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Gymnocladus dioicus

Previously known as:

  • Guilandina dioica
  • Gymnocladus canadensis
Phonetic Spelling
jim-noh-KLAY-dus dye-oh-EE-kus
This plant has low severity poison characteristics.
See below
Description

The Kentucky Coffeetree is a slow to moderate-growing, large, deciduous, and native tree in the Fabaceae or legume family that grows 60 to 80 feet tall and 40 to 55 feet wide with an oval, open, to irregular habit. It has very large pinnately compound leaves that measure 3 feet long and 2 feet wide and have numerous leaflets. The leaves emerge in the late spring and appear pinkish-bronze and then mature to a bluish-green. Panicles of greenish-white flowers appear at the branch tips in late spring to early summer. In the fall, the leaves turn yellow and the female trees have clusters of large purplish-brown or reddish-brown seed pods. 

This tree is native to southeastern Canada and the central and eastern United States. Its native habitats include moist, rich woods, wooded hillsides, and floodplains; however, the Kentucky Coffeetree is declining in number due to over-harvesting. 

The genus name, Gymnocladus, is derived from the words, gumnos, meaning naked, and kladdos, meaning branch. This references the fact that the tree is without leaves much of the year. Its leaves emerge in late spring and drop by early fall.  The specific epithet, dioicus, means dioecious and refers to it having separate male and female trees. The common name, Kentucky Coffeetree, is derived from the seeds being used by the Native Americans and early settlers as a coffee-like beverage. 

It prefers being planted in the full sun, and moist, well-drained soil though this tree tolerates a wide range of soil types.  Select male plants to avoid the littering of seed pods in the landscape.  It is a good dependable city tree that is drought, air-pollution-tolerant, and tolerates occasional flooding. It tends to be fast-growing when it is young, but it has a moderate to slow growth rate as it ages.

The leaves, seeds, and pulp of this tree are poisonous to livestock, humans, and pets. If the seeds are roasted and ground they may be used to make coffee-like beverages.

The Kentucky Coffeetree does well in large lawns or parks. Some may consider the male tree more desirable because it does not create litter. but the female tree has showy and fragrant flowers. It makes an excellent addition to a rain garden or the landscape to provide shade. The tree's interesting shape, bark, and seed pods are attractive and make added winter interest in a landscape.

Seasons of Interest:

Bark:  Winter      Bloom: Late Spring and Early Summer      Foliage: Late Spring, Summer, and Early Fall      Fruits:  Fall, persist through Winter only on female trees

Quick ID Hints:

  • large deciduous tree with an oval, open, or irregular habit
  • bark is dull grayish brown with deep fissures and scaly ridges
  • stems zigzag and leaf scar is heart-shaped
  • very large bluish-green bipinnately compound leaves, measuring up to 3 feet long and 2 feet wide with 5 to 9 pairs of leaflets with entire margins
  • leaves are pinkish bronze when they emerge in late spring
  • dioecious, male flowers 4 inches long, female flowers are 12-inch long panicles of greenish-white, star-shaped blooms
  • female  flowers produce purplish-brown to reddish-brown seed pods that measure up to 10 inches long and 1 to 3 inches wide

Insects, Diseases, and Other Plant Problems:  The Kentucky Coffeetree has no serious insect or disease problems though some consider the leaf litter and seed pods a nuisance on hardscaped surfaces.  

VIDEO created by Andy Pulte for “Landscape Plant Identification, Taxonomy and Morphology” a plant identification course offered by the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Tennessee.

