The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Coffea arabica Linnaeus


Coffee Bush




Rubiaceae (Coffee Family); Subfamily Cinchonoideae, Coffeeae Tribe

Forms and Subspecies


The variety Coffea arabica L. var. abyssinica A. Chev. (wild form) occurs in the mountain forests of Ethiopia. In principle, two varieties that were derived from early Arabic plantations are now under cultivation:


Coffea arabica L. var. arabica (= var. typica Cramer)

Coffea arabica L. var. bourbon (B. Rodr.) Choussy


A very large number of mutants and cultivated forms have been described. The following are of economic interest:


Coffea arabica L. cv. Caturra (stocky growth, productive)

Coffea arabica L. cv. Mundo novo (very good yield)

Coffea arabica L. cv. Catuai vermelho (red fruits)

Coffea arabica L. cv. Catuai amarelo (yellow fruits)

Coffea arabica L. cv. Mragogipe (gigantic form)

Coffea arabica L. cv. Mokka (very low growing)


The last of these cultivars, which is also known by the names mokha and moka, has also been described as a variety:


Coffea arabica L. var. mokka Cramer


Branch and “beans” (= seeds) of the coffee bush. (Copperplate engraving from Peter Pomet, Der aufrichtige Materialist und Specerey-Händler, Leipzig 1717)




Coffea laurifolia Salisb.

Coffea mauritiana Host. non Lamk.

Coffea vulgaris Moench

Jasminum arabicum laurifolia de Juss.

Folk Names


Arabian coffee, Arabica coffee, arabica-kaffee, arabischer kaffee, bergkaffee, bun (Yemen), buna (“wine”), buni (Ethiopian), cabi, café, caféier, cafeiro, cafeto, chia-fei (Chinese), coffa, coffee, coffee bush, coffee tree, common coffee, kaffeebaum, kaffeepflanze, kaffeestrauch, kahawa (Swahili), kahwa (Arabic), kahwe (Turkish), kahweh, k’hoxwéeh (Navajo), koffie (Dutch), kopi, qahûa, qahwa (Arabic, “wine”), qahwe



Long before the first coffee was ever brewed, the berries of the coffee bush were being chewed in Africa for stimulating purposes (by about the sixth century). Coffee drinking was discovered long after khat chewing (see Catha edulis). The word coffee is sometimes derived from the Arabic word for wine,102gahwe; but the Arabic name for coffee, kahwa, is more likely derived from the place-name Kafa (in Ethiopia). In Ethiopia, the story told to explain the discovery of coffee is almost identical to that told in Yemen to explain the discovery of khat. A goatherd watched as his goats scampered around excitedly after they had eaten from the coffee bush. He took some of the beans and gave them to the village priest, who then experimented with them until he experienced their stimulating power and was thus better able to recite the long prayers (Mercatante 1980, 171*). The first mention of coffee use in Yemen comes from the twelfth century (Meyer 1965, 137).

Coffee is highly esteemed among African Sufis, for it enables them to take part in their mystical rituals night after night without falling asleep and makes it easier for them to attain religious ecstasy. The Sufis and the wandering dervishes played a great role in the spread and popularization of coffee.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, coffee became known both in Europe and on the African Swahili coast (Sheikh-Dilthey 1985, 253). Coffee was enthusiastically received in Europe, where it was praised as a cure-all and used as an aphrodisiac (Müller 1981). The first complete botanical description of the plant was not made until the mid-nineteenth century (Meyer 1965, 142).

Today, coffee is probably the most commonly consumed stimulating beverage in the world (Morton 1977, 356*). As a result, the coffee bush is one of the most culturally important psychoactive plants that exist.

Because of its economic significance, coffee has often led to violent altercations and warlike actions. In the 1920s and 1930s, a veritable “witches’ war” broke out in Puebla (Mexico), during which over one hundred Nahuat Indians lost their lives (Knab 1995*).



The coffee bush apparently originated in Abyssinia, i.e., southwest Ethiopia (Schneider 1974, 1:343*). It is still indigenous to the region (Baumann and Seitz 1992, 927; Meyer 1965). Wild plants have also been observed in Sudan.



The coffee bush requires a tropical climate to thrive and does not tolerate frost. It must be raised in partial or complete shade. Anyone who wants to grow the plant in the climate zone of central Europe must raise it as a potted plant or in a tropical greenhouse. The seeds are placed on peaty, sandy seed soil. They should be not covered with soil but, instead, gently pushed into the soil and kept continuously moist. The germination time is quite variable but usually requires between two and four weeks (at temperatures between 25 and 30°C). The germinated seeds or seedlings can be transplanted into a suitable pot. They should be fed frequently and well watered. In principle, sowing can be performed throughout the year, but because of the plant’s biorhythms, it is best done between November and January. After a growing period of about three years, the plant produces its first fruits. These contain the coffee beans.

Coffee plantations are found in many tropical countries. Coffee is an economically important source of income for many so-called Third World countries. Outside of Africa, the most important coffee-growing regions are in Mexico (Chiapas), Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, and Brazil. In tropical Africa, the closely related species Coffea liberica Bull. is grown as a source of coffee beans. Robusta coffee (Coffea canephora) is also cultivated on a large scale in Africa. Coffea canephora provides some 20% of the world’s supply of coffee beans, while about 80% comes from Coffea arabica (Baumann and Seitz 1992, 928).


The seeds of the ripe fruits of the coffee bush (Coffea arabica) are referred to as coffee beans, even though the plant is not related to the Legume Family.




The perennial coffee bush can grow to a height of about 4 meters. It is heavily foliated, with shiny leaves (6 to 20 cm long, 2.5 to 6 cm wide) that can persist for two to three years. The white, star-shaped flowers (calyx approximately 3 mm long) are in thick glomerules and exude a fine, delicious scent vaguely reminiscent of that of jasmine (Jasminum spp.). The green, oval fruits (berries) turn bright red when ripe (only the cultivar Catuai amarelo develops yellow berries).

The genus Coffea consists of some ninety species, many of which resemble the coffee bush. Coffea arabica is very similar to two tropical species, Coffea congoensis Froehn. and Coffea eugenioides S. Moore, and is easily confused with them (Meyer 1965, 138).



Other Coffea Species That Yield Coffee




“Hot as hell, black as the devil, pure as an angel, sweet as love.”








“If I am not allowed to drink my three little cups of coffee a day, then I become to my torment like withered-up goat meat.


Oh! How sweet does coffee taste,

more delightful than a thousand kisses,

milder than muscatel wine,

coffee, I must have coffee,

and if anyone would wish to refresh me

yes, then give me coffee.”







“I found out from a Sayha named Hâgga Fâyza that they both read the coffee grounds and then in a relaxed state allow two djinns to explain the meaning of the patterns and lines in the grounds and also use the dream oracle to receive information about their personal djinn servant.”




(1997, 68)


Psychoactive Material


—Seeds (coffee beans, semen coffeae, coffeae semen, green coffee)

—Roasted coffee beans (coffeae semen tostae)


The roasted coffee beans must be kept well sealed, in the dark, and away from humidity.

Preparation and Dosage


After the ripe fruits (coffee cherries, coffee berries) have been harvested by hand, they are spread out in a layer 3 to 4 cm deep to dry in the sun. The drying fruits are raked often, sometimes several times a day. After three to four weeks, the fruits are completely dry. The beans now lie loosely in the fruit coat, which is then removed by rubbing with the hand or with machines (so-called hullers). To brew coffee, the seeds must be roasted. The green coffee beans are roasted for differing lengths of time and by different methods, either on clay or metal plates above a fire or with industrial machines. The roasting process gives the beans their aroma, an important factor in determing the market quality of the beans.

The roasted beans are coarsely ground and brewed for ten minutes in boiling water or boiled for several minutes in water. These methods are common in Africa and Scandinavia. More often, the roasted beans are ground and placed in a filter or a suitable coffee maker. Boiling water is then poured slowly over them.

A normal cup of coffee, brewed from 5 g of ground coffee and 300 cm3 of water, contains 70 to 80 mg of caffeine (Roth et al. 1994, 248*). Approximately 250 mg of caffeine is contained in a double espresso.103 If the daily consumption of coffee is so great that a person is ingesting 1.5 to 1.8 g of caffeine daily, “caffeinism” may result (Baumann and Seitz 1992, 935). Still, some people are said to drink up to fifty cups of strong coffee daily. The French writer Voltaire was one such person (Huchzermeyer 1994).

In Africa, coffee is usually spiced with cardamom (dawa ya chai, “tea medicine”), and also with ginger roots (Zingiber officinale) when being made into medicinal drinks. In Africa, ten to twelve roasted coffee beans are brewed with water when the drink is intended for medicinal purposes. When the beans are chewed for medicinal purposes, children take one or two beans, while adults take from seven to fourteen beans (Sheikh-Dilthey 1985, 254).

The following ingredients are used to make a purgative that is administered on the day after giving birth:


5 cups of water

“Very many” crushed coffee beans

2 betel leaves (Piper betle)

1 spoonful of dried dill herbage (Anethum graveolens)

1 teaspoon of Ajwan cumin (Trachyspermum ammi [L.] Sprague)

2 sticks of cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum Presl)

5 cardamom seeds (Elettaria cardamomum [L.] Maton)

5 cloves (Syzygium aromaticum)

2 teaspoons of molasses (from sugarcane)


All of the ingredients are chopped and boiled in the water. After filtering, about two cups remain (Sheikh-Dilthey 1985, 255).

In Ethiopia and other African countries, the dried and/or roasted leaves of the coffee bush may also be chopped and boiled in water. Milk is then added, and the product is drunk either sweetened or salted. In Ethiopia, an infusion of the leaves or fruit husks is known as hoja and is drunk with milk (Wellman 1961).

A number of other stimulating plants are used as coffee substitutes, e.g., Ilex guayusa, but also the roasted seeds of Abrus precatorius. The roasted root tubers of chicory (Cichorium intybus L. var. sativumLam. et DC.), which contain no stimulating or psychoactive constituents, are the source of chicory coffee (Rehm and Espig 1996, 255*). In Yemen and the surrounding countries, an infusion of dried khat leaves is used as a coffee substitute (see Catha edulis). Dandelion roots (Taraxacum officinale Weber), fig fruits (Ficus carica L.), sugar beet roots (Beta vulgaris L.), lupine seeds (Lupinus spp.), rye grains (Secale cereale L.), and barley grains (Hordeum distichon L.) are also used as coffee substitutes or counterfeits. Some Psychotria species are known by the name wild coffee and are said to have formerly been used in Jamaica and on other Caribbean islands as coffee substitutes.

Ritual Use


In East Africa, it is believed that spirits live in the coffee beans and that the beans therefore possess magical powers a person can draw upon through rituals and incantations. According to an Arab legend, the archangel Gabriel presented the first coffee to the ailing Muhammad for his recuperation (Brunngraber 1952, 128*). For this reason, coffee is sacred in Islam, and it is even used as a ceremonial drink. In Swahililand, copious amounts of coffee are drunk during all religious rites, at the evening readings of the Koran, and at the midnight worship services at the mosques (presumably so that people will not fall asleep during the sermons):


The greatest of the Islamic festivals on the Swahili coast is Maulidi al Nabi, the celebration of the prophet’s birthday. . . . On this occasion, people of all ethnic groups gather in the bigger cities and take part in processions through the city that are led by groups of musicians singing religious songs in praise of Mohammed. When it gets dark, the processions meet in a great square in front of a mosque. In the light of the torches or light bulbs, wrapped in the scent of ubani (incense [cf. Boswellia sacra]), all of the praying people listen attentively deep into the night as the life story of Mohammed is recited in prose or poetry. As this is going on, spiced coffee is passed out and drunk by all who are present. (Sheikh-Dilthey 1985, 255)


The use of coffee to support prayers, meditations, and secret rituals was of great importance in many Sufi orders.

The customs associated with drinking coffee in Viennese coffeehouses also have a ritual character, though the coffee drinkers themselves do not usually regard them as rituals (Thiele-Dohrmann 1997; Weigel et al. 1978). In some circles, the magical use of coffee has been preserved in the form of reading coffee grounds, a traditional folk oracular method. For many Westerners, the act of preparing coffee in the morning has become a small, personal ritual that helps them prepare for the day. Many coffee drinkers are not “officially” available before they have had their morning coffee, i.e., coffee opens a person to the world. Afternoon coffee parties and coffee breaks at work also have a ritual and socio-integrative character.



