Kentucky coffee tree

Gymnocladus dioicus (Kentucky coffee tree) graces the winter landscape. It’s rough and ridged bark is distinct, even on young trees. The branching in the crown lends an almost spooky effect to the landscape.

This tree begins to leaf out in mid-May a few weeks before it flowers, which hides the small blooms. If you were to reach the blooms of a female tree, you would discover they are deeply fragrant, like the scent of old garden roses. Lurie Garden has a male tree which has only lightly scented blooms and they are smaller.

The leaves themselves start out a nice purple color and then grow into large, bluish-green bipinnately compound leaves, the base of the leaflets mostly acute, with several pairs of pinnae. This creates a lacy shadow pattern all around the base of the tree.

Only female trees produce the interesting pods which were used by early settlers to make “coffee” which can also substitute for a laxative (maybe why no one uses the pods these days.) The pods become visible in late summer and persist through winter.

In fall Kentucky coffee tree leaves turn yellow. By Halloween, they are gone leaving this tree to once again show off it’s graceful shape.

Botanical Name Gymnocladus dioicus
Common Name Kentucky coffee tree
Family Fabaceae
USDA Zone 3 thru 8
Light Requirement Full Sun
Season(s) of interest All Seasons
Height and Spread
60-80ft x 40-55ft (18-24m x 12-17m)
Flower Color Green-White
Attracts Wildlife
Provides Food for Birds, Hosts Butterflies/Moths, Attracts Pollinators
Additional Information Native to the Chicago Region
Location in Lurie Garden Southwest Dark Plate