Gymnocladus dioicus (Kentucky Coffee Tree)

Plant Info
Also known as:
Genus:Gymnocladus
Family:Fabaceae (Pea)
Life cycle:perennial woody
Origin:native
Status:
  • State Special Concern
Habitat:sun; moist; rich woods, floodplains, urban landscapes
Bloom season:May - June
Plant height:50 to 70 feet
Wetland Indicator Status:none
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

Pick an image for a larger view. See the glossary for icon descriptions.

Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: 5-petals Cluster type: raceme

[photo of male flowers] Loose clusters of stalked flowers at branch tips, with male and female flowers on separate trees, though some trees can have perfect flowers (both male and female parts). Male clusters tend to be shorter with fewer flowers, females up to 7½ inches long with 25 to 50 flowers. Flowers are greenish white, ½ to 5/8 inch across with 5 narrow, oblong petals alternating with 5 sepals that are narrower than and about as long as the petals. In the center is a column about half as long as the petals, containing 10 stamens and/or a single style depending on the sex of the flower.

[photo of calyx tube] The calyx tube (hypanthium) at the base of a flower is about ½ inch long, green to dark purplish. Surfaces of petals, sepals and the calyx tube are densely covered in short hairs. Flower stalks are up to 1 inch long, hairless, stiff and erect.

Leaves and bark: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf type: compound

[scan of compound leaf] Leaves are alternate, twice compound, up to 3 feet long and 2 feet wide with 5 to 9 pairs of pinnae (branches), each with 3 to 7 pairs of leaflets. Often at the base of the compound leaf are 1 or 2 pair of opposite leaflets that are larger than the pinnae leaflets. Leaflets are mostly egg-shaped, tapering to a pointed tip and rounded at the base, 1½ to 3½ inches long, ¾ to 1½ inches wide, toothless, the edges smooth or with a fine fringe of hairs. Upper surfaces are smooth or with scattered hairs, the lower surface hairy along the main veins. Leaflet stalks are about 1/8 inch long and smooth to hairy. Fall color is a deep gold.

[photo of twig] Young twigs are brown, hairless with light brown to orange lenticels (pores), stout and knobby, the main leaf stalks of the previous season often persisting in winter, giving branches a finer twiggy appearance.

[photo of trunk] Branches become dull gray or gray-brown, the bark coarsely textured with shallow fissures and scaly plates. The trunk can reach 24 inches in diameter at breast height (dbh).

Fruit: Fruit type: capsule/pod

[photo of fruit] Fruit is a large, leathery, flattened pod up to 6 inches long and 1½ inches wide, green in summer drying to purplish brown.

[photo of seeds in pulp] Inside are dark brown seeds surrounded by a sticky pulp. Seeds are smooth and very hard, oval but somewhat flattened, 3/8 to ½ inch long and about 5/8 inch diameter.

Notes:

Preferring rich, moist woodlands, Kentucky Coffee Tree is noted as uncommon throughout its North American range. A factor in this is while it produces abundant seeds, their hard, impervious seed coat causes them to be highly resistant to natural germination. It has been suggested that the species evolved requiring ingestion by large herbivores now long extinct. It does, however, reproduce by root suckers and where found today, it often exists as clonal colonies of younger trees, all descended vegetatively from an ancient parental origin. It was listed as a MN Special Concern species in 2013 due to its small natural populations and limited range in the state, combined with concerns over reproduction and viability of the gene pool. Though Kentucky Coffee Tree is known to contain poisonous alkaloids, they are destroyed by the cooking process and early native Americans used the seed for a variety of culinary and medicinal uses as well as recreational (dice) purposes, and likely had some impact on its present distribution. Early settlers did indeed use the seeds for a coffee-like substitute beverage but it was not very popular compared to the real thing. It is propagated and planted in both urban and rural landscapes today, however selections have been made of male trees that won't produce the somewhat messy fruit, and its coarse, stiff branching causes it to be easily damaged by handling in the nursery trade.

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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka taken at Battle Creek Regional Park, Ramsey County. Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken at numerous urban locations in the Twin Cities Metro area.

Comments

Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: Dawn - Wells mn
on: 2016-06-06 19:28:14

I have one in my back yard. Must be a male because it does not produce fruit. Great shade tree, but, very messy! Sheds its flowers and then the sticklike branches in late fall.

Posted by: Ellen S. - Hennepin County - Minneapolis
on: 2016-10-29 15:46:25

The Bakken Museum has a female tree.

Posted by: Senchu punyamurthula - Prior Lake ( Spring Lake Twnsdhip)
on: 2018-01-11 18:41:05

We own two of these in our yard, slow grower yet fragrant blooms and long brown pods stay through winter makes it an excellent specimen. Waderich garden center is where we got our trees in 2013.

Posted by: Melissa M - apple valley
on: 2018-03-25 16:50:53

My sister lives in apple valley and is considering planting this tree in her yard. I have seen it growing at the Klinger Nursery in Chippewa falls WI, and find it to be quite beautiful. My sister and I would like a reputable seed source and are interested in propagating a number of trees since they apparently require male and female trees. I have excellent wetland for starting the seeds for her.