 

Profile Video:
See this plant in the following landscape:
Cultivars / Varieties:
  • 'Espresso'
    male tree, produces no fruit, vase shape
  • 'J. C. McDaniel' or Prairie Titan (Trademark)
    male tree, produces no fruit, upright spreading, bluish-green foliage
  • 'Stately Manor'
    male tree, produces no fruit, narrow upright form
  • 'Variegata'
    slow growing, creamy white variegation of the leaves, pinkish-purple new growth
'Espresso', 'J. C. McDaniel' or Prairie Titan (Trademark), 'Stately Manor', 'Variegata'
Tags:
#showy flowers#deciduous#shade tree#poisonous#full sun tolerant#rain garden#fragrant flowers#drought tolerant#interesting bark#slow growing#native tree#large leaves#low maintenance#winter interest#interesting leaves#air pollution tolerant#street tree#showy fruits#NC native#dioecious#seedpods#messy fruits#problem for cats#problem for dogs#problem for children#toxic to humans#problem for cattle#landscape plant sleuths course
 
Cultivars / Varieties:
  • 'Espresso'
    male tree, produces no fruit, vase shape
  • 'J. C. McDaniel' or Prairie Titan (Trademark)
    male tree, produces no fruit, upright spreading, bluish-green foliage
  • 'Stately Manor'
    male tree, produces no fruit, narrow upright form
  • 'Variegata'
    slow growing, creamy white variegation of the leaves, pinkish-purple new growth
'Espresso', 'J. C. McDaniel' or Prairie Titan (Trademark), 'Stately Manor', 'Variegata'
Tags:
#showy flowers#deciduous#shade tree#poisonous#full sun tolerant#rain garden#fragrant flowers#drought tolerant#interesting bark#slow growing#native tree#large leaves#low maintenance#winter interest#interesting leaves#air pollution tolerant#street tree#showy fruits#NC native#dioecious#seedpods#messy fruits#problem for cats#problem for dogs#problem for children#toxic to humans#problem for cattle#landscape plant sleuths course
  • Attributes:
    Genus:
    Gymnocladus
    Species:
    dioicus
    Family:
    Fabaceae
    Uses (Ethnobotany):
    Native American and early American settlers roasted and ground the seeds and brewed them to make a coffee-like beverage that does not contain caffeine. The seeds are toxic if eaten raw. The fruit pulp was used as a home remedy for headaches and fever. The wood is used for building cabinets.
    Life Cycle:
    Woody
    Recommended Propagation Strategy:
    Root Cutting
    Seed
    Country Or Region Of Origin:
    South Eastern Canada to Central & Eastern U.S.A
    Distribution:
    Native: Canada--Ontario; United States--AL, AR, CT, DE, GA, IL, IN, KY, ME, MD, MA, MI, MN, MS, NJ, NY, NC, OH, OK PA, SC, SD, TN, TX, VA, WV, and WI. Introduced: Baltic States, Belarus, Bulgaria, Central European Russia Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, North Caucasus, South European Russia, Tadzhikistan, Transcaucasus, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.
    Wildlife Value:
    Larval host for bicolored honey locust moth and bisected honey locust moth.
    Play Value:
    Wildlife Larval Host
    Edibility:
    Seeds, roasted and ground, can be used as a substitute for coffee; does not have caffeine.
    Dimensions:
    Height: 60 ft. 0 in. - 80 ft. 0 in.
    Width: 40 ft. 0 in. - 55 ft. 0 in.
  • Whole Plant Traits:
    Plant Type:
    Edible
    Native Plant
    Poisonous
    Tree
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Deciduous
    Habit/Form:
    Ascending
    Horizontal
    Irregular
    Open
    Oval
    Growth Rate:
    Slow
    Maintenance:
    Low
    Texture:
    Medium
  • Cultural Conditions:
    Light:
    Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
    Soil Texture:
    Clay
    High Organic Matter
    Loam (Silt)
    Sand
    Soil pH:
    Acid (<6.0)
    Alkaline (>8.0)
    Neutral (6.0-8.0)
    Soil Drainage:
    Good Drainage
    Moist
    Available Space To Plant:
    24-60 feet
    NC Region:
    Coastal
    Mountains
    Piedmont
    USDA Plant Hardiness Zone:
    3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b
  • Fruit:
    Fruit Color:
    Brown/Copper
    Purple/Lavender
    Red/Burgundy
