Yard & Garden Report


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Grow Your Own Coffeetree

The Kentucky coffeetree is beautiful, tough and truly special.

Are you looking for a special tree? Look no farther than the Kentucky coffeetree:

It’s beautiful all year. Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) has a picturesque form with arching branches. In fall, the leaves change to bright yellow. Its flaky bark is a nice feature in winter (see photos below).

It’s tough. Kentucky coffeetree prefers moist sites but tolerates the dry and alkaline soils of North Dakota. It tolerates salt too. Kentucky coffeetree has no major pest worries and is hardy to Zone 4.

It looks unique. The leaves of Kentucky coffeetree are bluish green and absolutely massive. Each leaf can grow 3 feet long and 2 feet wide, consisting of over 40 leaflets. Wow!

It’s one of the first trees to shed its leaves in fall and one of the latest trees to leaf out in spring. Maybe that’s why it’s nicknamed the Dead Tree. It looks dead half the time.

It saves energy. Its branches have very few twigs. Sunlight pours through the open canopy in winter, helping to reduce our heating bills.

It’s rare. It’s not widely grown by nurseries because it grows a tap root when young and is difficult to transplant. Get a young tree, preferably 10 feet or shorter, and the tap root will not be an issue.

It’s filled with folklore. You can share lots of stories with your neighbors about your special tree. It’s called Kentucky coffeetree because settlers in Kentucky used to roast and grind the tree’s seeds to make a coffee substitute. The homemade brew tasted terrible; not to mention the unroasted seeds were poisonous. It’s no wonder they abandoned this “coffee” as soon as they gained access to seaports and genuine coffee.

It’s a prehistoric tree! Archaeologists believe mastodons and mammoths gnawed on the leathery pods and nicked the seeds with their large teeth, helping the seed to germinate. The seed is 2,000 times harder to crack than a jawbreaker candy!

Everyone knows that George Washington grew (and chopped down) a cherry tree, but did you know he grew Kentucky coffeetrees along the path leading up to his home at Mount Vernon? You can be just like George!

To avoid the toxic, messy pods in your yard, look for a male cultivar such as True North™, Espresso™ or Stately Manor™. Generic Kentucky coffeetrees are available but some will be female and produce pods.

Kentucky coffeetree
Kentucky coffeetree is an attractive shade tree with giant leaves (the yellow foliage in the foreground of the top photo is a single leaf) and attractive bark.






















Written by Tom Kalb, Extension Horticulturist, North Dakota State University.


Row, J. and W. Geyer. Kentucky coffeetree. U.S. Department of Agriculture/Natural Resources Conservation Service. https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_gydi.pdf.

Wikipedia. Kentucky coffeetree. Accessed online.

Photos were made available under Creative Commons licenses specified by the photographers. SEWilco from Wikimedia Commons, Plant Image Library and Plant Image Library.

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