The Story of Coffee Rust: Why the British Drink Tea

In England in the early and mid-1800s, the most popular drink was coffee from plantations in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). When the coffee rust fungus destroyed Ceylon’s coffee trees in 1875, the plantations began growing tea.

“When the coffee rust fungus, Hemileia vastatrix, reached Ceylon in 1875, nearly 400,000 acres of the island were covered with coffee trees. No effective chemical fungicide was available to protect the foliage, so the fungus was able to colonize the leaves until nearly all the trees had been defoliated. … In 1870, Ceylon exported 100 million pounds of coffee. By 1889, production was down to 5 million pounds. In less than 20 years, many coffee plantations had been destroyed, and production had essentially ceased.”

“As the coffee trees were dying, however, the plantation owners noticed that the thousand or so acres of tea bushes were still healthy. …the owners replaced most of the dead coffee trees with tea bushes. By 1875, more than 1 billion tea seedlings had been planted on 300,000 acres—an amazing increase from the acreage planted only a few years earlier. … Luckily, no fungus invaded the tea crop immediately, and newly discovered fungicides were soon available to protect tea from its fungal pathogens.”

Authors: G.L. Shumann and C.J. D’Arcy
Publication: Hungry Planet: Stories of Plant Diseases. 2012. APS Press.

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