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Tree Identification: Kentucky Coffee Trees

What do Kentucky, coffee and trees have to do with each other? Put the words together and you have the name of the tree for the next tree identification! There are several Kentucky Coffee Trees (Gymnocladus dioicus) at Chrisholm MetroPark, Forest Run MetroPark and Elk Creek MetroPark. These native trees are easy to identify, even without leaves. Notice what is hanging on the bare branches all through winter in the first picture below?

This hanging fruit is a hard-shelled bean in a heavy, woody, thick-walled pod filled with sweet, thick, gooey pulp surrounding the seeds. Wonder where it got it’s name from? The seeds may be roasted and used as a substitute for coffee beans. However, unroasted pods and seeds are toxic because they contain cytisine.

What do you notice when you look at the pattern of this tree? Do you see any fine spray smaller branches at the ends? No, the branches end somewhat thick and lumpish which is yet another way to recognize this tree without its leaves.

Speaking of which, it’s large leaves are made up of smaller leaflets. The tree can grow 60’-75’ tall with a spread of 40’-50’ at maturity, which is 100 -150 years old. The length of the seedling trees roots grow many times it's upward height – so can be difficult to transplant. Being in the Legume family, it’s roots help to fix nitrogen in the soil.

Kentucky Coffee Trees are dioecious so there are separate male and female parts on different trees. Both will have flowers, but it is only the female tree that produces pods.

Look for these trees on your next visit to the parks mentioned above. Do you notice anything else that makes them unique from other trees around them?