This highly adaptable 60-70-foot tree is becoming more popular as an ornamental shade or street tree. It grows in full sun, adapts to a wide range of soil types and moisture levels, and has extreme drought tolerance. In spring, pink-bronze leaves emerge, maturing into airy, blue-green leaves that rotate on their stalks to track the sun and also allow enough dappled light for plants to grow beneath the tree. Clusters of greenish-white flowers appear on female trees in May and June, followed by greenish pods that mature into flat, woody pods in October and remain on the tree until spring.
Its coarse, bold form is striking when leafless, which is most of the year, as the tree is one of the last to leaf out and one of the first to lose its leaves in fall. Gymnocladus means “naked branch” in Greek. Some call it the “Halloween” tree, and the effect is doubly spooky when the long, dried seed pods rattle in the wind.
Native Americans and pioneers made a weak, caffeine-free coffee substitute from the roasted seeds, thus giving the tree its common name. The seeds were once eaten by giant sloths and mammoths, which spread them over a wide-ranging area. Once the mammals died out, the seeds lost their primary means of dispersal, so this tree is in decline in most areas. Native Americans and streams helped to disperse and germinate the seeds, and streams and occasional flooding continue to be the main methods of seed dispersal today.
Found throughout much of Ohio, primarily in the western half of the state, it’s often used to repopulate mine sites and areas where ash and elm have been reduced by disease and insects. Because of its tolerance for pollution, road salt, and a variety of soils, it’s also a great choice for urban areas, and is well suited for winter gardens, droughty areas, rain gardens, and large areas that don’t mind the messiness of leaves and pods. Choose male trees to avoid pod litter.
Grows 60-75’ tall with a spread of 40-50’.
Prefers full sun.
Prefers moist, well-drained soils, including acidic, alkaline, loamy, rich, sandy, and clay. Tolerates wet soil and has extreme drought tolerance.
Clusters of greenish-white flowers appear in late May to early June. The flowers of female trees are in panicles and have a rose-like fragrance. The seed pods are 5–10" long and change from green to bronze or reddish-brown. They have 4-7 seeds nestled in sticky pulp.
Compound leaves may be up to 36" long and 24" wide; individual, blue-green leaflets are about 2" long and turn yellow in fall.
Scaly, dark grayish-brown bark becomes increasingly coarse and fissured with age. The twigs are stout and the pith is a distinctive salmon-pink color.
A host plant for 4 species of moth larvae: bisected honey locust, whitemarked tussock, honey locust, and fall webworm. Bees visit for nectar and pollen.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Native Americans used leaves and pulp medicinally to treat constipation and insanity. The Omaha used the roots for stopping hemorrhage and for women in labor.
There is disagreement on which parts of the seed pods are edible.
Native Americans used the dried seeds as dice in games such as squaw dice, bowl and dice, and hubbub. Iroquois used the dried pods as rattles for music. Children sometimes carried them as a good luck charm.
The wood was once used in the construction of railway sleeper cars.
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