Coffee is the produce chiefly of Coffea arabica, a Rubiaceous plant indigenous to Abyssinia, which, however, as cultivated originally, spread outwards from the southern parts of Arabia. The name has been traced to Kaffa, a province in Abyssinia, in which the tree grows wild. The genus Coffea, to which the common coffee tree belongs, contains about 25 species in the tropics of the Old World, mainly African. Besides being found wild in Abyssinia, the common coffee plant appears to be widely disseminated in Africa, occurring wild in the Mozambique district, on the shores of the Victoria Nyanza, and in Angola on the west coast. The common Arabian coffee shrub is an evergreen plant, which under natural conditions grows to a height of from 18 to 20 feet, with oblong-ovate, acuminate, smooth and shining leaves, measuring about 6 inches long by 2 inches wide.
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Coffee flowers, which are produced in dense clusters in the axils of the leaves, have a five-toothed calyx, a tubular five-parted corolla, five stamens and a single bifid style. The flowers are pure white in colour, with a rich fragrant odor, and the plants in blossom have a lovely and attractive appearance, but the bloom is very evanescent. Coffee fruit is a fleshy berry, having the appearance and size of a small cherry, and as it ripens it assumes a dark red color. Each fruit contains two seeds embedded in a yellowish pulp, and the seeds are enclosed in a thin membranous endocarp (the parchment). Between each seed and the parchment is a delicate covering called the silver skin. The seeds which constitute the raw coffee beans of commerce are plano-convex in form, the flat surfaces which are laid against each other within the berry having a longitudinal furrow or groove. When only one seed is developed in a fruit it is not flattened on one side, but circular in cross section. Such seeds form pea-berry coffee.
Coffee seeds are of a soft, semi-translucent, bluish or greenish color, hard and tough in texture. The regions best adapted for the cultivation of coffee are well-watered mountain slopes at an elevation ranging from 1000 to 4000 feet above sea-level, within the tropics, and possessing a mean annual temperature of about 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Liberian coffee plant has larger leaves, flowers and fruits, and is of a more robust and hardy constitution, than Arabian coffee. The seeds yield a highly aromatic and well-flavored coffee (but by no means equal to Arabian), and the plant is very prolific and yields heavy crops. Liberian coffee grows, moreover, at low altitudes, and flourishes in many situations unsuitable to the Arabian coffee. It grows wild in great abundance along the whole of the Guinea coast.
The early history of coffee as an economic product is involved in considerable obscurity, the absence of fact being compensated for by a profusion of conjectural statements and mythical stories. The use of coffee in Abyssinia was recorded in the 15th century, and was then stated to have been practised from time immemorial. Neighbouring countries, however, appear to have been quite ignorant of its value. Various legendary accounts are given of the discovery of the beneficial properties of the plant, one ascribing it to a flock of sheep accidentally browsing on the wild shrubs, with the result that they became elated and sleepless at night. Its physiological action in dissipating drowsiness and preventing sleep was taken advantage of in connection with the prolonged religious service of the Mahommedans, and its use as a devotional antisoporific stirred up fierce opposition on the part of the strictly orthodox and conservative section of the priests. Coffee by them was held to be an intoxicating beverage, and therefore prohibited by the Koran, and severe penalties were threatened to those addicted to its use. Notwithstanding threats of divine retribution and other devices, the coffee-drinking habit spread rapidly among the Arabian Mahommedans, and the growth of coffee and its use as a national beverage became as inseparably connected with Arabia as tea is with China.