For Christmas my really good friend, Jamie, sent to me two packages of the most sublime coffee beans in the world. The scent that came with one deep inhale was enough to kick start my day right into tomorrow. I love coffee, and would happily drown all my woes in cups full of coffee from dawn till dark if I allowed myself that pleasure. Every morning, just the thought of this coffee waiting to be ground kicks me right out of bed, well, that and the fact that Jazz, my cat is tapping on my nose with his paw. I even like to read the packaging the coffee comes in. Those from Jamie say: "Every single bean that we roast is Organic Certified, Carbon Free Certified and Shade Grown." Now I am so spoiled to this coffee, when it is gone, I will have a difficult time settling for less.

As always happens to me, thoughts of one thing lead the way to thoughts of something else, and I found myself thinking of the plant that produces coffee beans. You might have already read of my experiences with chicory at various times in my life, but this time I would like to share with you what I know about the coffee bean tree.Image

Thousands of years ago, entering a damp highland forest in Africa, you might find a dense undergrowth of 12 to 15 foot high glossy broadleafed evergreens. At the leaf axils of these shrublike trees are clusters of rounded, deep red berries, about as big as the first joint of your little finger. Let's assume that you already know that something in the berries makes you feel better, kicks up your energy, brings a light to your sleepy eyes. So, with little fear, you pick a cluster of berries, and begin to chew.

That "something" in the berries is caffeine, the same substance that most of us look forward to with our first cup of coffee every day. Usually when I am traveling and having to spend time in motel rooms, at the end of a day of driving or flying, the first thing I check is not to see if the room is spotless. I check to make sure it has a coffee maker stocked with plenty of coffee. Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system: the flow of blood is increased, especially through the coronary arteries that feed the heart; the heart itself beats a bit faster; muscles respond to the faster pulse rate; the kidneys work a little harder; breathing is stimulated; and so is cerebral activity. It makes us more alert and ready to face the day. Actually I could make do with one cup, since I run like a spinning top through most of my days anyway, but by the time I sip my second cup, I am awake enough to appreciate its flavor, its aroma, just a little more. Now, right here, I need to take a little break and tell you that there is a downside to this wonderful eye opener called coffee, but before I explain it, there are some more facts that are pretty interesting. I'll tell you while you sip your second cup of the morning.

Coffea arabica originated in Ethiopia, and was introduced into Persia, Egypt, and Arab lands at some unknown date long, long ago. For a very long time the roasting, grinding, brewing and consumption of the beans were done only by priests and medicine men. By the 15th century, Mecca boasted several public coffeehouses. Similar establishments later were in Constantinople, Venice and in Rome. In the city of Rome, great efforts were made by the church to ban the "infidel drink." But by the late 17th century, coffee drinking had become highly fashionable in Paris, London, and Berlin.Image

The Arabs however, held a monopoly on coffee, most of which moved through the port of Mocha, which gives us one popular name for coffee. The Arabs were forbidden to export the plants or unroasted seeds, but in the late 1600's the Dutch smuggled out some seedlings. With the seedlings, they set up coffee plantations in Java, which leads us to another popular name. Then in the 18th century, coffee trees were taken to Jamaica and to Martinique, where they flourished. From there they spread to other islands, to Central America, and to Brazil, which eventually became the world's leading coffee producer, until more recently Columbia claims that distinction. Even more recently than Columbia, several African and Asian countries have taken large shares of the market, but their plants are of various other species of Coffea.

Now, back to the wonderful coffee that my friend Jamie sent. I sip that second cup slowly because it is the last cup I allow myself for the day, and I need to savor it. I do live by some self imposed restrictions, and limiting my coffee intake is one of them. Another is only two pieces of chocolate a day, but that is another story for another time. After five or six cups of coffee, the mind stimulation is transformed into restlessness. Irritability takes over. Nausea and muscle tremors can occur, and mental instability rears its ugly head. That is what happens when you overdose on the world's most popular drug: caffeine. Image

Caffeine is derived from the two grayish seeds that dwell within each fruit of several Coffea species. It was identified in the early 1800's by a scientist who thought the seeds might contain quinine. Today, thankfully, it is possible to enjoy the flavor of coffee without the effects of caffeine. Decaffeinated coffee is made by removing the caffeine while leaving the oil which is responsible for the flavor and the aroma.

The extracted caffeine is not lost. It goes to the pharmaceutical industry to be incorporated into pain remedies, where its stimulating effect is put into aspirin and other over the counter pain relievers to rush them into the body's system. It is also a cardiac and respiratory stimulant, valuable in fighting overdoses of depressants such as alcohol, barbiturates, and morphine. Now you know why folks fight a hangover with strong black coffee.

Jamie, my friend, I just wanted you to know how much I appreciated such a delicious gift. And I also wanted you to know it's a long time till my birthday, but since I am well into my second bag of that special coffee youImage sent, I was wondering how you feel about exchanging gifts for Valentine's Day? This second bag might just last till then...maybe.

Resources: Complementary & Alternative Medicines, Third Edition, C.W. Fetrow, PharmD, Juan R. Avita, PharmD, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2004, pp.224-226

Magic and Medicine of Plants, The Readers Digest, Inc. 1986

All photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to Floridian, Kennedyh, Evert, and Dinu for the use of your excellent photos.

A very special thanks to Jamie for the gift of the most glorious coffee I have ever tasted. You are the best!