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Plant Profile: Kentucky Coffee Tree (Gymnocladus diocia)

Kentucky doffee tree gymnocladus-dioica lv 2This tall deciduous tree earned its common name from the fact that early American settlers made a beverage from its roasted and ground seeds. Unroasted pods and seeds, however, are toxic. Kentucky Coffee tree is native to the rich moist woods of eastern and Midwestern United States but is planted across the country as an urban shade tree because of its tolerance to drought and pollution as well as its ability to adapt to a large range of soil condiditons.  It is a member of the bean family, Fabaceae, that also includes pes, lupines, and mimosa.   Leaves appear late in spring with a touch of pink and gradually turn blue-green in summer, then variable yellow in fall. Each bi-pinnately compound leaf is up to three feet long and two feet wide, bearing up to one hundred small leaflets. In mid to late spring, male trees bear flowers in panicles three to four inches long while female trees bear clusters of greenish white flowers in panicles eight to twelve inces long.  The flowers on the female trees give way to brownish black seed pods five to ten inches long and containing several large seeds.  The seedpods and large leaves can be considered a liability and male trees are preferred to female to reduce the litter.   In spite of the litter problem, Kentucky Coffee tree is a handsome plant and desirable for a lawn and shade tree. It is especially attractive in winter when its branching habit creates a bold silhouette and its rough furrowed bark can be appreciated.  The genus name, Gymnocladus, comes from Greek words gymnos meaning naked, and klados, meaning a branch, and refers to the branches that are bear many months of the winter.  The specific epithet, dioica, comes from the Greek words dis meaning twice, and oikos meaning house, and refers to male and female reproductive structures being on different plants.

Type: Deciduous tree

Outstanding Features: Drought and pollution tolerance; winter interest

Form: Oval

Growth Rate: Slow

Bloom: Mid to late spring

Size: 60-80’ H x 40-55’ W

Light: Full sun

Soil: Organically rich, moist, well-drained

Hardiness: Zones 3-8

Care: Prune in winter or early spring if desired.

Pests and Diseases: None of significance

Propagation: Seed; root cuttings; easily transplanted in spring and fall.

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