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What is a Kentucky Coffeetree?

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  • Written By: J.M. Densing
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 14 September 2016
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A Kentucky coffeetree, scientific name Gymnocladus dioicus, is a medium sized tree with extremely large leaves that produces pods full of bean-like seeds. It is a legume in the pea family, although the seeds are only edible after thorough roasting. Its native area is the midwestern portion of North America. It was the official tree of Kentucky for a short time and became the subject of much controversy within the state.

The typical height of the Kentucky coffeetree is 50 to 80 feet (15 to 24 m) and it can spread to a width of about 40 to 50 feet (12 to 15 m). The branches spread out in many different directions, and the bark is dark brown or gray and covered with deep cracks. The tree is leafless for about half the year, since the leaves appear late and fall off early; this naked state is referenced by the genus name Gymnocladus which means "naked branches." The Kentucky coffeetree has compound leaves, meaning the huge leaves are composed of many smaller oval leaflets. The leaves can be as long as 3 feet (0.9 m) with a dark bluish green color, turning yellow in the autumn.

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As a member of the pea family, the Kentucky coffeetree produces large pods filled with bean-like seeds. The pods are usually 5 to 10 inches (12.7 to 25.4 cm) long, and they are brown with a tough woody exterior. The seeds are surrounded with a green sticky substance, and they are poisonous if eaten raw. They must be thoroughly roasted for safe consumption. Early settlers to the area used to use the beans to brew a drink similar to coffee, giving the tree its common name; Native Americans used them as a food source.

The Kentucky coffeetree grows in areas of the U.S. midwest, spreading from Kentucky to Pennsylvania in the east, to Kansas and South Dakota in the west, and Louisiana in the south, including the states within this range. It also grows in southern Ontario in Canada. It tends to be scattered around throughout its native range, adapting well to a variety of conditions. It makes a good shade tree and is frequently found planted in parks and along roadsides.

The status of the Kentucky coffeetree has been the topic of considerable controversy in Kentucky. The original state tree, the Tulip poplar, was not properly recorded, and the error went undiscovered until 1973. At that time, in spite of numerous printed references to the Tulip poplar in textbooks and other publications, it was proposed that the Kentucky coffeetree be designated as the state tree. After much debate, the coffeetree became the official state tree in 1976, but supporters of the Tulip poplar would not let the matter rest. In 1994, a resolution was passed in the legislature returning the Tulip poplar to state tree status.

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