My Review of Decurrent Trees

Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of plants to look at. Deciduous trees and shrubs become particularly interesting during the winter months with their exposed branches and their growth habits made more obvious. The beauty of a tree’s “skeletal” structure is revealed when it’s stripped of its leaves and set against a winter sky. Winter is also a great time to prune certain trees and shrubs (when appropriate), partly because their branches are so easily viewed and “problem” areas readily reveal themselves. Whether you’re observing a tree’s branching structure simply for enjoyment-sake or because you plan to prune, you may find yourself noticing distinct differences in the growth habits of trees. Distinct growth habits can help you identify trees. They can also tell you something about a tree’s environment or growing conditions.

In the book, The Tree, Colin Tudge defines a tree as “a big plant with a stick up the middle.” Sometimes this “stick” runs straight up from the ground to the top of the tree without interruption and is the tallest portion of the plant. Other times, the “stick” reaches a certain height and branches out into multiple “sticks,” each one reaching out in a different direction – some heading more outward, while others continue to reach for the sky. This is the difference between excurrent and decurrent growth.

excurrent growth habit: dawn redwood (Taxodium distichum)

A tree with an excurrent growth habit has one central leader – or single trunk – that reaches all the way to the top of the tree. Side branches occur along the length of the trunk and generally get shorter as they move up the tree, producing a pyramidal or conical shape. Think of a typical Christmas tree. Many conifers exhibit excurrent growth, as do several deciduous trees such as sweetgum and pin oak, as well as aspens and other poplars. When a tree divides part way up the trunk, splitting into several large branches – none of which could be considered the dominant branch – it is exhibiting a decurrent growth habit. Trees that generally fall into this category include elms, maples, oaks, and ashes. The growth habit of a tree is largely a result of its genetics, but plants are known for their plasticity, taking on a wide variety of forms depending on their parentage and their circumstances. Trying to identify a tree based only its growth habit, isn’t likely to yield great results.

decurrent growth habit: oak (Quercus sp.)

The environment that a plant is growing in can have noticeable effects on the form the plant takes. A tree growing up in a forest thick with other trees will typically grow straight up in search of sunlight and will branch out very little until it can get up high enough to do so. That same species of tree growing in an open field might instead branch out extensively at a much lower height, taking advantage of the generous amount of space to stretch its branches out wide. As Tudge puts it in The Tree, “one form for the forest, another for the open ground.” Additionally, things can happen in a tree’s life that will drastically alter its form. If, for example, a storm comes through and breaks off a tree’s central leader, several side branches might grow out and upward to take its place, giving an otherwise excurrent tree a decurrent form. The pruning that humans often do (sometimes unwisely) to trees and shrubs, particularly in urban settings, can also alter a plant’s natural growth habit considerably. These are important considerations to make when assessing the forms of trees.

decurrent growth habit: golden rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata)

I give decurrent growth habits five stars. No shade on excurrent trees. They’re also beautiful. But while trees with excurrent growth habits have otherwise predictable forms, decurrent trees are full of surprises. Their broad and rounded forms provided by their deliquescent branching structures are endlessly interesting, and their capacious canopies ensure that no two trees are alike.

decurrent growth habit: Malus sp. (I presume)


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: