I am fortunate to live just minutes away from Oxbow Eco-Center, a County-run wildlife refuge and environmental learning center and located in the northeast border of the city of Port Saint Lucie, Florida. One of the main features of the center is the three-mile nature trail, open from dusk to dawn, that snakes throughout the preserve. Along the way are descriptive plant markers that tell about the various Florida native plants.
As my husband and I walked along the forest trail one day we kept noticing a familiar large shrub. We had recently purchased an Arabica coffee plant from a Weatherby Nursery in Fort Pierce, and we were well pleased with our buy. We modified the soil with plenty of acid-rich peat moss, planted our little one-gallon plant, and the coffee plant had grown by leaps and bounds, to a huge 3 ft wide, 6 ft tall shrub. And it was bearing dozens coffee beans.
The native plant we kept spotting along the trail looked very much like our coffee tree. The leaves and habit of the shrub were quite similar. Finally we stumbled upon the plant marker in front of one of these familiar plants, and discovered the native plant, wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa), also known as Seminole balsamo.
This Florida native plant is distinguished by its long, textured, elliptical shiny green leaves, and white flower clusters that become a profusion of red berries. Wild coffee is an evergreen shrub, and adds continuous year round color to any South Florida garden landscape.
This shrub is also known as Seminole balsamo because it is considered sacred by Florida’s native Seminoles. The seeds are often brewed into coffee-like beverage that holds great shamanistic value and is welcomed into religious ceremonies. However unlike its relative, Coffea Arabica, the beans of the wild coffee are generally not recommended for human consumption.
Although it’s not wise for humans to consume the fruit of wild coffee, this does not stop Florida wildlife from loving and benefiting from this pretty plant. Wild coffee can attain a width of 4 to 5 feet, and grow up to 10 feet high. Its foliage is moderately dense, and it can provide a safe, happy home for many birds, including blue jays, cardinals, catbirds, and mockingbirds. Honey bees and butterflies enjoy nectar from the wild coffee’s spring blossoms, and the foliage is often home to the reproducing swallowtail butterfly.
Although I would not recommend wild coffee for a xeriscaped garden unless you are willing to water until it is well-established, wild coffee is not overly fussy about water requirements. It grows in a variety of garden soil, from wet to dry. One thing that wild coffee does require is some form of shade.
I originally planted two wild coffee shrubs in my garden an open sunny area, but the plant lost its glossy green color, the edges of the leaves browned, the plant drooped, and it did not do well. I immediately moved the plants to a partially shaded area, and the wild coffee revived and began to thrive.
My wild coffee has not gone through a winter season in my climate zone (9b), and it is not recommended for gardening north of zone 10. However, the Arabia coffee survived the past harsh winter with a little cold burn, and once pruned, came back with a vengeance. So if you wish the plant to survive a freeze, remember to cover and protect it.
If you live in South Florida, I highly recommend adding wild coffee to your garden landscape. Take care of your wild coffee and it will provide garden beauty and a safe harbor for wildlife for many, many years to come.