Is a Coffee Plant a Tree or a Bush?

coffee plant a tree or a bush

We’ve all seen coffee beans, but can you tell me what a coffee plant looks like.

Until I did a Google search I know I couldn't tell you exactly what one looked like, and even then the variation is so great it is hard to describe one precisely.

I’ve seen photos and short videos of laborers picking coffee. Usually, they show the branches and fruit, but never the whole tree, or is it a bush? For now, we’ll go with coffee plant until we sort this out.

My purpose of this blog is to follow my coffee education and since I’ve no clue if coffee grows on a bush or a tree it is time to learn.

coffee plant

The Coffee Plant

From my research, I’ve learned that coffee plants like to grow in sub-tropical climates at elevations between 2,500 and 6,000 feet above mean sea level.

The plant is susceptible to frost and grows below the frost zone in sub-tropic mountain-side forests or on highland plateaus.

Although climate dictates where coffee plants can grow, it can tolerate many different types of soils and has an extensive root system capable of growing in semi-arid as well as tropical environments.

It’s a good thing for us that coffee plants can grow in a variety of soils, as the minerals in the soils have a lot to do with the multitude of flavors that coffee presents us with.

The coffee plant can tolerate some shade so it can be undergrowth plant.

coffee plant on mountain side

But it also will do well on level plantations where coffee plants are laid out similar to orchards.

coffee plant

Is the Coffee Plant a Tree, Shrub, or Bush?

I’ve read books and articles where authors have called coffee plants trees, shrubs, or bushes.

Although not particularly important to most people, I'd like to know the correct terminology.

So I looked up the defining characteristics of trees, shrubs, and bushes.

To be called a tree, a plant needs to grow larger than 20-feet tall and have a trunk larger than 3-inches in diameter.

Wild coffee plants normally grow to a height between 30- and 40-feet tall.

This clearly puts them into the tree status. 

However, it isn't as cut and dry as that. Remember that coffee plants often grow in the understory of the forests. These plants do not get to the stated height of over 30-feet.

coffee plants as undergrowth

So Then are Coffee Plants Shrubs or Bushes?

A shrub is defined as a woody plant that grows taller than 6-inches, and less than 20-feet tall. They can also have multiple stems whereas trees generally have a single stem.

What about a bush?

There isn’t a proper horticultural term for a bush. Whether a plant is called a shrub or bush depends on its use (is it a landscape plant grown for that purpose; or is it a native plant and grows in the woods) and the preference of the person naming the plant.

Shrub and Bush are interchangeable terms.

So I think coffee plants are for the most part shrubs or bushes in more shaded under growth areas, plus the fact that they prefer to grow as multi-stem plants places them more into the shrub category. Though I admit, in places they can grow into small trees.

Native or feral coffee plants can eventually grow into small tress, but the cultivated coffee plants we’ll be discussing are more like shrubs. Since I think coffee shrubs sound odd, they’re coffee bushes to me.

However, I guess each person's definition will depend on their opinion is of the native expression or if they should call it as it presents itself in front of them.  

Coffee Plantation

Below is a short film created by the NW Collective of the Menendez Family Coffee Farm in El Salvadore, Central America.

The film is a good narrative on how coffee is grown and in part it explains the processing of the coffee fruit.

I know it’s around 10-minutes long, but it has some great scenes of where coffee is grown what the coffee plants look like in several stages of growth.

The video is well, worth watching.

Coffee Bush It Is For Me

The coffee plant is a dense woody bush that grows in sub-tropical mountains or highlands. Wild or feral coffee plants can grow into small trees, but the cultivated varieties grow smaller so they are easier to harvest.

Coffee plants are indigenous to Africa but now grow in tropical areas worldwide. Learn how coffee plants spread across the globe in this article, Where Did Coffee Originate and How Did It Spread Across the World?

In the next article, we will investigate the fruit and seeds of the coffee plant in more detail.

  • Steven Askew says:

    Thank you for this amazing site.
    I made a youtube talk about coffee and I called it a coffee tree all the way through. When I was transcribing the script I suddenly thought, “hang on! They’re not trees!” A quick Google and yours is the best and most informative site I found. Thank you. My money would have been on bushes. Anyway, it’s too late to fix my video, but at least I learned something.
    Keep up the good work.

  • Edward says:

    The coffee plant is a woody perennial that belongs to the Family Rubiaceae.
    Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora are 2 of the most common species of coffee, which can grow up to 10 meters if not pruned in their natural condition. Thus, a coffee plant is a TREE!.

    *What you saw in coffee plantations and other videos, are intensively managed coffee plants and frequently pruned (that is why they look like shrubs) so as to easily facilitate the harvest of the coffee berries.

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