Kentucky Coffeetree

Scientific Name: Gymnocladus dioicus

Family: Leguminosae

Origin: Midwest and Upper South US

Kentucky Coffeetree

Why is it called Kentucky Coffeetree? No one knows the truth, but there are two popular theories:

  1. Pioneers or Civil War soldiers roasted the beans and ground them as a coffee substitute
  2. A person who found the tree in Kentucky thought the shiny brown beans looked like coffee beans

Common Names: Kentucky Coffeetree, Coffeetree

Mature Height: 60-75 feet

Mature Width/Spread: 40-50 feet

Leaves: Bipinnate alternate compound leaves 12-36 inches long with three to eight side stalks that have 6-14 pairs of oval leaflets that are 1-3 inches long. The leaflets are ovoid-elliptical with a rounded base and a pointed tip. The top of the leaves are green, the undersurface is a paler green.

In the fall, the leaves become: Yellow

Flowers? Yes. Five greenish to white petals with narrower sepals in between. Usually blossoms in June.

Historical tidbit: There are several Kentucky Coffeetrees at Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington

Did you know …

  • the Meskwaki Native Americans, also known as the Fox tribe because of their association with the Fox River in Eastern Wisconsin, drank the roasted ground seeds in a hot beverage similar to coffee. The common name “coffeetree” derives from this latter use of the roasted seeds, which was imitated by settlers because it seemed a substitute for coffee, especially in times of poverty. The European colonialists, however, considered it inferior to “real” coffee.
  • eating this plant should be avoided since it contains the alkaloid cytisine which could be toxic.
  • Kentucky Coffeetrees grow 24 to 36 inches in height each year.
Kentucky Coffeetree: Bipinnately Compound Leaf, Fruit Pod and Flowers
Kentucky Coffeetree: Bipinnately Compound Leaf, Fruit Pod and Flowers