Kentucky Coffeetree, easily recognized in summer by its huge compound leaves, and in winter by its bold outline, is present throughout much of Ohio, but is primarily found in the western half of the state, where the soils are more alkaline. Thick fruit pods containing large seeds (or beans) are found only on female trees, and often hang on during winter. Pioneers in Kentucky and elsewhere used the beans as a coffee substitute (hence the common name), and Native Americans roasted the beans for food.
A native of the Midwestern United States, the slow-growing Kentucky Coffeetree reaches 80 feet tall and 50 feet wide when found in the open, with an upright, irregular, and thin appearance in youth, becoming dense and symmetrical with age. As a member of the Bean Family, it is related to many other representative species, including Redbud, Honeylocust, Black Locust, and Wisteria, among others. The specific epithet of "dioicus" is sometimes alternatively spelled as "dioica"; in either case, it refers to the male and female nature of this species, termed "dioecious".
Planting Requirements - Kentucky Coffeetree prefers deep, moist, alkaline soils, but thrives almost anywhere it is planted, except for permanently wet soils. It is extremely tolerant to many stresses (including heat, drought, poor soils, compacted soils, high pH soils, occasional brief flooding, and air pollution), and has been extensively planted in parks along the East Coast, thus extending its geographic range. It grows in full sun to partial sun, and is found in zones 4 to 8.
Potential Problems - Kentucky Coffeetree offers no significant disease or pest problems, and should be more widely planted in open spaces that can afford its large size and beauty at maturity. Since it does not fruit at an early age, determination of gender may take a number of years, since the seedless males offer less of a cleanup problem due to the absence of fallen fruit pods and seeds. In youth, the appearance of this tree often lacks grace, especially in winter, with the little-branched winter outline being especially coarse (Gymnocladus translates as "naked branch").