Deciduous trees during the winter months tell many stories, stop and take note of them with your eyes (or have someone describe them to you). My list of favorite deciduous trees is long, but hands down my favorite winter viewing ones are Kentucky Coffee Trees (Gymnocladus dioicus). Gymnocladus is from two Greek words, gymnos, meaning 'naked' and klados, meaning 'a branch' and refers to the appearance of the tree when not in leaf.
These central-eastern U.S. long-lived natives are very appropriate to plant and grow in our dry, high pH, often compacted Colorado soils. During winter months their leafless thick set branches look like they are showing off magnificent muscles. On a mature tree, the large round canopy consists of twists and limb arcs that resemble flexed biceps, different than vertical poses of other tree types. Don't overlook the bark on older Kentucky coffee trees, step up close to look and feel their furrowed, coarse, sometimes crusty exterior. You might say these are ideal trees to surround a Halloween haunted house, cue the flock of black birds.
No crowing, Kentucky coffee trees are a terrific selection for sunny tree lawns, tough hell strips or as the main event in any backyard. They leaf out very late in the spring and shed leaves earlier in the fall so you don't have to fret about heavy spring snows breaking branches.
When describing Kentucky Coffee trees Michael A. Dirr, Ph.D horticulturist and expert on woody plants says "to know her is to love her." He goes on to say, "a wonderful native species that tolerates the worst stresses that nature and humanity can impose, yet it is nowhere very common in the landscape."
Leaves first emerge pink to purplish in color, then change to bluish-green. Their bipinnate compound leaves resemble honey locust leaves, but are much larger with greenish-white flowers on both female and male trees. Male flowers are four-inch long clusters compared to twelve inch in length for the fragrant female flowers. Leaves turn yellow in fall. Choose male cultivars to avoid the leathery brown/black 5-10" long seed pods. Look for Gymnocladus dioicus 'Espresso' easily found in nurseries and garden centers along the Front Range.
Early pioneers used the pod seeds as a coffee substitute. They softened the seeds by roasting and pounding before boiling for coffee that tasted quite bitter. A little was all that was needed and its use was quickly abandoned when real coffee was available. Unroasted seeds and pods are toxic, even squirrels and deer don't like them.
There are several Kentucky coffee trees planted in Washington Park and seeing them on my daily walk is like saying hello to dear friends. They don't mind that I stop and stare.
As with any tree choice, think long about the decision and don't skimp on your research. Planting a tree isn't like dating for a few months. Trees are long-lived partners where we accept changes along the way. When small, Kentucky coffee trees look sort of gangly and not particularly attractive or exciting in the nursery. It will take them a few years to get established, but after that they can grow about a foot a year, up to fifty plus feet. Read more about them at the links below.
Colorado Tree Coalition Kentucky Coffee Tree
Fairmount Arboretum Kentucky Coffee Tree
Approved Street Tree List for Denver's Public Rights-of-way
And if you're a tree admirer consider attending the third annual Tree Diversity day-long seminar at Denver Botanic Gardens on March 3rd, 2016. Details on the link -
Tree Diversity Conference - DESIGN WITH MORE. TREE. TYPES.
Denver Digs Trees - YES, it's time to order your low cost or FREE trees (based on neighborhood locations). Order deadline is February 15 for distribution on April 16.
Denver Digs Free and Low Cost Trees 2016