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Plant Profile: Kentucky Coffee Tree (Gymnocladus diocia)

Kentucky doffee tree gymnocladus-dioica lv 2A member of the bean family, this 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 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 soils. Leaves appear late in spring and are touched with 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 tree bears clusters of greenish white flowers in panicles eight to twelve inches long.

Kentucky Coffee Tree gymnocladus dioica pods


The flowers on the female trees give way to brownish black seed pods five to ten inches long that contain several large seeds. The seeds and large leaves can be considered a liability and male trees are preferred to female to reduce the litter that seed pods can produce. 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.

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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