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

More Winter Trees and Shrubs:

Poisonous Plants: Lima Beans

I don’t recall being a picky eater as a child, but one food I could barely stomach was lima beans. The smell, the texture, the taste, even the look of them, really didn’t sit well with me. I know I’m not alone in this sentiment. Lima beans are a popular thing to hate, and I have avoided them ever since I was old enough to decide what was allowed on my plate. To be fair, the only lima beans I remember trying were the ones included in the familiar bag of frozen mixed vegetables, which might explain why I didn’t like them. But little did I know there is another reason to avoid them – lima beans are poisonous.

That’s a strong statement. In case you’ve eaten lima beans recently or are about to, I should ease your concerns by telling you that you have little to worry about. Commonly cultivated lima beans are perfectly safe to eat as long as they are cooked properly, and even if they are eaten raw in small doses, they are not likely to hurt you. But again, why are you eating lima beans? They’re gross.

lima beans in cans

Phaseolus lunatus – commonly known as lima bean as well as a number of other common names – is in the legume family (Fabaceae) and is native to tropical America. It is a perennial, twining vine that reaches up to 5 meters. It has trifoliate leaves that are alternately arranged, and its flowers are typically white, pink, or purple and similar in appearance to pea flowers and other flowers in the legume family. The fruits are hairy, flat, 5 – 10 cm long, and often in the shape of a half moon. The seeds are usually smooth and flat, but are highly variable in color, appearing in white, off-white, olive, brown, red, black, and mottled.

P. lunatus experienced at least two major domestication events – one in the Andes around 4ooo years ago and the other in Central America more than 1000 years ago. Studies have found that the first event yielded large seeded varieties, and the second event produced medium to small seeded varieties. Wild types of P. lunatus have been given the variety name sylvester, and cultivated types are known as variety lunatus; however, these don’t appear to be accepted names by plant taxonomists and perhaps are just a way of distinguishing cultivated plants from plants growing in the wild, especially in places where P. lunatus has become naturalized such as Madagascar.

Distinguishing wild types from cultivated types is important though, because wild types are potentially more poisonous. Lima bean, like several other plants we eat, contains compounds in its tissues that produce cyanide. These cyanide producing compounds are called cyanogenic glucosides and are present in many species of plants as a form of defense against herbivores. The predominant cyanogenic glucoside in lima beans is called linamarin, which is also present in cassava and flax.

Fruits of lima bean (Phaseolus lunatus) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Fruits of lima bean (Phaseolus lunatus) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

In order for lima beans to poison you, they must be chewed. Chewing brings linamarin and the enzymes that react with it together. Both compounds are present in the cells of lima beans, but they reside in different areas. Once they are brought together, a reaction ensues and hydrogen cyanide is produced. Because cyanide isn’t produced until after the plant is consumed, the symptoms of cyanide poisoning can take a little while to occur – often several hours.

Cyanide poisoning is not a pretty thing. First comes sweating, abdominal pain, vomiting, and lethargy. If the poisoning is severe, coma, convulsions, and cardiovascular collapse can occur. There are treatments for cyanide poisoning, but if treatment comes too late or if the dose is large enough, death results.

Cassava (Manihot esculenta) is particularly well known for its history of cyanide poisonings. It is a staple crop of people living in tropical areas of Africa and South America. Humans can readily metabolize small amounts of cyanide, and processes like crushing and rinsing, cooking, boiling, blanching, and fermenting render cassava safe to eat. However, consuming cassava that isn’t prepared properly on a consistent basis can result in chronic illnesses, such as konzo, which is a major concern among cultures in which cassava is an important food source.

I guess I should reiterate at this point that most cultivated lima beans contain low (read “safe”) levels of cyanogenic glucosides and, particularly when cooked, are perfectly safe to eat. I’m still not totally convinced that I should eat them though. While researching this article I came across numerous sites claiming that lima beans are delicious while offering various recipes to prove it. I even came across this story in which a self-proclaimed “lima bean loather” was converted to the side of the lima bean lovers. I don’t fancy myself much of a cook, so I’m hesitant to attempt a lima bean laden recipe for fear that it will only make me hate them more. If anyone out there thinks they can convince me otherwise with their tasty creation, be my guest.

And now a haiku:

You are lima beans
I despised you as a child
Perhaps unfairly?

Follow these links to learn more about cyanide producing crops and lima beans: