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~ The Kentucky Coffee Tree, Gymnocladus dioicus ~

The Kentucky Coffee Tree is valued for its use as a fast-growing, pest-resistent shade tree that adapts well to urban conditions. A member of the legume family and a cousin of the locusts, it grows to a height of 25m and a width of 15m. It provides a medium to light shade that is compatible with woodland gardening. Yet, it's not frequently seen; it's a good oppurtunity to distinguish yourself from your neighbours!

Flowering occurs in May, and is inconspicuous.

The leaves are enormous, up to a meter in length - though that's not immediately obvious. Each leaf consists in a tough rachis with perpendicular branches (technically, they are called "twice-compound") and are decorated with hundreds almond-shaped leaflets.

Leaf fall in autumn reveals a tree that is sparsely branched, with handsome, deeply furrowed bark and, on female trees, big, 20 cm long brown pods. The fallen rachis do not decompose quickly and result in litter, along with pods. The overall effect is very picturesque.

The seeds are poisonous when raw; however, early North Americans used the roasted seeds to make a hot beverage. From reputation, it appears that this "coffee" is no threat to Starbuck's.

Some cultivars have been selected for their more columnar habit, but these are rarely available in the nursery trade.


The Kentucky Coffee Tree is reliably hardy to zone 5, perhaps to zone 4, and tolerates summer drought and the occasional spring flooding.

Site, Soil and Habit
Full sun. Prefers moist, well drained soil but tolerates a range of soil types.

Generally from seeds, or rooted cuttings. Seeds are sown as soon as they are ripe, or in early spring. Scarification (filing part of the seed envelope) and a 24-hr pre-soaking improves germination. Root cuttings should be 4cm long and 1cm thick and started in a greenhouse in late fall. Mulching the seedlings for cold protection is advisable.

Kentucky Coffee Tree Links

TreePics - Photographic details.
Virginia Tech Dendrology - Nice photographs of the Kentucky Coffee Tree.
Hortico - Offers the seed-propagated species.

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