very rewarding.
How Does a Coffee Plant Get Energy From the Sun?
Coffee plants get energy from the sun the same way as other green plants: by photosynthesis. The coffee plant takes in sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide and from these produces oxygen and energy (sugar).
The coffee plant prefers shade, so does it get enough sunlight to photosynthesize? It likes dappled shade, so still gets enough sunlight to make energy; however, doesn’t run the risk of its leaves being burnt by the sun.
How Does Climate Change Affect Coffee Plants? (Can Coffee Survive Climate Change?)
We know that the tropical coffee plant likes warmth; however, rising temperatures could mean the coffee-growing regions become too hot for their coffea plants.
Brazil, Columbia, Vietnam, and Indonesia could all struggle to produce coffee if the planet keeps heating up at this rate.
So what would happen to coffee production? It would be devastating for the current producers, although cultivation could probably move to other parts of the world as they in turn warm-up, such as Uruguay, Argentina, China – and the US.
What Rainfall Does Coffee Need to Grow in the Rainforest?
Coffee plants love the rain, and they need rainfall that’s between 40 and 80 inches (100 and 200 cm) annually.
The coffea plant needs an average temperature of between 60 and 80 degrees fahrenheit (15 – 28 celcius), so combined with the rainfall, that’s a pretty humid environment.
The plants grow rapidly during the hot and rainy season, then ripen when it cools. Ideally, it’s dry and bright when the cherries are harvested.
What Animal Eats Coffee Plants in the Rainforest?
A surprising amount of animals actually eat coffee plants, or rather, chew on the coffee cherries. Some species of bat will eat coffee plants (is that why they’re up all night?) as will rhesus monkeys.
The most famous (well, infamous) coffee plant-eater is the civet cat, who eats the cherries whole and poops out the seeds.
Yes, these seeds are harvested as coffee beans and made into incredibly expensive coffee. Apparently this, er, process helps with fermentation. Like the beans, we’ll pass.
Why Does Coffee Only Grow Near the Equator?
If you were to get a map and color in the coffee-producing countries, you’d clearly see a band around the Equator. Coffee loves the Equator’s warm and wet climate.
The rainfall helps the plant produce its fruit, while the temperatures are ideal for this tropical plant, and the soils are rich and fertile.
In short, the perfect conditions to create the perfect coffee beans for the perfect cup of coffee. 🙂