As a stimulating and awakening work drug, coffee has certainly made an indirect contribution to the productive abilities of creative artists. Many musicians have been inspired by coffee. If the American composer Frank Zappa (1940–1993), whom many music lovers regarded as a psychedelic musician, is to be believed, coffee and cigarettes were his “basic food groups” and the foundation of his musical productivity. The greatest musical work devoted to coffee is the very worldly Kaffeekantate [Coffee Cantata] of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), which was composed to be played in coffee- and teahouses as well as more traditional venues. The hymn “Cigarettes and Coffee,” by the rock bard Jerry “Captain Trips” Garcia (1942–1995) (featured in the soundtrack to the film Smoke, 1995), is quite well known, as is the crossover ballad “Caffeine” from the heavy metal band Faith No More (on the album Angeldust, 1992).104

The recent anthology Music for Coffeeshops (Dreamtime Records, 1995), the maxi-single “Coffee Shop” (from the crossover band the Red Hot Chili Peppers, WEA, 1996), and the album Locked in a Dutch Coffeeshop (by Eugene Chadbourne and Jimmy Carl Black, ca. 1993) are referring not to true coffeehouses but to the renowned Dutch coffee shops in which hashish and other hemp products (Cannabis indica) are sold in a quasi-legal environment.

Medicinal Use


In Africa, roasted coffee beans are chewed to treat headaches, malaria, and general weakness (Sheikh-Dilthey 1985, 254). In Arabia, coffee grounds are eaten as a folk medicinal treatment for dysentery and applied externally to suppurating wounds and inflammations (Baumann and Seitz 1992, 930). Decoctions of roasted coffee beans are used in Haiti to treat hepatitis, liver ailments, edema, anemia, and conditions of weakness (Baumann and Seitz 1992, 934).

In the United States, paramedical circles have claimed that coffee enemas, administered every two hours, can heal cancer. This therapy is usually recommended to cancer patients by other cancer patients. This treatment is responsible for at least two deaths (Eisele and Reay 1980).


Botanical illustration of the coffee bush. (Engraving from Pereira, De Beginselen der Materia Medica en der Therapie, 1849)



In the seventeenth century, drinking coffee or tea was an enormously popular activity. Meetings, or lodges, clearly provided the ritual and collective space for a communal “inebriation” using stimulating beverages. (Copperplate engraving from Die neueröffnete lustige Schaubühne menschlicher Gewohnheiten und Thorheiten, Hamburg, 1690)


In homeopathic medicine, Coffea—Kaffee is an important agent obtained from a tincture of unroasted seeds (Schneider 1974, 1:245*). Preparations of roasted coffee beans (Coffea arabica tosta hom. HAB1) are also used in homeopathy, including for the treatment of neuralgia and sleep disorders (Baumann and Seitz 1992, 936).



The green beans contain purine alkaloids. In addition to concentrations within a normal range of 0.58 to 1.7% caffeine, there are slight concentrations of theobromine (cf. Theobroma cacao), theophylline, paraxanthine, theacrine, liberine, and methylliberine. Also present are chlorogenic acids, in concentrations of 5.5 to 7.6%, of which 60 to 80% is 5-caffeoylquinic acid. A portion of the caffeine is bound to the chlorogenic acids. The beans contain approximately 16% coffee oil with diterpene alcohols. Coffee wax contains fatty acid derivatives of 5-hydroxytryptamine (Baumann and Seitz 1992, 931). Green coffee beans have also occasionally been found to contain concentrations of 3% caffeine (Roth et al. 1994, 248*).

Roasting the seeds has almost no effect upon their caffeine content, but the chlorogenic acids are reduced to about 10% of their original concentration. Roasting also creates new compounds, including nicotinic acid, 5-hydroxyin-dole, alkane, trigonelline, and polymer pigments, which are responsible for the brown coloration of the beans. The source of the characteristic coffee aroma, which plays such an important role in determining the commercial value, remains unknown. The average caffeine content of roasted coffee is around 1% (Baumann and Seitz 1992, 932 f.).

