Coffee Propagation

A brief account of the cultivation of the coffee plant in the Old World and its introduction into the New—A romantic coffee adventure

The history of the propagation of the coffee plant is closely interwoven with that of the early history of coffee drinking, but for the purposes of this chapter we shall consider only the story of the inception and growth of the cultivation of the coffee tree, or shrub, bearing the seeds, or berries, from which the drink, coffee, is made.

Careful research discloses that most authorities agree that the coffee plant is indigenous to Abyssinia, and probably Arabia, whence its cultivation spread throughout the tropics. The first reliable mention of the properties and uses of the plant is by an Arabian physician toward the close of the ninth century A.D., and it is reasonable to suppose that before that time the plant was found growing wild in Abyssinia and perhaps in Arabia. If it be true, as Ludolphus writes,[15] that the Abyssinians came out of Arabia into Ethiopia in the early ages, it is possible that they may have brought the coffee tree with them; but the Arabians must still be given the credit for discovering and promoting the use of the beverage, and also for promoting the propagation of the plant, even if they found it in Abyssinia and brought it to Yemen.

Some authorities believe that the first cultivation of coffee in Yemen dates back to 575 A.D., when the Persian invasion put an end to the Ethiopian rule of the negus Caleb, who conquered the country in 525.

Certainly the discovery of the beverage resulted in the cultivation of the plant in Abyssinia and in Arabia; but its progress was slow until the 15th and 16th centuries, when it appears as intensively carried on in the Yemen district of Arabia. The Arabians were jealous of their new found and lucrative industry, and for a time successfully prevented its spread to other countries by not permitting any of the precious berries to leave the country unless they had first been steeped in boiling water or parched, so as to destroy their powers of germination. It may be that many of the early failures successfully to introduce the cultivation of the coffee plant into other lands was also due to the fact, discovered later, that the seeds soon lose their germinating power.

However, it was not possible to watch every avenue of transport, with thousands of pilgrims journeying to and from Mecca every year; and so there would appear to be some reason to credit the Indian tradition concerning the introduction of coffee cultivation into southern India by Baba Budan, a Moslem pilgrim, as early as 1600, although a better authority gives the date as 1695. Indian tradition relates that Baba Budan planted his seeds near the hut he built for himself at Chickmaglur in the mountains of Mysore, where, only a few years since, the writer found the descendants of these first plants growing under the shade of the centuries-old original jungle trees. The greater part of the plants cultivated by the natives of Kurg and Mysore appear to have come from the Baba Budan importation. It was not until 1840 that the English began the cultivation of coffee in India.


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Did You Know?
Caffeine is the major coffee constituent affecting individual's tolerance or intolerance. In a healthy liver, the majority of caffeine is degraded by the hepatic microsomal enzymatic system. Caffeine is mostly degraded to paraxanthine substances, partially to theobromine and theophylline, and a small amount of unchanged caffeine is excreted by urine. Therefore, the metabolism of caffeine depends on the state of this enzymatic system of the liver.

Elderly individuals with a depleted enzymatic system do not tolerate coffee with caffeine. They are recommended to take decaffeinated coffee, and this only if their stomach is healthy, because both decaffeinated coffee and coffee with caffeine cause heartburn. Moderate amounts of coffee (50-100 mg of caffeine or 5-10 g of coffee powder a day) are well tolerated by a majority of elderly people.

Excessive amounts of coffee, however, can in many individuals cause very unpleasant, exceptionally even life-threatening side effects.