Ron Wilson

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Kentucky Coffeetree - Ashley Kulhanek Ann Chanon

Visiting a Toledo Metropark, we found some beautiful Kentucky Coffee Tree lining our path.


Kentucky Coffeetree, Gymnocladus dioicus, is a native tree with excellent adaptability for many sites. It is the only species of its genus, collectively known as coffeetrees, in North America. The other 4 species, including soap tree and Dekang tree, are native to the Indochina region. It is a member of the fabaceae or pea family as are Honey Locust, American Yellowwood, and red bud. This can become a large shade tree reaching a height of 60' at maturity. The irregular crown becomes more ovate with age. 






Like most trees it has preference for moist rich soils and full sun, but it can take some abuse, surviving dry sites, alkaline pH, chalky limestone, or compacted soils. This adaptability has found it a place as a successful street tree. In the wild, it's found in open forest settings but is considered a rare component of Ohio's current forest flora.  


There are two distinct ID features: The huge bi-pinnately (twice) compound leaves and their unique woody seed pods.



The leaves are over a foot long, usually reaching 3 feet in length when mature. Leaves have a stout rachis (leaf stem) with a swollen base where it attaches to the branch. The individual leaflets are ovate with a smooth edge. When leaves fall in autumn, branches are left with barely any small branches. This gives the tree a coarse texture in winter.




Kentucky Coffeetree is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers appear on separate trees. You need a pollen source male tree, and female trees to produce seeds. Flowers are green-white racemes, 10-12 inches long. The seed pods are large and sturdy, 4-8" in length and about 1.5-2" wide.  Inside the 3-5 round seeds look like giant lima beans, 0.75" in diameter.







as they ripen you will find the pods filled with a gooey gelatinous substance. Pods turn red-brown and can hang on the tree through fall and winter.  



The tree is late to leaf and early to shed, so it is a naked tree more than it is in leaf, which gives rise to its genus name gymnocladus or, "naked branch". There are a number of seedless (male) cultivar commercially available. If you want the pods, you might have to roll the dice on a straight species. 


The raw seeds and leaves contain an alkaloid, cystisine, which is toxic, yet pioneers used the roasted beans as a coffee substitute. Cattle can be killed by eating the seeds or even drinking water that the raw pods have fallen into; so don't take it lightly. Wood is considered rot resistant but it is soft. Can be a good fence post. Pioneers used the wood in cabinetry. And George Washington planted them according to his journals!  Honeylocust moth, Sphingicampa bicolor, and Bisected Honeylocust moth, Sphingicampa bisecta feed on Kentucky Coffeetree foliage.  The flowers are visited by bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.  

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