To imagine an arabica coffee tree, think of a camellia bush with flowers that resemble jasmine. The leaves are broad, shiny, and shaped like an arrow or spearhead. They are three to six inches long and line up in pairs on either side of a central stem. The flowers small, white, star-shaped blossoms borne in clusters at the base of the leaves and produce an exquisite, slightly pungent scent. The white color and nocturnal aroma of the flowers may suggest that the coffee plant is pollinated by moths or other night-flying insects, but in fact the plant largely pollinates itself. In freshly roasted coffee a hint of the flowers’ fragrance seems to shimmer delicately within the darker perfumes of the brew, and some coffees, Ethiopia Yirgacheffe for example, are spectacularly floral.
The arabica plant is an evergreen. In the wild it grows to a height of 14 to 20 feet, but when cultivated it is usually kept pruned to about 6 to 8 feet to facilitate picking the beans and to encourage heavy bearing. It is self-pollinating, which accounts for the stability and persistence of famous varieties of the arabica species like typica and bourbon.