Coffee 101: What Does a Coffee Plant Look Like?

Where Does Coffee Come From?

Take a trip to Ethiopia, Brazil or Costa Rica and you may walk past plants that look like this. 

Picture of a Coffee Plant with Red Berries

At first, you might think delicious, red ripe berries or grapes are hanging from the plant’s branches.  But take a closer look—those plentiful, seemingly bursting berries are not what they may seem.  As a matter of fact, those are coffee beans!

Many people picture coffee as brown, dry beans that grow from the ground.  Instead, coffee is a “cherry” that grows from plants that range anywhere from 5-7 feet tall.

Although you may not recognize one at first, there are a few important coffee plant characteristics to take note of.

What Does a Coffee Plant Look Like?

  • They are generally covered with dark green, waxy leaves that grow in pairs.  Some coffee plants can actually produce purple and yellow leaves.
  • Coffee cherries grow along the plant’s branches.
  • After one year, coffee cherries bloom into flowering, fragrant, white blossoms.
  • Flowers and fruit often grow alongside coffee trees.
  • Coffee plants are technically a shrub.
  • Coffee plants live as long as 30-40 years.
  • Coffee plants are pruned about once a year.

There are 120 varietals of Arabica coffee (a high-grown, better tasting coffee) and just 2 species of Robusta coffee (a cheaper coffee bean that is used in a majority of Folgers and Maxwell House products).  The first ever Arabica coffee bean plant was discovered in Ethiopia, which is where half of the world’s coffee production comes from.

Whether it’s Arabica or Robusta, a coffee cherry generally looks the same (however, they may range in size).  In essence, coffee beans are red “seeds” that have a variety of layers.

Anatomy of a Coffee Bean

  • Exocarp: outer skin
  • Mesocarp: thin layer of pulp directly below the exocarp
  • Endocarp: a parchment-like envelop that covers the bean
  • Endosperm: another layer of thin membrane or seed skin that envelops the bean
  • Embryo: the true seed (bean) itself

So the next time you’re trekking through the wilderness and mountains of Ethiopia (which we’re sure isn’t too often!), be sure to take a look around.  What may seem like a small, grape-producing tree, is actually a coffee plant—a plant that many of us are extremely thankful for!