Friday, February 6, 2009

Kentucky Coffee tree

A Kentucky Coffee tree against the sky, above a lilac bush heavily laden with snow.

I'm very attached to this tree, though it's not mine (or ours), but our neighbors', as it is growing in their backyard, and only generously spreads its branches and roots over our way. Our neighbors (who are most excellent neighbors) take particular care of this beauty, which is spectacular in every season, but perhaps especially so in winter.

This uncommon tree (Gymnocladus dioicus) was first encountered by Europeans in Kentucky, but it appears from Canada to Louisiana. It is said that early settlers broke open the distinctive seedpods and used the roasted seeds to make a substitute for coffee. The seeds do smell a little like coffee, and they contain a nicotine-like substance that can be fatal in high doses. The tree's roots will compete successfully with the lawn, it drops pods and twigs all over the place from fall to spring, and the tiny leaflets (on compound leaves similar to the Honey Locust) are so small that they slip between the tines of any rake. But these nuisances pale in relation to its gifts: broad, dappled summer shade and a striking winter silhouette.

I've tried in vain for several months to take a photo that captures the many attractions of this species of tree: the stately height; the rugged bark; the fascinating and vigorous branching habit; the purplish, dangling seedpods; and particularly, the levels of scale that exist in angular progression from the thick trunk out to the super-numerous delicate twigs.

But what the eye can take in at one glance, the camera (or, at least, my camera) can not. So here's another shot, showing the seedpods against the twilight:

2 comments:

Babooshka said...

So interesting so beautiful and fragile.

JMW said...

I just came across your blog and I'll have to share it with my brother-in-law and his wife. They own property along the Maury River and have a homein town (he's a W&L grad), even though they live full-time in N.C. And, being a Kentucky native, I like that you showcased a Kentucky Coffee Tree in your blog!