Coffee: Sun-Grown or Shade-Grown?

Coffee plants want to be grown in the shade, which is better for the flavor and the environment.

Coffee plants thrive in the warm (but not too warm) areas between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, an area nicknamed the “coffee belt” (although, as global warming continues the areas in which coffee plants can grow is shrinking). These evergreen plants grow to be about 12ft tall and, while they like the warmth, they also like the shade. Coffee plants naturally grow best underneath the canopy of trees. Traditionally people would collect the coffee berries from plants growing wild around the forest and then process the seeds to make coffee. Enter industrialization.

Sun-tolerant coffee plants grown in efficient rows for sun-grown coffee. Photo by Shade Grown Coffee film.

Here Comes The Sun

From the 1970s to the early 1990s coffee producers were encouraged by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to “upgrade” their processes and switch from shade-grown production to sun cultivation. Sun-tolerant plants had been engineered to better handle direct sunlight. With sun-grown cultivation you can grow coffee plants in greater density, harvest beans more efficiently through mechanization, producing higher yields, making more money. This isn’t without costs.

One of the first steps for sun-grown coffee is deforestation (which increases global warming). Without trees there are no fallen leaves serving as mulch keeping weeds down. Leaves also biodegrade adding nutrients to the soil. This means sun-cultivated coffee requires more herbicides and fertilizers than shade-grown coffee. Further, when there are less trees there are less birds, and without as many birds to eat the insects, you need more pesticides. All of this means more chemicals on the plants and in the soil.

Made in the Shade

While still incorporating trees and other vegetation, modern shade-grown coffee farms can arrange their coffee plants more efficiently than former traditional practices. Even though this usually means lower yields and longer harvest times compared to sun-grown coffee, shade-grown coffee sells at a premium which can compensate producers for these factors.

The trees of shade-grown coffee farms serve as homes to hundreds of bird species. In Peru for example, the coffee plants of sun-grown coffee farms are home to around 61 bird species. This is in stark contrast to the trees of Peruvian shade-grown coffee farms which are home to 243 bird species. The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center has said that, “shade-grown coffee production is the next best thing to a natural forest.”

As for the coffee itself, shade-grown coffee plants produce beans with higher density, developing natural sugars, which makes for better tasting coffee. Sun-grown coffee speeds up the growing process, which is good for maximizing efficiency, but it also creates higher acidity resulting in a more bitter taste.

People in Ethiopia, sitting in the shade, processing shade-grown coffee.

So shade-grown tastes better, requires less chemicals, it helps hundreds of bird species, and it helps stop global warming. Next time you’re buying coffee spend the extra few cents for shade-grown.

Added info: Coffee beans frequently come with little logos attesting to various positive attributes in which the coffee was produced. The certification that best represents the environmental benefits of shade-grown coffee is the Bird-Friendly label from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

Bird-Friendly is widely considered the gold-standard in coffee certification as it means the coffee is organic, shade-grown, and helps the local ecosystem. That said, given the various benchmarks that must be achieved, it’s hard to become certified as Bird-Friendly which means it’s hard to come by Bird-Friendly coffee.

Roses Instead of Cocaine

Most roses sold in the United States come from Colombia.

Most of the Valentine’s Day roses sold in the United States come from Colombia. Roses from Colombia make up around 60% of US florist rose sales and they account for most of the roses sold in supermarkets (and supermarkets make up about half of US flower sales).

In the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day, Colombia ships about 150 million roses to the United States. Walmart alone purchases about 24 million Colombian roses for the holiday. Upwards of 30 to 35 flights take off from Bogota each day filled with flowers, flying mostly to the United States.

Sniff Flowers, Not Cocaine

Between 1990 and 2018 American grown roses lost 95% of their market share, from 545 million roses sold to less than 30 million. So what happened? In 1991 the US government passed the Andean Trade Preference Act with Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. This eliminated tariffs on certain products, including cut flowers. The legislation was a carrot (as opposed to the stick) approach to encourage cocaine producing countries to produce & export something that wasn’t cocaine and make money in the process.

