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Friday, October 22, 2010

Around Town with Kentucky Coffeetree

        Kentucky coffeetree is a handsome Michigan native that remains underutilized in the landscape. Its native range, in which where it is never very abundant, includes bits of Washtenaw and Wayne Counties, but we are at its northern limit. People around here may think of it as a bit of an exotic, but there are stands of mature specimens in several Ann Arbor parks, and they make an amazing sight.
        With a twice-compound leaf that can measure a full 3' in length, it hosts the largest tree-leaf in north America.
In early fall these giant leaves turn a bright yellow, break into segments and drop to the ground, leaving behind an extremely coarse-textured and open crown. This characteristic is commemorated by the tree's Latin name:: Gymnocladus, which translates as "naked branch." Canadians of French ancestry call it chicot, a word that more commonly refers to a stump -- an undeserved insult, I would argue. Its interesting overall form and the swirly psychedelic patterns formed by the grey bark give it year-round interest.
        Coffetree grows naturally in floodplain environments, and you can see some fabulous specimens growing along the Huron River at Lower Huron Metro Park (take I-94 east to Haggerty Rd exit). It's well worth a visit not just for the coffeetrees, but for the entire assemblage of unusual trees including pawpaws, native honeylocust and blue ash. But you don't need to drive that far.  There are a half-dozen jaw-dropping specimens in Lakewood Park on Ann Arbor's west side. From the street-sign marking the intersection of Hazelwood and Central, walk a mere 100' ssw and you'll find yourself in the midst of a small stand of positively prehistoric-looking trees.  There are some babies growing up as well, which will afford you a close-up look at the doubly-compound leave and remarkably fat twigs.
        Within Ann Arbor itself are a handful of landmark specimens, including one growing in front of the University of Michigan President's house on South University, another directly in front of Hill Auditorium and others lining the west side of 5th Ave south of William. If you ever at Fingerle's, take a short walk Madison towards Packard for a nice specimen. Whenever I'm stuck at the intersection of Geddes and Washtenaw, I like to admire the attractive small collection on the southeast corner property. And then there is a spectacular grouping along both sides of Cherokee St in Burns Park. I consider it one of Arbor Forestry's greatest creations. Another nice planting is along Waldenwood near Tremont. Finally you might notice that University had planted them to nice effect near the northeast corner of Washtenaw and Glen.
        There are only three species of coffeetree in the world. Coffeetree was given its name because the black hard seeds vaguely resemble coffeebeans --  close enough such that early European settlers used them as a coffee substitute. Unfortunately they are caffeine-free and poisonous if not baked for three hours. Early settlers scrapped their use when real coffee became available.  
        I knew a naturalist who used one of the hard seeds as a substitute for the more traditional diamond in a wedding ring. It rotted and fell out after a few years, and the couple didn't last much longer.
        One can also imagine the seeds being used as game pieces. It is likely this is why aboriginal human populations seem to have spread the tree north of its otherwise 'natural' range. Researchers have found that outlying populations of coffeetree in Wisconsin correlate with the location of native American settlements.
        Kentucky coffeetree was once the state tree of Kentucky, but a well-organized bi-partisan group of tulip-tree fanciers had the coffeetree overthrown in 1994 after 40 years of controversy. A local newspaper reported that at the height of the debate, the paper received more mail on the issue than anything else at the time, including Watergate, strip-mining and inflation.
        It is depressing that so many good trees have been removed from the list of things we can plant in our area. Elms are out, as are ashes, and our dependence on maples is getting out-of hand. Kentucky coffeetree is a terrific alternative. It's not the easiest plant to find in nurseries as relatively few people know and request it. We can hope that that will change.

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