    Fruit Value To Gardener:
    Showy
    Display/Harvest Time:
    Fall
    Winter
    Fruit Type:
    Legume
    Fruit Length:
    > 3 inches
    Fruit Width:
    1-3 inches
    Fruit Description:
    The female trees develop the fruit. The fruits appear as flat reddish-brown or purplish-brown pods that measure up to 10 inches long and 1 to 3 inches wide. They mature in the fall and persist through the winter. The pods contain 4-7 dark brown seeds and are surrounded by a sticky pulp. The seeds are hard, smooth, oval, somewhat flat, and measure about 1/2 inch long and 5/8 inches wide. Male trees are considered desirable because of the lack of pods.
  • Flowers:
    Flower Color:
    Green
    White
    Flower Inflorescence:
    Panicle
    Spike
    Flower Value To Gardener:
    Fragrant
    Showy
    Flower Bloom Time:
    Spring
    Summer
    Flower Shape:
    Star
    Flower Petals:
    4-5 petals/rays
    Flower Size:
    < 1 inch
    Flower Description:
    The flowers are greenish-white showy spike-like blooms that appear in the late spring to early summer, May to June. The tree is dioecious, meaning that there are separate male and female trees. The male flowers appear in clusters that are 4 inches long, while the showy female flowers are in fragrant 12-inch long panicles that have up to 25 to 50 blooms. Each flower measures 1/2 to 5/8 inches in diameter. The female flowers give way to reddish-brown seed pods in the fall.
  • Leaves:
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Deciduous
    Leaf Color:
    Blue
    Brown/Copper
    Green
    Pink
    Leaf Value To Gardener:
    Showy
    Deciduous Leaf Fall Color:
    Gold/Yellow
    Insignificant
    Leaf Type:
    Compound (Pinnately , Bipinnately, Palmately)
    Leaf Arrangement:
    Alternate
    Leaf Shape:
    Elliptical
    Ovate
    Leaf Margin:
    Entire
    Hairs Present:
    Yes
    Leaf Length:
    > 6 inches
    Leaf Width:
    > 6 inches
    Leaf Description:
    The leaves are large and bipinnately compound. They are up to 3 feet long and 2 feet wide and divided into 5 to 9 pairs of pinnae. Each leaflet measures 1 to 3 inches long and 3/4 to 1 1/2 inches wide. The margins are entire, the upper surface is smooth with scattered hairs, and the lower surface is paler and hairy along the veins. The leaves emerge in late spring and are pinkish-bronze initially, turn bluish-green during the summer months, and the fall color is yellow. The leaves appear late in the spring and drop from the tree early in the fall.
  • Bark:
    Bark Color:
    Dark Brown
    Dark Gray
    Surface/Attachment:
    Fissured
    Ridges
    Scaly
    Bark Description:
    The branches are dull gray to grayish-brown. The bark is rough and coarse with scaly ridges and deep fissures.
  • Stem:
    Stem Color:
    Brown/Copper
    Green
    Stem Is Aromatic:
    No
    Stem Form:
    Zig Zags
    Stem Leaf Scar Shape:
    Heart or shield shaped
    Stem Description:
    The young stems are brown to greenish-brown, hairless, with light brown to orange lenticels. The twigs are zigzag or wavy. The large leaf scar is heart-shaped. The pith is wide and salmon pink to brown. The buds are small, and downy, and appear embedded in the twig,
  • Landscape:
    Landscape Location:
    Lawn
    Riparian
    Landscape Theme:
    Drought Tolerant Garden
    Native Garden
    Rain Garden
    Winter Garden
    Design Feature:
    Shade Tree
    Specimen
    Street Tree
    Attracts:
    Moths
    Resistance To Challenges:
    Heat
    Pollution
    Salt
    Problems:
    Messy
    Poisonous to Humans
    Problem for Cats
    Problem for Children
    Problem for Dogs
    Weak Wood
  • Poisonous to Humans:
    Poison Severity:
    Low
    Poison Symptoms:
    CAUSES ONLY LOW TOXICITY IF EATEN. The pulp between the seeds can be mistaken for the sweet, non-toxic pulp of the honey locust. Stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, irregular pulse, coma.
    Poison Toxic Principle:
    Alkaloid cytisine
    Causes Contact Dermatitis:
    No
    Poison Part:
    Fruits
    Leaves
    Seeds