Tea Time: Kentucky Coffeetree

Learning to identify Kentucky coffeetree in the winter brings you one step closer to making a coffee-like (albeit caffeine-free) beverage from its seeds. Humans have a long history of occasionally using the “beans” of Gymnocladus dioicus to make this tisane, which explains common names like coffeetree, American coffee berry, and coffeenut. The process is a bit time consuming, and the end result is mixed, but foraging adventures like this are all about the experience. This drink is not likely to replace whatever you are currently drinking in the morning, but it does offer an interesting diversion.

fruit of Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus)

Winter is the best time to collect the pods, which are flat, leathery, brown to black in color, and about 2 inches wide and 6 inches long. The stocky fruits are often found hanging from the tips of the tree’s bare branches. Many also fall to the ground over the course of the season, making them easier to collect. If you split the pods open early in the season, you’ll find the seeds embedded in a sticky, neon green goo that will stick to your hands and clothes. As the year progresses, the glue-like substance dries out and is easier to deal with. The seeds are dark, extremely hard, rounded and flattened, and about the size of a penny or nickel. The funiculus, which is a short stalk that connects the ovule/seed to the ovary, tends to be fairly prominent and something you don’t often get to see on seeds.

inside the fruit of a Kentucky coffeetree

Once you’ve collected several pods and removed the seeds from the gooey innards, soak the seeds for an hour or two and then rinse them, making sure to remove dried up goo and any remaining funiculi. Pat the seeds dry and place them in a baking dish with a lid for roasting. The roasting process is said to eliminate the toxicity of the seeds. The lid is important because several of the seeds will pop open during roasting and will fly around in your oven if they aren’t contained.

The fruits of Kentucky coffeetree contain a toxic compound called cytisine, an alkaloid that is similar in action to nicotine. The Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants by Nelson, et al. states that “the cytisine content of the seeds is quite low; and chewing one or two would not be expected to produce toxic effects.” Actually, the bigger risk of chewing one of these rock hard seeds is breaking your teeth. Cytisine poisoning includes typical symptoms like diarrhea and vomiting; in extreme cases it can lead to coma and death. If the seeds are properly roasted, you won’t have to worry about any of this, but as with anything you are trying for the first time, start with small amounts.

seeds of Kentucky coffeetree

Times and temperatures for roasting vary depending on who you’re getting your information from. I went with 300° F for 3 hours (which ended up being 3 and a half hours because I forgot to take them out in time). One source suggested roasting the seeds for only 2 hours for better flavor, but I decided to err on the side of caution and roast them for longer. Many of the seeds will have popped open during the roasting process. For those that haven’t you will need to use a nutcracker or some other comparable tool to crack the seed coat and remove the insides. Dispose of the seed coats and grind the remaining bits into a fine powder using either a coffee grinder or mortar and pestle. You’ll end up with a fine, chocolate-colored powder which you will use to make your “coffee.”

You can prepare this beverage in the same way you would typically choose to make coffee, but keep in mind that upon adding water, the fine grounds quickly turn to a mud-like substance and will block up the filter you are using. For this reason, I recommend small batches. I found Kentucky coffeetree “coffee” to be very earthy and rich and somewhat similar to strong black coffee. Sierra tried it and immediately exclaimed, “That’s nice!” and then proceeded to give it two thumbs up. Some people like black coffee. I added cream to it and found it much more pleasant to drink. Other people don’t think this beverage tastes like coffee at all and instead call it tea-like, chocolaty, fruity, or “akin to mud,” among other more negative reviews. I think it’s a drink that could grow on me, but considering the effort it takes to make one cup, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Kentucky coffeetree “coffee grounds”

Have you tried making “coffee” from the seeds of Kentucky coffeetree? Let us know what you think about it in the comment section below.

