Kentucky Coffeetree: What about those Pods!

 

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.

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View of the Kentucky Coffeetree week of September 26, 2017

 

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 PA010079as 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!)

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One Compound 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.

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Kentucky Coffeetree bark is rough and grayish in color.

 

 

 

Why a Blog about Tagged Trees?

It wasn’t until my twenties when I started wearing glasses on a regular basis that I realized trees weren’t green blurs, and most people could distinguish individual leaves. Soon after I noticed trunks in all their artistic contortions, various types of bark and burls. Later I tried my hand at marquetry and became enamored of the grains and patterns in wood.

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Example of simple marquetry using four woods.

Earlier this month, I joined a short class, All About Trees, taught by local naturalist Kevin Cook. He handed out the list of trees in our city’s City Park. I live near this park. A few years ago, I noticed tags started appearing on various trees. Through reading the tags and utilizing the map the Forestry Department provides, I started to learn the species of trees, some with wonderful names. Currently I know where many of my favorites are located–the championship larch, some old redbuds, a Siberian Larch, crabapples, and weeping mulberries.

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Blooming Redbud near a City Park exit

I liked the challenge of finding and learning more about each of the trees listed in the Self-Guided Tree Tour and thought my husband’s renewed interest in photography would make for an interesting project to tackle together. My plan is to highlight two or more trees per week until we’ve covered as many of the 220+ we are able to locate. Along with pictures of the trees during the season we’re doing the initial writeup, I hope to go back and add photos for the trees during other seasons.

My hope is this blog will be useful to others who are interested in trees in general and those in City Park in particular.

The Soapberry Tree

I took my dog out in search of the first tree that caught my eye, the Soapberry. Even though I’ve used soap nuts for laundry, I’d never heard of this tree or at least I never thought one would grow in our climate. Apparently the Sapindus Mukorossi is the variety  used to grow the commercial nuts. These trees grow in India, Pakistan, and Indonesia.

According to the USDA the variety found in City Park, Sapindus drummondii, is native to a number of states including Colorado.  The tree produces green berries which grow in a straight line, turn bright red, and then a wrinkly reddish brown.

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Berries on the Soapberry Tree

Information on uses for the seeds is scarce and conflicting as the European charity Plants for a Future says the seeds and fruit are poisonous while other sites list some medicinal uses. Trade Winds Fruit suggests you can use the fruit and seed together to produce a soap substitute. One blog included a recipe for making a cleaning solution, although the berries used may have come from a different tree in the Sapindaceae family. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center calls Sapindus drummondii Western Soapberry as well as other names such as chinaberry. I collected a small number of these seeds and when they are dried, I will attempt to make a soap and report back on how it turned out.

While Charles Kane’s Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest and some Native American websites discuss the medicinal uses of the tree, it should be noted that the berries contain saponins and these are generally listed as a toxin. Many of the plants included in Poisonous and Psychoactive Plants by Jim Meuninck include saponins as part of their chemical makeup. Michael Moore’s Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West does not list any uses for the Soapberry tree. For these reasons, it would be prudent to stick to making liquid soap or jewelry from the berries!

LOCATION. The specimen in City Park is near the Eastern edge of the ballpark parking lot, on the south side of the entrance. To find it, drive west on Oak Street. At the intersection of Bryan and Oak, keep going west across the stone bridge and the tree as on the South side of the small peninsula of grass. It is E51 on the map and listing in the City Park Arboretum list.

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Soapberry Tree in foreground

 

 

 

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Soapberry Tree Bark