Shedding Light on Shade
Guatemalan Coffees are 98% shade grown, counting more than thirty-eight million shade and coffee trees. The resulting coffee forest extends approximately 270,000 hectares and makes up 6.4 percent of the national forest cover.
But, why is shade so important for us? Standing on one of Guatemala’s coffee-covered hillsides, it is not difficult to understand its importance. At these higher elevations the sun’s rays radiate peak levels of intense ultraviolet light; tropical downpours soak the earth in a matter of minutes; driving winds, and occasional frost, envelop mountains. Faced with these elements, coffee trees need protection.
Although most coffee grown around the world is cultivated without any shade cover, the shade structure of farms throughout Guatemala varies in complexity; from shade composed of several species of one genus, such as Inga, to more diverse systems that replicate the layers of a natural forest.
The shade structure of farms throughout Guatemala varies in complexity; from shade composed of several species of one genus, such as Inga, to more diverse systems that replicate the layers of a natural forest, incorporating fruit trees, hardwoods, and epiphytes like bromeliads and orchids.
There are more than 15 species of Inga trees used as shade on coffee farms. Among the most commonly found are Inga micheliana (Chalum), Inga laurina (Cushín), Inga fagifolia (Caspirol), Inga vera (Cuje, Guaba) and Inga edulis (Pepete de Río).
Inga trees are favorites because of their rapid growth, tolerance to diverse soils, and broad shade canopy. Besides, their fruit pods are an important source of food for birds and wildlife.
In some coffee growing regions, Gravilea (Gravilea robusta) is the shade tree of choice. This evergreen, also known as Silky Oak, is resistant to frost and grow quickly, providing the perfect cover for regions that experience cool nights.
Madrecacao (Glyricidia sepium) is chosen by some producers because, besides being a great shade tree, it has medicinal leaves, edible flowers, and hard wood.
When the Palo Blanco’s (Cybistax donell-smithii) large canary yellow flower are in bloom, this tree becomes a beautiful centerpiece of many farms. Palo Blanco is usually chosen because, besides looking good, it is source of the prized wood known as white mahogany.