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Winter Trees and Shrubs: Kentucky Coffeetree

A few years ago, I was on the hunt for a Kentucky coffeetree. I was aware that a few could be found in some of the parks around Boise, but not being familiar with them, I wasn’t sure where exactly to find one or what I was even looking for. One winter while riding my bike to work, I noticed a tree at the edge of a golf course. No doubt I had passed this tree hundreds (if not thousands) of times. What caught my eye were thick, bean-like pods hanging from the ends of branches. They were unlike any other tree fruits I was familiar with. I stopped and, with a little effort, knocked one of the pods free from the tree. When I split it open, I found three or four large, smooth, black seeds inside. Later, I confirmed that the tree was indeed Kentucky coffeetree. Passing by it during any other time of year, it may have never caught my eye – just another deciduous tree with green leaves that, from a distance at least, looks like so many other deciduous trees. But in winter, with several chunky pods hanging from the tips of its stout branches, it really stood out. This is the joy of looking at trees and shrubs in the winter, where features that may otherwise be obscured, become glaringly obvious against the plainness of a winter backdrop.

fruits of Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus)

Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus) is in the bean family (Fabaceae). It occurs in forests across the eastern and central United States and north into southern Ontario, Canada. It is also planted in urban areas both within and outside of its native range. It is a medium to large tree, averaging 60-70 feet (18-21 meters) high and 40-50 feet (12-15 meters) wide. It generally branches out at around 10-15 feet high and forms a narrow, rounded to pyramidal crown. It is a fairly sparsely branched tree compared to other trees its size, which is much easier to observe in the winter after all of its leaves have dropped.

winter twigs of Kentucky coffeetree

The winter twigs of Kentucky coffeetree are thick and stubby with few hairs and can be greenish, orange, brown, or deep wine-red in color. They have small, scattered lenticels that are either white, orange, or orange-brown. Their leaf scars are alternately arranged and are heart- or sheild-shaped and very large with 3 to 5 distinct bundle traces. It’s pretty obvious from the leaf scars that Kentucky coffeetree bears a sizeable leaf. These massive, bipinnately compound leaves are demonstrated in this Plant Sleuth YouTube video. Leaf buds are tiny and found directly above the leaf scar. There are usually two of them, one of which is sterile and can be difficult to see. They are round, hairy, olive-colored, and sunken like fuzzy, little craters, although you’ll need a hand lens to really see the hairs (which I highly recommend). The twigs lack a terminal leaf bud. Their pith is rounded, thick, and either orange, brown, or salmon colored. The young bark of Kentucky coffeetree is pale gray and fairly smooth. As the tree ages, it breaks into shallow ridges that run the length of the tree. At maturity, the bark is shades of grey and scaly with long, defined, narrow ridges.

pith of Kentucky coffeetree twigs

Kentucky coffeetree is dioecious, meaning that there are “male” trees and “female” trees. The tree that I found on the golf course was a “female” tree because it was bearing fruit, which the “males” and certain cultivars won’t have. If there are no seed pods present, you will have to rely on other features to identify the tree; however, when the pods are present, the tree is unmistakable. Its fruits are thick-walled, flat, oval-shaped, smooth, leathery, and orange-brown to black in color. They measure around 5 to 10 inches long and up to 4 inches wide. They are indehiscent and can persist on the tree for more than a year, and even those that fall to the ground can take months or years to break down enough to release the seeds, which have a hard, dark seed coat. Inside the pod, the seeds are embedded in a thick, gooey, yellow-green pulp, which some descriptions call sweet. However, it doesn’t look appetizing enough to try, and considering that the seeds are toxic, I’d be hesitant to consume any part of the fruit without first verifying its safety with a reputable source. That being said, the seeds can be roasted and used to make a coffee substitute and, as long as it’s done correctly, is safe to drink.

mature bark of Kentucky coffeetree

Kentucky coffeetree is one of the last trees to leaf out in the spring and one of the first to drop its leaves in the fall. Flowers appear in mid to late spring. The leaves have a pink to bronze color as they first emerge, and in the fall they turn bright yellow before they drop.

fall foliage of Kentucky coffeetree

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