The red pigmentation of the fruits is the result of anthocyanins and the aglycone cyanidin. The hull (pulp) of the fruit contains large amounts of tanning agents (Baumann and Seitz 1992, 928).

Whether the leaves contain caffeine, other purines, or chlorogenic acids is unknown (Roth et al. 1994, 248*).



Coffee has strong stimulating effects and induces wakefulness, accelerates the pulse rate, and promotes perspiration. At a certain dosage, which varies from person to person and also depends upon the degree to which a person has become habituated to coffee, mental abilities are improved. Coffee often improves heart activity and urinary excretion. Very high dosages can produce profound disturbances in perception, trembling, nervousness, and sleep disturbances. The discussions about the beneficial or harmful effects of coffee upon health are apparently not over and are constant subjects of the popular media and health advocates. The chlorogenic acids are responsible for coffee’s “acid content”; in large quantities, they can make the stomach acidic, resulting in heartburn, stabbing pains, and, over a period of time, stomach ulcers (Roth et al. 1994, 248*).

A nutrition scientist has noted: “If we summarize the results of the rather comprehensive research into the acute effects of caffeine and the long-term effects of daily coffee, then coffee should be ranked among the most harmless of all drugs” (Huchzermeyer 1994).

Commercial Forms and Regulations


Viable seeds (in packages designed to prevent germination) are available in nurseries and seed stores. Coffee beans are subject only to the prevailing food laws. Various types of coffee are available; Colombian coffee, Turkish mocha, and Italian espresso are especially popular. Decaffeinated coffees, commercial goods that have been treated to remove the caffeine, are also offered.










See also the entry for caffeine.


Baumann, Thomas W., and Renate Seitz. 1992. Coffea. In Hagers Handbuch der pharmazeutischen Praxis, 5th ed., 4:926–40. Berlin: Springer.


Eisele, John W., and Donald T. Reay. 1980. Deaths related to coffee enemas. Journal of the American Medical Association 244 (14): 1608–9.


Haberland, Eike. 1981. Kaffee in Äthiopien. In Rausch und Realität, ed. G. Völger, 2:492–95. Cologne: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde.


Hentschel, Kornelius. 1997. Geister, Magier und Muslime: Dämonenwelt und Geisteraustreibung im Islam. Munich: Diederichs.


Huchzermeyer, Hans. 1994. Kaffee: Wirkungen einer alltäglichen “Dröhnung.” In Köstlichkeiten: Von “sinnvollen” Essen und Trinken (Jubiläumsschrift). Minden: Institut für Ernährungsmedizin.


Jacob, Heinrich Eduard. 1934. Sage und Siegeszug des Kaffees. Hamburg: Rowohlt.


Meyer, Frederick G. 1965. Notes on wild Coffea arabica from southwestern Ethiopia, with some historical considerations. Economic Botany 19:136–51.


Müller, Irmgard. 1981. Einführung des Kaffees in Europa. In Rausch und Realität, ed. G.Völger, l:390–97. Cologne: Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum für Völkerkunde.


Schnyder-v. Waldkirch, Antoinette. 1988. Wie Europa den Kaffee entdeckte: Reisebericht der Barockzeit als Quellen zur Geschichte des Kaffees. Zurich: Jacobs Suchard Museum.


Sheikh-Dilthey, Helmtraut. 1985. Kaffee, Heil- und Zeremonialtrank der Swahiliküste. Curare, Sonderband 3/85:253–56.


Sylvain, Pierre G. 1958. Ethiopian coffee: Its significance to world coffee problems. Economic Botany 12:111–30.


Thiele-Dohrmann, Klaus. 1997. Europäische Kaffeehauskultur. Zurich and Dusseldorf: Artemis & Winkler.


Weigel, Hans, Werner J. Schweiger, and Christian Brandstätter. 1978. Das Wiener Kaffeehaus. Vienna, Munich, and Zurich: Verlag Fritz Molden.


Wellman, F. L. 1961. Coffee. London: Leonard Hill.