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Gymnocladus dioica Plant of Merit

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Kemper Code:  A872

Common Name: Kentucky coffee tree
Zone: 3 to 8
Plant Type: Tree
Family: Fabaceae
Missouri Native: Yes
Native Range: Central and eastern North America
Height: 60 to 80 feet
Spread: 40 to 55 feet
Bloom Time: May - June  
Bloom Color: Greenish-white
Sun: Full sun
Water: Medium
Maintenance: Low

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Plant Culture and Characteristics

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  Uses:       Wildlife:   Flowers:   Leaves:   Fruit:
Hedge Suitable as annual Attracts birds Has showy flowers Leaves colorful Has showy fruit
Shade tree Culinary herb Attracts Has fragrant flowers Leaves fragrant Fruit edible
Street tree Vegetable   hummingbirds Flowers not showy Good fall color   Other:
Flowering tree Water garden plant Attracts Good cut flower Evergreen Winter interest
Gr. cover (<1') Will naturalize   butterflies Good dried flower     Thorns or spines

General Culture:

Best grown in moist, organically rich, well-drained soils in full sun. Tolerates poorer soils and drought. Avoid heavy clays however. Also adapts well to urban conditions. Suckers to form colonies in the wild.

Noteworthy Characteristics:

Kentucky coffeetree or coffeetree is a tall deciduous tree with rough, scaly gray-brown bark and large bipinnate compound leaves. It is native to the Midwest, primarily southern Michigan and Ohio southwest to Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. It grows 60-80’ (less frequently to100’) tall with an irregular open oval to obovate crown. In Missouri, it typically occurs in low or rich woods, bluff bases and along streams (Steyermark). Large leaves to 3’ long, divided into 3-7 pairs of pinnae, with individual leaflets (1-3” long). Leaflets are blue-green in summer, turning an undistinguished yellow in fall. Larger trees typically cast light shade. As the specific epithet suggests, the species is dioecious (separate male and female trees). Greenish white flowers appear in late spring (May-June). Male flowers in clusters to 4” long. Female flowers in panicles to 12” long. Female flowers are fragrant. Fertilized female flowers give way to flattened reddish brown pods (to 10”long) which ripen in October and persist well into winter. Native Americans and early American settlers, especially those in the Kentucky territory, roasted and ground the seeds to brew a coffee-like beverage (albeit no caffeine), hence the common name. Native Americans roasted the seeds for food. Seeds are very toxic prior to roasting, and should never be eaten fresh off the tree. Trees are late to leaf out in spring and are one of the first to drop leaves in the fall. Genus name is from Greek gymnos (naked) and cladus (branch) in probable reference to the absence of foliage for about 1/2 of the year.


No serious insect or disease problems. Leaves and seedpods can create litter problems.


Good landscape tree for large lawns and parks. Male trees are generally considered more desirable because of the lack of seedpods. However, mature female trees with hanging seedpods can be very attractive in outline against a winter sky.

© Missouri Botanical Garden, 2001-2011

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