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Wild Coffee, a Florida Native Spring Beauty

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Hot lips (Psychotria poeppigiana) growing in the Tropical Conservatoryat Selby Gardens. Photo by Wade Collier.

Spring is sprung and with it, an iconic plant of the Florida landscape is bursting with flowers. Wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa) is one of the most widely cultivated of Florida’s native plants. Tolerance of both shade and our relatively poor native soil make it a hard-to-go-wrong shrub. As a member of the coffee, or Rubiaceae plant family, it has characteristic opposite leaves and small bracts between the leaf bases. The shiny evergreen leaves have deeply impressed veins that give the plants a lush, “coffee-like appearance.” Small, five-lobed flowers that resemble little white stars appear in dense clusters along branch tips and are attractive to bees. The flowers soon give way to shiny, red fruit that are a favorite of birds that can be seen jealously defending their chosen shrubs when the fruit is ripe.

The genus Psychotria is often found as an understory shrub or small tree in tropical forests. It is one of the largest genera in the world with close to 1600 species and a pantropical distribution. One recognizable member of the genus that can be seen here at Selby Gardens is called hot lips (Psychotria poeppigiana) with its distinctive red lip-shaped bracts. There are two other species of Psychotria native

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Mature fruit of wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa). Photo by Bruce Holst

to Florida, velvet-leaf wild coffee (Psychotria tenuifolia), that has an iridescent sheen to the leaves and smaller, multi-colored fruit and Bahama wild coffee (Psychotria ligustrina), a thicker-leaved native of extreme South Florida and the Bahamas. Surprisingly to some, Coffea arabica, the morning elixir beloved the world over comes from a plant in a different genus. Wild coffee plants may superficially resemble true coffee but don’t try to use it for your morning brew as the plants contain no caffeine. However, many species of the genus do

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Flowers of wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa). Photo by Bruce Holst

have documented ethnobotanical or medicinal uses.

As you get out around your neighborhood for your safe distance exercise, see if you can spot some of these beauties. Not only are they commonly planted, they volunteer readily and are widely spread by birds. Take a moment and watch one for their frequent bee visitors. Have a look at the attached flyer, Florida’s Fabulous Fifteen, that highlights wild coffee and 14 other great natives that you might find around your neighborhood!

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