Late winter tends to drag on. We can begin to plan our gardens and what new plants we will add to our landscape, but we cannot go outside and do much in our gardens because of the weather. However, there are some great plants we can enjoy even in the winter. Kentucky coffeetree is one I enjoy in the winter because of the interesting bark and the seedpods that are present through the winter months.
Kentucky Coffeetree, Gymnocladus dioicus, is a large, native tree that grows up to 75 feet tall and 40-50 feet wide. This tree has leaves that are bipinnately compound, meaning that they are twice compound on each leaf, each leaflet is 1.5-3 inches long. The bark adds a great deal of interest to winter landscapes, it is “characteristically roughened with tortuous, recurved, scale-like ridges which are distinct even upon comparatively young branches” according to Michael Dirr from the Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. The seeds are held in a large, leathery, reddish-brown pod that is 5-10 inches long, 1.5-2 inches wide and is held onto the tree through the winter months. The seed pods hold 3-5 hard, dark brown, round seeds in a sticky, greenish pulp.
Kentucky Coffeetree is a dioecious tree, meaning that male and female flowers are found on different trees. Female trees would produce fruit while males would not. It is a great choice for a street tree but the seed pods would not be desired. In this case, select a male tree. Male varieties include ‘Espresso’ and ‘J.C. McDaniels’.
Kentucky coffeetree is most often used as a focal point in your landscape, for all seasons. It also makes a great shade tree. It can be grown in most any landscape setting and is adaptable to many soils and growing conditions. Kentucky coffeetree is also relatively pest free, making it a great alternative to ash, elm and other large trees that have been destroyed by insect and disease problems, according to the Nebraska Forest Service. It is a great tree for most locations, including within the city, because it can tolerate urban soils. Kentucky coffeetree is a great choice for Nebraska because it tolerates drought conditions, so it will do well in the dry summer conditions we face. This tree is one of the latest to leaf out in the spring, not typically leafed out until early to mid-May.
Kentucky coffeetree can be used for many things. According to the USDA NRCS, Kentucky coffeetree wood is strong and heavy and therefore is used for cabinets, fine furniture, bridge timbers, and fence posts. According to Michael Dirr, early settlers used the beans as a coffee substitute, which is where the common name comes from. However, the research is mixed on whether or not the parts of this tree are poisonous to eat. Many researchers state that the seeds and pods contain cytisine which can be harmful if eaten, but Indiana State University cannot find the presence of cytisine in their research, according to the USDA NRCS. Settlers and Native Americans were able to ingest parts of this tree because after the parts have been cooked they may be safe for consumption. For safety, it is best to not eat any parts of this tree.
Kentucky coffeetree is a great tree. The seed pods are an interesting feature during the winter months. However, if you don’t like the “mess” that the pods would make in your yard, you can choose one of the male varieties. The bark will still provide winter interest. So, as you look out into your landscape this winter, look for a location to plant Kentucky coffeetree this spring. You will enjoy it for years to come.