Beverage Plants II- “Coffee Plants” Without Caffeine

Here we present some “coffee plants” that contain little or no caffeine but  were once used to produce a beverage that to some resembled coffee close enough to be regarded as a “ coffee plant”. Many of these were used by early immigrants and settlers, but gradually were phased out as real coffee became easily available. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list.

Senna (once Cassia) occidentalis- (common name, depending on location: coffee senna, coffee weed, septic weed, wild coffee, styptic weed). This tropical American weed, naturalized in Florida and coastal areas of the southeast United States, is a tall annual with typical legume pods; unroasted seeds are toxic, containing anthraquinones (emodin glycosides) but roasted seeds can be used a coffee substitute without toxicity. Plant extracts are used in traditional medicines to treat a variety of ills and have been shown to exhibit anti-microbial, anti-mutagenic, anti-malarial and anti-oxidant activity. “There is apparently no caffeine in coffee made from Senna species. (Wikipedia).

A second closely related tropical weed also escaped into southern U.S., S. obtusifolia, (sickle-pod, coffee weed or fetid cassia) was once used as a coffee substitute in the southeastern United States. Interestingly, both Senna species also served as sources of edible, cooked greens despite, as their common name suggest, being malodorous. Note that both species occur in vacant lots and heavily disturbed soils in my area of central Florida.

Cytisus scoparius, (broom; outside the United Kingdom, Scotch broom) yet another member of the pea family, is a stiffly branched shrub native to Europe where it covers large areas that once were forested as well as droughty sites. Scotch broom has escaped and grows wild in parts of the northeastern U.S. and in southeastern Canada as well as in South America and India. In some of these places, Scotch broom is regarded as a harmful invasive weed requiring control.

Scotch broom as depicted in Kohler's Medicinal Plants (1887)

Scotch broom as depicted in Kohler’s Medicinal Plants (1887)

Roasted seeds of Scotch broom make a good coffee substitute according to European writers. Despite this use as well as the reported edibility of its pods and buds after pickling, fresh seed pods are considered toxic. A number of toxic compounds occur in broom including the glycoside genistin and alkaloids such as scoparin. Genistin is found in other legumes including soybeans and kudzu, the latter a rampant roadside weed originating in Japan. These compounds repel many insect species that might otherwise consume broom tissues, but there are specialists among the insects that tolerate the presence of multiple Scotch broom toxins. Some of these resistant insects are being investigated for their usefulness in biological control programs aimed at managing the Scotch broom invasiveness problem.

Cichorium intybus (chicory)- is the well-known coffee adjunct or substitute popular in North America and Europe. The species (of the Asteraceae) is native to the Old World but is well established as a weed and garden plant of the eastern United States. The beverage is derived from the dried, ground and roasted roots of the chicory plants while the leaves are mixed  with, or in place of, dandelion as an edible spring green.  

Composite inflorescence  of the chicory plant.

Composite inflorescence
of the chicory plant.

“Roasted chicory contains none of the volatile oils and aromatics found in roasted coffee”; it contains no caffeine. (orleanscoffee.com). Rather, chicory contains high concentrations of inulin (a storage carbohydrate) which is caramelized in roasting, producing the sugar fructose which imparts the color and sweet flavor to the beverage. Chicory plants are a source of industrially produced inulin which has dietary and medical use.

Taraxacum officinale (dandelion). This bane of suburban gardeners (or, more likely in the U.S., of indefatigable seekers of weed-free lawns) originates in Eurasia and was introduced into North America as a source of edible spring greens and as a coffee additive or substitute. Like chicory, ground roots of dandelion can be added to coffee to add zest or used instead of coffee where the latter is unavailable. Dandelion is also used to produce an ale that imparts a distinctive bitterness that can be traced back to the leaves.

Dandelion as depicted in Wiliam Curtis's "Flora Londinensis" of the late 18th century.

Dandelion as depicted in Wiliam Curtis’s “Flora Londinensis” of the late 18th century.

 Unlike most of the other species discussed here, dandelion is still today enthusiastically added to salads or otherwise consumed by legions of wild-food advocates. A second relatively rare relative, the red-seeded dandelion (T. laevigatum) also imported from Europe but restricted to rocky or dry sites, may have similar culinary value. Although both species occur within Florida, they are relatively scarce compared to northern states. I have never seen either species in central or southern Florida.

Triosteum perfoliatum– (wild coffee or feverwort) of the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae) is a coarse herb with large orange fruits that is native to the eastern U.S. and Canada. Seeds have been roasted to use as a coffee substitute. According to Barton, a distinguished botanist of the early 19th century, German immigrants in Pennsylvania described the resultant brew as an excellent coffee substitute (Fernald et al., 1958)

Gymnocladus dioicus (Kentucky  Coffeetree)- is a scarce bottomland tree of  eastern North America with a limited range mainly west of the Appalachians, reaching southern Ontario; several other species in the genus are found in eastern Asia. Seeds were roasted to be consumed  as a coffee-like beverage by several North American tribes and to a lesser extent by early  European settlers. However unroasted seeds are toxic. Pods are very tough and also toxic. They are much too large for dispersal by wind or by modern animals within the tree’s range, suggesting that they were once dispersed by large, extinct mammals like mammoths and mastodons.

The pod of the Kentucky coffee tree has been split open to reveal the seeds.

The pod of the Kentucky coffee tree has been split open to reveal the seeds.

Pods and seeds, contain, outside of its presence in nucleic acids, the toxic alkaloid cytosine (one of the 4 main bases in DNA and RNA) which is degraded by thorough roasting. Seeds of the Kentucky coffee tree contain no caffeine (plants.ces.ncsu.edu).

More information:  Beverage Plants III

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