True North™ Kentucky Coffeetree

Winter is a great time to plan future plantings, and adding shade trees to the garden is something that should be considered carefully. We have many wonderful choices here in Minnesota, but it is important to not overplant any one species, as we’ve learned with American elms and ash trees. To protect your tree canopy over the long haul, it’s best to have a mix of large shade trees in the landscape.

Kentucky coffeetree may not be the first choice of consumers planting a tree, though it is often recommended by urban foresters. Fall color, bright flowers or fall berries are all attributes that make other tree choices more attractive initially.

Until recently, consumers could only choose the species Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus). But breeders now are bringing newer and improved cultivars to the market.

True North is from the University of Minnesota woody landscape breeding program and was selected in 1972, so it has been put through its paces when it comes to testing. It was developed by Stan Hokanson and Steve McNamara.

True North Kentucky coffeetreeGymnocladus dioicus is a member of the Fabaceae family, the legume family. It is native to the Midwest and the upper South of North America.

This stately tree reaches a mature height of 50 to 70 feet and spreads to 20 to 30 feet. The upright oval shape will remind you of the American elm. This upright habit and tolerance of tough conditions, including cold, heat, drought and many soil types (including alkaline soils), makes it perfect for urban situations. Consider it for your boulevard.

It is moderately fast growing and long lived. This is a healthy tree with few issues with pests or diseases and is hardy to USDA Zone 4. True North has a superior branching architecture compared to the straight species.

A Seedless Kentucky Coffeetree

True North is a male selection, meaning it does not produce any seeds, an important factor when selecting a long-term tree for your landscape. If you choose the straight species, you should know that it can produce seed. The seed is long, wide and dark colored. Fun fact: the seed may be roasted and used as a substitute for coffee beans . . . but, unroasted pods and seeds are toxic. If you have kids, I recommend you choose True North instead.

The leaves of the Kentucky coffeetree are large and bi-pinnately compound. This is a technical description for a leaf that is divided into smaller leaflets, with those leaflets arranged on each side of the leaf’s central stalk. Each leaf can be easily 2 to 3 feet long with more than 40 leaflets. The foliage is dark green throughout the summer and turns a lovely shade of yellow in autumn.

The bark is scaly and looks dramatic in the winter months.

When you head to the nursery to buy a Kentucky coffeetree, be prepared for a young tree that has a bit of an ugly duckling look. Because of those bi-pinnate leaves, it can look poorly branched when young and many small trees have little branching. This tree takes some time to develop in the landscape. As it gets larger each year, you will see the branching develop. Please have patience and you will be well rewarded.

True North is propagated via budding or grafting in the nursery. It is becoming more readily available at local nurseries.

This article by Debbie Lonnee originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Northern Gardener. She works in the horticulture industry and gardens in South St. Paul.

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  1. Elizabeth Cobb on January 9, 2022 at 5:50 pm

    As St Paul is needing to plant many new boulevard trees, I wonder if this is something that should be considered.
    I assume that MSHS and St Paul do coordinate on such topics

    • Mary Lahr Schier on January 10, 2022 at 9:27 pm

      St. Paul has its own city forestry department. Kentucky coffeetrees are among the trees they are planting and recommending.

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