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Fruits of the earth: plants in the service of mankind

The journey of coffee

The coffea Arabica plant shown here is native to Ethiopia and this species is responsible for providing a significant amount of the world’s coffee. The plant is ‘of low stature, seldom exceeding twelve feet in height’ with the white flowers shown eventually replaced by ‘a round fleshy red berry’.

The coffea Arabica plant, with leaves, flowers and fruit shownThe coffea Arabica plantThe image shown is from a copy of a four-volume set of works, formerly held at the library of St Thomas’s Hospital, and the hand coloured plates and narrative contained in the book build on and elucidate work previously published by the Royal College of Physicians.

In the work the author comments on ‘complaints said to have been produced by the frequent or excessive use of coffee’, which may be familiar to office workers of today who over-consume the product. He suggests that coffee ‘produces or aggravates hysterical and hypochondriachal affections’ and advises ‘literary or sedentary types against its use’.

The narrative also traces coffee’s journey to Europe, recording that the practice of drinking it ‘in Arabia was introduced from Persia by the Mufti of Aden in the fifteenth century’, and then spread across Europe and beyond.

The first coffee-house in England opened in Cornhill in 1652 and places such as this became centres of discussion and debate during the Enlightenment period.

In the last 20 years, the proliferation of retail coffee outlets such as Starbucks and Costa Coffee have seen huge growth in coffee consumption and many varieties of coffee are now available. The availability of instant coffee has also created a large home-based consumer market.

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