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Kevin Doyle

Kentucky Coffee-tree (Gymnocladus dioicus)

Life history

Species overview

Kentucky Coffee-tree (Gymnocladus dioicus), a Wisconsin Special Concern plant, is found in rich alluvial or mesic forests. Blooming occurs throughout June; fruiting occurs early July through early September. This species can be identified year-round.

Synonyms: Guilandina dioica


  • Distinguishing characteristics: Leaves very large, bipinnately compound with leaflets mostly 1.5 to 4 cm wide; fruit an oblong, flattened pod with large, hard seeds in a sticky pulp; twigs stout and unarmed.
  • Flower characteristics: Spike-like flower heads 6 to 20 cm long, open, growing from the end of the branches; flowers numerous, greenish-white, star-shaped, and covered with tiny soft hairs; petals 8 to 10 mm long, oblong or inversely lance-shaped.
  • Fruit characteristics: Seed pods oblong, flattened, 8 to 25 cm long and 3 to 5 cm wide; seeds 10 to 15 mm long, bean-shaped, thick and hard, in a sticky pulp when fresh.
  • Leaf characteristics: Bipinnately compound leaves grow to nearly 1 m in length (look back to woody twig and bud at base of stout petiole to determine length of leaf), with many pairs of sharply pointed, egg-shaped 3 to 8 cm x 1.5 to 4 cm leaflets.


  • Blooming phenology: throughout June
  • Fruiting phenology: early July through early September
  • Optimum time to identify: This species can be identified year-round


  • Growth form: Tree
  • Vegetative reproduction:
  • Life cycle: Perennial
  • Comments: Associated Species: Fraxinus pennsylvanica, F. americana, Tilia americana, Acer saccharum, Juglans nigra, Celtis occidentalis, Carya cordiformis, Betula nigra.

State status

Status and Natural Heritage Inventory documented occurrences in Wisconsin

The table below provides information about the protected status - state and federal - and the rank (S and G Ranks) for Kentucky Coffee-tree (Gymnocladus dioicus). See the Working List Key for more information about abbreviations. Counties shaded blue have documented occurrences for this species in the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Inventory database. The map is provided as a general reference of where this species has been found to date and is not meant as a range map.

Documented locations of Gymnocladus dioicus in the Natural Heritage Inventory Database as of July 2015.

Summary Information
State StatusSC
Federal Status in Wisconsinnone
State RankS2
Global RankG5
Tracked by NHIY

Habitats and landscapes

The Natural Heritage Inventory has developed scores indicating the degree to which each of Wisconsin's rare plant species is associated with a particular natural community or ecological landscape. This information is similar to that found in the Wildlife Action Plan for animals. As this is a work in progress, we welcome your suggestions and feedback.

General habitat information

  • Habitat description: Found in rich alluvial or mesic forests.
  • Soils: Rich, moist soils.

Natural communities

This table lists the natural communities that are associated with Kentucky Coffee-tree. Scores for natural community associations are: "significant" association (score=3), "moderate association" (score=2) or the species can be present but is only weakly associated with the community (score=1).

Natural communities score
Floodplain Forest 3
Southern Mesic Forest 2

Ecological landscapes

This table lists the ecological landscape association scores for Kentucky Coffee-tree. The scores (3=High, 2=Moderate, 1=Low, 0=None) also correspond to the map.

Map of the Ecological Landscapes of Wisconsin.

Species guidance

The Endangered Resources Program has developed avoidance measures and management guidelines for plants on the Natural Heritage Working List. These are a work in progress, and we welcome your suggestions and feedback. Sources used in developing this information can be found here.

Avoidance measures

These are specific actions designed to avoid "take" (mortality) of this species.

  • Avoid locating landings, staging areas, or access routes on or near known populations.
  • Avoid broadcast spraying of herbicides; use care with spot spraying.
  • Avoid known individual plant locations and conduct operations elsewhere when they are least likely to cause damage. Ideally, this would involve frozen, snow-covered ground. However, in areas of the state where frozen conditions are unreliable, very dry soils late in the growing season might be the best available alternative. Consult with a biologist, if needed.

Management guidance

Management guidelines are additional considerations that may help maintain or enhance habitat for this species

  • Minimize disturbance to hydrology, including soil disturbance from rutting.
  • Although maintaining high overall forest canopy is important, silvicultural techniques which open small gaps in the canopy may be beneficial to this species.


Kentucky Coffee-tree Photo.

The pod (foreground) and trunk (background) of Kentucky coffee-tree

Photo by Kevin Doyle, Wisconsin DNR.

Kentucky Coffee-tree Photo.

Photo by Kevin Doyle, Wisconsin DNR.

Kentucky Coffee-tree Photo.

Photo © Paul Wray,

Kentucky Coffee-tree Photo.

Photo © Robert Videki,

Kentucky Coffee-tree Photo.

Photo © Paul Wray,

Support for Wisconsin's rare plant information has been provided by the Division of Forestry, the Endangered Resources Fund and the Wisconsin Rare Plant Preservation Fund. To donate, visit the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin [exit DNR].

Last revised: Wednesday, May 05, 2021
Southwest Savanna Southern Lake Michigan Coastal Western Coulees and Ridges Southeast Glacial Plains Central Sand Hills Central Lake Michigan Coastal Central Sand Plains Northern Lake Michigan Coastal Northern Lake Michigan Coastal Northeast Sands Western Prairie North Central Forest Northern Highlands Northwest Lowlands Northwest Sands Northwest Lowlands Superior Coastal Plains Forest Transition