The Kentucky Coffeetree is an overlooked giant in the Native Tree world. The large tree grows with a bit of a zig-zag style that when mature makes the tree look like it came straight out of the pages of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
Trees are late to leaf out in spring and are one of the first to drop leaves in the fall. The leafs are binately compound and overall are about 3 foot in length. The tree has a beefy irregular growth pattern that makes its quite notable in the winter. The bark is quite unique in that it is dark brown and has recurved scale like ridges that appear at a young age. The Kentucky Coffeetree has a slow to medium growth rate with a tree known to grow 12-14 feet over a 10-year span. The tree serves as a host to 4 species of butterflies and moths.
Native Americans and early American settlers, especially those in the Kentucky territory, roasted and ground the seeds to brew a coffee-like beverage (albeit no caffeine), hence the common name. A Kentucky Coffeetree was noted growing near the spring in Mingo Junction and many early Ohio River travelers would use the water from the spring and seeds from the tree to make coffee. Native Americans roasted the seeds for food. Seeds are very toxic prior to roasting, and should never be eaten fresh off the tree.
When Thomas Jefferson was Minister to France there was great debate among the French about America’s flora and fauna being inferior in size to European flora and fauna. Jefferson became obsessed with proving this theory wrong and one of the things he desired most was the Kentucky Coffeetree. He wrote to William Bartram hoping to procure seed but Bartram had none in stock. Jefferson wrote to his friend and protégé, James Madison, to assist in the endeavor. On June 13, 1793, Madison wrote to Jefferson “The (Kentucky) Coffee Trees in this Neighbourhood are all too young to bear for some years. I will do all I can to get the seed for Bartram from Kentucky as soon as possible.”.■