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FERTILE GROUNDS

The first coffee plant grown on European soil was in Amsterdam. We take a trip back to see how, why and when.

Entrance to the Hortus Botanicus

Back in the 18th Century, most merchant ships carried with them a trained botanist whose business it was to discover new vegetation and bring back living specimens for the proliferating botanical gardens which had sprung up in nearly every university town in Britain, Italy and France - though the best gardens, the most brilliant displays of flowering diversity, were owned by the Dutch. In Leyden, for example, practically every plant known to European naturalists was on display. The garden there was like a botanical encyclopaedia containing examples from the far reaches of the world. Inside the Hortus BotanicusAcademics, herbalists and medical practitioners awaited each discovery with the anticipation of a physicist learning about another building block of matter. And each new plant would be nurseried and brought to the marvellous Hortus Medicus in Amsterdam, where it would be duly noted in their vast and ever-expanding pharmacopoeia.

The skill of the chief gardeners, like Dutchman Hendrick Gerritsz and Cornelis Vos, in keeping such a monumental collection in bloom, was quite extraordinary. The difficulty, for example, in growing coffee from seed exemplifies the prodigious amount of information necessary in keeping one, let alone thousands of exotic plants, through succeeding generations.

In 1714, Jean de la Roque writing of the excitement caused by the exhibition of a coffee tree at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris spoke of the Dutch gardener who tended it: "He told us that there was a great tree of this species in the Hortus Botanicus of Amsterdam whose height was equal to the second story of a house Outside the Hortus Botanicusand proportionally as large. That great tree came originally from Arabia, brought from there very young and transported to Java. After some stay, it came at last to Holland where it grew to perfection. The fruit of this same tree, planted in he Garden of Amsterdam, have produced diverse young plants, some of which have born fruit from the age of three years."

Viability of coffee seeds is comparatively short and germination is a chancy operation at best. Soil warmth is a critical factor, with the optimum temperature hovering at 27.7 degrees Celsius. Propagating the plant through cuttings is equally difficult and requires the maximum of light plus a humidity reading of close to 90%. Rooting can easily take three or four months. So growing coffee outside it's native soil was a monumental achievement.

You can still see progeny from the original coffee tree at the Hortus Botanicus where a new generation of super gardeners have brought them to flower. A must for anyone fascinated by the history of the bean!

Hortus Botanicus
Corner of Muiderstraat and Nieuwe Herengracht
Tel: 6258411

 

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