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2018-03-25 18:25:27

Melissa, see "where to buy native seeds and plants" that is on most pages of the website. One of those vendors may stock it.

Posted by: Curt Y - Rest area on west bound I-90 near the South Dakota boarder
on: 2018-04-22 20:24:52

We stopped at the rest area and there were many pods on the ground. They looked like Catalpa pods but shorter and thicker. I believe they are the same as the one you are describing.

Posted by: Nancy H - Eagan
on: 2018-04-22 21:45:46

Visited Sunset Pond Park in Burnsville today and took a few pictures of the pods so I could identify the tree when I got home. I’m not certain if the tree was on park or private property, but certainly a Kentucky Coffee tree. Always exciting to learn about plants new to me!

Posted by: James Sogaard - Baker Park Reserve, Hennepin County
on: 2018-05-20 14:53:57

Small grove (10-15?) of good-sized trees, at least some bearing fruit, on an island in the park. I notice Hennepin County is not included in the occurrence map. This island also (I believe) has at least one Malus ioensis. And a rampant buckthorn population, last I checked.

Posted by: Ron Mitchell - Ontario
on: 2018-06-26 07:11:02

On the map it should show that it's range does extend into south western Ontario. Rarish though.

Posted by: MaryL - Chaska
on: 2018-06-27 12:01:41

There is a male tree at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. I picked up a seed pod to plant. The pod has 5 HUGE seeds. I would like to be able to raise at least one. MN Landscape Arboretum is FREE admission every 3rd Monday of each month

Posted by: Curt Yess - Waseca
on: 2018-08-05 08:21:57

I posted earlier that I had found some pods in a rest stop on I-90 near the South Dakota border. I scored the seeds with a file and soaked the in warm water over night. 13 of the seeds germinated and I now have them growing outside. I plan on planting the in the Waseca area

Posted by: Dan tupy - Otter tail county
on: 2019-03-03 12:08:03

Are the seeds / pods animal-friendly for turkeys and deer to feed on?

Posted by: Paul Forster - St. Paul
on: 2019-06-10 13:41:55

There is a large one on "Picnic Island" in Ft. Snelling State Park. Also a medium size one in front of the Interpretive Center building.I believe these are wild trees,not planted.

Posted by: Susan premo - Lake city
on: 2019-07-30 09:57:00

There are quite a few at hok-si-la park.

Posted by: Ge Joosten - Le Sueur
on: 2019-08-29 23:21:51

I have a beautiful mature tree in my front yard and I pick up pods all Summer long. In early spring I will easily gather up a few wheelbarrows full. Pods left in the borders planted with hostas and ferns will germinate, especially in Summers like the 2019 one with above average rainfall.

Posted by: Arthur J. Straub - Tyrone Township, LeSueur Couny: Henderson Township, Sibley C
on: 2020-03-08 16:44:12

The K C T has BEAUTIFUL wood, ideal for furniture, other. We have over 100 of the trees on our our property in Tyrone township, especially where white-tail deer have gathered. As butternut and hickory fungus killed those species, K C T took over in a big way.

Posted by: Ben Bullard - Chaska - Carver County
on: 2020-09-29 20:30:23

There's a decent sized stand of these in Chaska, along a creek (not sure of the name) that runs south from Lake Grace. I believe it's natural and not planted, they are mostly mature and in good health. Tons of pods and seeds lying around. They lose their leaves very early, and combined with their gnarly form makes it looks like they're all dead with everything else green or just turning color.

Posted by: Rich Nagel - ARLINGTON (Sibley County)
on: 2020-12-17 13:59:23

We are planting quite a number of these as boulevard trees throughout our community, as we selectively remove our Ash trees. The upright branching is a very desirable characteristic for this type of application. Highly recommended by, now retired, Prof. Gary Johnson at the U of M.

Posted by: Hannah N - Martin County-Trimont area
on: 2021-01-07 11:08:01

I have at least two in my grove. One formed pods in 2018, but has yet to do it again. Maybe not enough rain? This same tree seems to have some dead branches, I'm wondering if it's on it's way out, it is very large. Beautiful, gnarly old tree.

Posted by: Ruth L - Bell Plaine
on: 2021-04-13 20:03:05

At the rest stop on 169 just south of Bell Plaine. Hundreds of pods on sidewalks and under the trees.

Posted by: Dan S - Bloomington
on: 2021-04-17 17:55:45

Hyland Park had several of these trees, half of the pods are are the ground. The pods are mostly dried out and sounds like a rattlesnake when you shake it! They are along the road to the boat landing/paddle boat rentals.

Posted by: Victoria Cox - White Bear Lake
on: 2021-07-22 14:45:45

We planted a Kentucky Coffee Tree (purchased from a nursery) in our yard more than 15 years ago and it has thrived beautifully. The past few years it has been sending out runners, trying to establish a clonal colony I suppose, as the above article suggests. We have been mowing the sprouts but are wondering if they could be dug up to plant elsewhere as a new tree without harm to either the sprout or the original tree. Has anyone tried this?

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