The coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioicus) is named for the habit of people roasting the tree’s seeds and using this concoction as a substitute for coffee. The coffee tree, also called a Kentucky coffee tree, grows in the Midwest in scattered areas, with trees getting increasingly rare in the wild as of 2010. However, the coffee tree is a useful ornamental and shows up in yards and parks for such purposes. The coffee tree features the largest foliage of any of the eastern forest trees in North America.
The coffee tree can grow to be as high as 75 to 80 feet in some cases, with some individual trees getting even taller. The coffee tree’s trunk diameter is between 1 to 2 feet in width. The tree’s limbs might spread some 50 feet wide, measured from one side of the tree to the other.
The coffee tree is an easy species to identify, primarily because of its outstanding features. The bark for example is gray and has many furrows and ridges that give the tree an interesting appearance. The trunk is often short, and the branching emerges in an irregular pattern. The compound leaves exist on a stem that can be as long as 3 feet, with small stems (pinnae) branching off it that contain from six to 14 small leaflets. The fruit is a seedpod that can grow to 7 inches in length, change from light green in summer to red-brown in fall and breaks open to spill the hard seeds the following spring. The wood is reddish brown and used for making cabinets.
Two assets the coffee tree possesses, as an ornamental, are that the species withstands drought and tolerates air pollution. Coffee trees grow well in a full sunshine locale and a damp fertile area, but not in one that stays wet all the time. The tree is able to grow in different soil types, but alkaline ground provides it with the best chance to reach full potential. Hot summers typically do not bother a coffee tree.
The geographic distribution of the coffee tree includes regions in southern Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. The tree occurs in western Ohio, all of Indiana, most of Illinois and portions of eastern Iowa. Almost all of Missouri is within the range of this species, with Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, Nebraska, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and even Maryland having sections where this tree grows native.
The potential exists for litter from both the foliage and the seedpods. The coffee tree is not a common species carried in many nurseries. It is a landscaping choice for parks and golf courses; as a shade tree on the lawn, it requires plenty of space to grow and expand. The coffee tree is among the last trees to grow leaves, but one of the first to drop them in fall, meaning the tree will be leafless for a longer period than most ornamentals.