Kentucky Coffee Tree

The Kentucky Coffee Tree should not be consumed at all. This is because the seed pods that it yields contain high amounts of a toxin known as cytisine that will cause respiratory failure if consumed in measurable amounts.

Why is it called the Kentucky Coffee Tree if it doesn’t make coffee? Early American settlers in the area now known as Kentucky thought that the plant produced a good substitute for their beloved beverage, and so their discovery of the tree with its coffee-bean like seeds made them give it this misleading name.

Today it is most often planted in parks and public gardens due to its lovely appearance and unique characteristics. Many southern homeowners will also use the trees as a “green” way of cooling and heating their homes. This is because the tree is quite late to produce leaves in the spring, and loses its leaves relatively early in the fall. This means it provides great shade, and also lets the sun hit the home or building early in the cooler weather months. Additionally, the branch structure of this tree is very sparse and this means less winter clean up and less shade during the coldest times of the year.

This tree grows in a wide range of “zones” but is actually quite rare. Growing them intentionally, however, is very easy and gardeners should be a bit careful about cultivating them if animals are frequently around. This is because the pods shed by the trees are just as toxic to animals of all kinds as they are to people.

If growing them is desired, the gardener is advised to buff the outer seed pod with sand paper or a file and soak them in water for a day or two to speed up germination. The trees are very tolerant of almost all weather conditions and can even withstand serious drought and air pollution if necessary.

This coffee tree was also the source of a lengthy controversy in the state that gives it its name. In 1973 a clerical error was discovered on the Kentucky State Statutes which invalidated the claim that the state’s official tree was the Tulip Poplar. Suddenly all different voices began giving alternative trees that should be named the official state tree, and the Kentucky Coffee Tree became one of the main options. After much acrimony and heated public debate, it did become the official state tree in 1976, but this was short lived.

In 1994 a second movement began to get the Tulip Poplar reinstated as the state tree, and with the help of knowledgeable historians and passionate devotees the coffee tree from Kentucky was booted from its position and the Tulip Poplar again named as the state tree.

Today, the Kentucky Coffee Tree is one of only two remaining species known as “naked branches” trees due to the fact that it remains without leaves for roughly six months of the year. When the leaves do come in they are large and fairly pink in color, but this soon transitions to a lovely blue-green by the end of the season.

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