The system has had questionable success in curtailing the production of cocaine, but it’s been a big success for Colombian roses. Colombia now grows 20,000 acres of flowers across over 300 industrial farms. The flower industry directly employs around 90,000 Colombians and indirectly employs 40,000 more in adjacent industries. The biggest loser in this agreement has been the American cut flower industry. The American companies still in operation have transitioned into growing higher-end roses that sell for more money but are intended for special events and weddings.

Herbs & Spices (and Salt)

Herbs come from the leaves of a plant, spices are from any other part of a plant (and salt is a mineral).

In cooking they are frequently used together to flavor a meal, and their names get used interchangeably, but herbs and spices are not the same. In short:

HERBS
Herbs are a seasoning that are the leaves of a plant

SPICES
Spices are a seasoning from any part of a plant other than the leaves (roots, stalks, bark, seeds, and sometimes even the fruit)

Herbs

In greater detail, an herb typically comes from smaller deciduous plants without a bark stem. There are exceptions of course as lavender, sage, rosemary aren’t deciduous and never lose their leaves. Either way, the key is that the green leaves become herbs when they are used in cooking, medicine, teas, cosmetics, etc.

Spices

Spices can come from everything but the leaves of a plant. For example cinnamon comes from bark, ginger comes from roots, pepper comes from seeds, and chili powder comes from the pulverized fruit of the chili pepper. Saffron, one of the most expensive spices in the world at around $10,000 a pound, comes from the hand-picked stigma & styles from the Crocus sativus flower.

Allspice, despite a misconception, is not a blend of spices but is just one spice which comes from the berry of the Pimenta dioica tree. Its name comes from the fact that it tastes like a combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove.

Herb & Spice Plants

There are a few plants that produce both an herb and a spice. The leaves of the Coriandrum sativum produce the herb cilantro while the seeds become coriander. Similarly the Dill plant produces dill the herb from its leaves, and dill the spice from its seeds.

Salt

The food seasoning odd-one-out, salt is a mineral and does not come from a plant (although salt is present in plants). There is a lot to say about salt but in short it’s been used as a preservative and a seasoning for thousands of years. It’s the only food seasoning that doesn’t come from a plant.

Acanthus Leaves

Acanthus: the plant you’ve seen in art more than you’ve seen in real life.

At the top of a Corinthian column (the kind of column found at the Pantheon, the US Capitol Building, a classical bank near you, or pretty much any Greek-inspired building that wants to be taken seriously) you will find carved acanthus leaves. Corinthian column capitals have been ornately carved with the leaves of the acanthus plant since at least 450–420 BCE but the style became popular after the Romans borrowed it (as the Romans borrowed many things from the Greeks).

The acanthus leaf motif has changed over the millennia.

The acanthus plant, and specifically the Acanthus mollis, is an invasive perennial plant that grows around the Mediterranean. Its big toothy leaves can grow to be 20 inches long and when it flowers the stalk can be taller than a person. Historically its big leaves were used to wrap and store food. The salt in the plant helped draw air out of food, serving as a preservative. The acanthus was used medicinally for joint pain and burns, and for reasons that aren’t completely certain it is also called “bear’s breeches.”

The Acanthus mollis in bloom and a close-up of its giant leaves.

As the story goes, the Greek sculptor Callimachus supposedly saw a basket left on the grave of a little girl and acanthus leaves had grow around and weaved their way through the basket. Moved by this he used it as inspiration when he carved the first Corinthian column capital. The curved jagged edges of the leaves work well visually both up-close and far away (such as at the tops of columns).

Over the following millennia the acanthus leaf motif migrated its way around the art world from Corinthian columns to the present day. It’s everywhere. You find it in the 19th century Arts & Crafts patterns of William Morris, it’s in arabesque patterns, in carpets, furniture, wall sconces, lamps, churches, jewelry, clocks, funerary urns, etc. The acanthus is one of, if not the, most artistically represented plants in the world.

Just a few of the ways the acanthus has been used over the years.