2009-02-12 / Outdoors

Wake up and smell the wild coffee that's a native Florida shrub

BY LEE BELANGER Special to Florida Weekly

LEE BELANGER / FLORIDA WEEKLY Wild coffee LEE BELANGER / FLORIDA WEEKLY Wild coffee Wild coffee! Just the name sounds exciting and tropical. Actually, wild coffee (Psychotria nervosa) is a Florida native shrub that gets its common name from the small, red fruit it produces. Other common names include wood balsam, Seminole balsamo and or café marron. It also grows in the West Indies, parts of Mexico, Central America and in northern South America.

It's most certainly a tropical plant, and very cold sensitive. If the foliage freezes (as it often does in northern parts of Florida), it re-sprouts in spring, producing shorter plants that make a pleasing ground cover. Here in Southwest Florida, it grows as a dense, round, multi-stemmed shrub about 5 feet tall and spreading 4-8 feet. You'll see it in pinelands, shell ridges and coastal hammocks (higher shady areas), often under cabbage palms.

Its glossy leaves are puckered and waxy, light green when grown in full sun, and a rich forest green in shade. Deep veins in the slender, pointed, 5-inch leaves add to the plant's beauty. Generally, shade-grown shrubs are more eye-appealing.

Small, inconspicuous white flowers bloom in spring and summer and produce a glorious fragrance similar to their relative, the gardenia. Many butterflies, including the Florida state butterfly, the zebra longwing, and the spicebush swallowtail drink nectar from the flowers of wild coffee. Honeybees also visit the flowers and pollinate them.

By late summer or fall, bright red, half-inch berries appear, each with two seeds. These seeds are an important food source for cardinals, catbirds, mockingbirds and blue jays, among other birds.

Wild coffee belongs to the Rubiaceae family, which includes firebush, seven-year apple and ixora. This family also includes caffea arabica, which produces the beans we use in brewed coffee.

Just like commercial coffee beans, wild coffee berries (beans) are round on one side and flat with a groove on the other. Wild coffee berries were once used as a coffee substitute even though they do not contain caffeine. The plant produces the chemical compound dimethyltryptamine, which is hallucinogenic. The scien- tific name Psychotria reflects this. The second part of the scientific name, nervosa, refers to the deep veins in each leaf.

Native Americans brewed wild coffee beans for ceremonies and medicinal purposes, but wild coffee isn't considered palatable today. Instead, the plant is a favorite of landscapers and homeowners because of its contrasting green leaves and red berries, its fragrance when in bloom and its wildlife benefits.

For those who have trouble growing gardenias, wild coffee is a practical alternative. It doesn't require special fertilizers, and unlike gardenias, it can grow in alkaline soil. Although it's not salt-tolerant, it germinates readily, has few pest problems, tolerates varying amounts of water and is not invasive. Is also prevents soil erosion.

Sometimes you'll see wild coffee in clumps, but more often it is scattered among other perennial plants. There is no "best time" to see this plant since it is pretty in every season.

Come to Collier-Seminole State Park and see wild coffee along all three of our hiking trails and next to our paved roads. It's one of many native plants helping make Southwest Florida a tropical paradise.

Paddle by day,hike by night

Collier-Seminole State Park offers guided, narrated canoe tours and hikes. Here's the latest schedule:

>>Guided daytime canoe trips along the Blackwater River take place from 9:30 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday, Feb. 16 and 18. Hear stories of Seminole survival and watch for colorful crabs, tarpon and even manatees. The three-hour trip is ideal for ages 6 and older; $25 per person in your canoe or a park canoe. Special group, family or club trips can also be arranged.

>>Guided night hikes take place from 7:30- 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Feb. 24, 25 and 26. Unravel mysteries and sharpen your senses as you hike with a park naturalist. Look for shooting stars and other night wonders with no city lights to interfere. Fun for ages 6 and older; $10 per person.

Weekend tours are not on the park schedule this week because of the second annual Jammin' in the Hammock Bluegrass Festival going on there Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 14-15. See story on page C16. The entrance to Collier-Seminole State Park is at 20200 U.S. 41 in East Naples. Reservations are required for guided canoe trips and hikes. Call Lee Belanger at 394-3397.

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