We often have stubby pods littering our sidewalk. I thought they grew on a neighbor’s tree, but apparently they originate from the Kentucky Coffeetree. This tree is practically straight across the street from my house yet, I never really noticed it until I started this blog. The specimen in the park is tall so some details are difficult to discern from the ground.
When studying the tree this afternoon, I noticed a cluster of green pods. When I checked the ground, there were a few brown pods directly under the tree. Apparently they fall in the spring and these are leftovers. Cracking open the leathery skin, the first thing I noticed was how sticky they are. The round seeds, about the size of a dime, are contained in white and green pulp that looks like an insect cocoon. Not only is the pulp sticky, the seeds are as well.
There are a number of stories about how the tree got its name related to a use for the seeds. Basically, they involve someone brewing the seeds to make a drink similar to coffee. Some say Native Americans made a brew but didn’t call it coffee. Others suggest settlers copied the Native Americans and called it coffee, while others say the practice became popular after the Civil War. There are debates on the web about the taste. Some say it is awful, others prefer it to coffee. Everyone stresses that unless roasted, the seeds, as well as other parts of the tree, are poisonous. Because these trees are not plentiful in Colorado, it is unlikely that anyone locally would be able to collect enough of the pods to actually use to make a beverage. The cleaning and roasting needed is enough to discourage me from trying with my two pods.
The USDA also mentions that there are reports that the tree can be poisonous to cows and other animals. Native Americans may have used the pods to stun fish so they were easier to catch by hand. Most medicinal uses involve laxatives with the caution that the tree, like the Soapberry from the previous post, contains saponins and may have been used to make soap as well.
A far better use of the tree–although NOT of the tree in the park!–might be for lumber. For a picture of the heartwood and information about the lumber, see The Wood Database. The wood is rated as a good firewood. Fenceposts made from the trees are long-lasting. Possibly these uses of the tree have contributed to it becoming more rare.
The deciduous tree is usually 60-75 feet tall at maturity, but a championship tree has been measured at 120′ tall. It has bi-pinnated compound leaves which are said to be the largest of any native tree. (I think I need to measure it against a Catalpa leaf!)
Most sources say these leaves turn yellow and drop early in the fall. This is hard to determine at the moment as very few of the leaves in the park have even started to turn as of October 2nd. One of the twenty or so alternate names for this tree is dead tree, possibly due to the fact that the tree can remain without buds or foliage for up to six months, with only clusters of seed pods clacking in the wind. Again, this tree is right across the street from my house and I never noticed its fall color or its late onset of new leaves. I certainly will be on the lookout now!
From the USDA distribution map, it looks like this tree could once be found in most of the eastern half of the US and Canada. Kansas is the westernmost border. Other maps show this member of the pea family as being less common than the USDA map indicates, possibly due to loss of habitat and minimal use as an ornamental.
Location: The Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) is B110 on the Self-Guided Tree Tour. As can be seen from the photo above, it is possible to park right in front of it. It is on the northern edge of the park, along Oak Street. At the corner of Jackson and Oak, head west and stop across from the fourth house on the opposite side of the street.