Coffee Substitutes to Grow in Your Forest Garden

Experimenting with coffee substitutes could improve your health and cut your carbon footprint.

Yaupon Holly (Ilex Vomitoria)
Yaupon Holly (Ilex Vomitoria).

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Let's face it: No substitute will ever quite taste the same as a cup of real coffee. But if you do not live in an area of USDA zone 9 to 10 or above, it is unlikely you will be able to successfully grow coffee at a scale to supply your daily needs.

Interestingly, however, there are plants that you could grow as coffee substitutes in a forest garden. And not having to purchase coffee could help you live in a more sustainable way. 

Experimenting with coffee substitutes could improve your health and cut your carbon footprint. So here are a few of my recommendations of some caffeine-free alternatives—and one caffeinated option—to consider for your garden.

Chicory Root

Chicory, (Cichorium intybus), is a woody, deep rooted perennial in the daisy family, which is frequently included as a dynamic accumulator in fruit tree guilds in a forest garden. Many varieties are cultivated for salad leaves, and the roots are sometimes used like parsnips. But what you may not know is that the root can also be harvested, roasted, ground, and used as a coffee substitute. Chicory coffee was common during the Great Depression and the Second World War and is still common in some parts of the world today. 

Dandelion Root

The dandelion (Taraxacum) is, as forest gardeners and keen permaculturists will know, far more than just a weed. While many gardeners not in the know try to eradicate it from their lawns, others trying to live in a more sustainable way embrace the dandelion as an extremely useful plant–both in the garden and in the home. It has a wide range of edible and medicinal uses. I allow dandelions to pop up in sunny spots in my forest garden, and welcome them when they appear. 

The taste of a dandelion root 'coffee' will depend on when the root is harvested. When harvested in the spring, the root is sweeter, while in the fall, they are richer but more bitter. To make a dandelion coffee, the root of a plant of at least 2 years old is harvested, dried, chopped, and roasted. Once roasted, they can be ground, and steeped in hot water for around ten minutes to yield a healthy hot drink with a slight resemblance to coffee. 

Jerusalem Artichoke

The Jerusalem artichoke or sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is another plant that can often provide a range of beneficial functions in a forest garden. It is widely cultivated for its tuber, which can be used as a root vegetable. 

And this is another plant that can be used to make a hot drink as a coffee substitute. Quite commonly, it is used alongside dandelion root (and often other spices) to make a caffeine-free brew. This coffee substitute is healthy, containing a range of important vitamins and minerals. 

Acorn Coffee

If you have oak trees in your area, these can form an important part of the canopy layer in a forest garden. Acorn coffee really does not taste much like coffee at all. But it is a warming and nutritious drink which can be a great alternative for the health-conscious. 

To make this warm drink, collect acorns and boil them, shells and all, for around 20 minutes. This makes it easier to do the next step—removing the shell and peeling off the outer skin. Split the acorns in a mortar and pestle, then put the pieces in a warm area to dry for a day or so. Next, grind the split acorns as finely as possible, and roast them until they are dark brown. Around 3 to 4 tablespoons of these acorns can then be added to a cup of boiling water, and you can add milk or other additions if you wish. 

Yaupon Holly

All of the above drinks are interesting. But none have the caffeine of coffee. The only plant that you can grow in a north American forest garden to provide this substance is Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria). In fact, this shrub actually contains more caffeine than coffee by weight. 

The leaves of this shrub can be roasted until brown, crumbled, and added to hot water. Unfortunately, this does not really taste much like coffee, but it does taste quite pleasant. And it certainly will give you that caffeine boost. 

So if you are trying to increase your self-sufficiency, trying to live more from the land, or trying to break your coffee habit, foraging in your forest garden could yield some interesting alternatives for you to try.