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A Coffee that Very Few Drink

Posted: January 7, 2014

Just what is Kentucky Coffeetree?

Coffeetree, Kentucky coffee, American mahogany, stumptree and some other names seldom used… I found that there seems to be universal confusion as to whether it is Gymnocladus dioica or dioicus. Nevertheless, it is that large beautiful, open grown tree in the local park. It is one of only three species you will find that has bi-pinnately compound leaves.

These leaves are sometimes up to three feet long and a foot-and-a-half wide. The pods that sometimes clutter the earth are found only under female trees and are leathery “pea” pods (a sure-fire indicator of a legume) up to six or nine inches long. They are rather rot-resistant and it seems that no wild animals crave them. Some I have found were years old and still in good shape. The seeds inside are the really resistant items; they are hard as rocks and only used when roasted, ground, and boiled as a beverage. It must have a beautiful color since my sink was bronze after I soaked mine just to freshen them up before drawing them for this article. Their pioneer use as coffee was short-lived and replaced quickly as soon as real coffee was imported to the American colonies.

Coffeetree is hard to find in the normal woodland habitat and is more often seen in parks or arboretums. The Vascular Flora of Pennsylvania shows only about thirty finds scattered across Pennsylvania and most in the southern half of the state, even though it ranges into New York.

Coffeetree is an open grown tree with an unpredictable branching pattern. It is abstract to abstruse, but when viewed from a distance has a fine single stem for a trunk and a well-shaped, roughly globular crown. Old references list it as reaching to one hundred feet in the forest; whereas, later volumes say sixty to eighty feet. The overall color of the trunk is dark gray to dark brown and branches may be pale to cream/white and the easy identification feature (summer or winter) is the salmon-colored large pith on the rather stout branches (notice I didn’t say twigs). The other identifying feature is the fact that even if the tree is a male and/or the leaflets have blown and scattered, there are usually many long, central rachises abounding unmoved under the tree. In parks they create a problem with keeping the grounds neat and clean.

Because it usually leafs out late in the spring and drops its foliage early, it was often thought to be dead, hence the name stumptree or deadtree. I was really going to try to drink this coffee until I discovered that it could be semi-poisonous if not done correctly.

Its use as a timber species seemed to be on the “whatever is handy” type of use and then only sparingly. Things like fence posts, rails, firewood, and services depending upon its durability. In the wood collector’s literature, it is mentioned as taking a high polish, even though it is rough-grained. The annual rings are conspicuously reddish while the summer wood is yellowish – hence a contrast pattern.

It came to me as I was writing this… if there isn’t much use for it, if it is only locally found, if it ranges only in eastern and mid-North America, if no animals eat the seed or pod goop, if it is so homely that it is called dead, why is it so popular? Then I discovered that it had yet another name, Chicot, which, if researched, lists it as a name given to a lake, a county in Arkansas, a lookout point on the Mississippi River, and a cocktail bar. And the derivation of these names came from, “a handsome tree of eastern and southern North American with large pods and bi-pinnately compound leaves!”

Prepared by William C. Paxton, Landscape Architect and Consulting Forester