The Kentucky coffee tree and friends

There are at least a handful of Kentucky coffee trees growing in our neck of the woods. Here’s one:

Kentucky coffee tree, Gymnocladus dioicus

I particularly love looking at trees in the winter to really see the shape of their canopy, any residual leaves, fruit, and the like. Some trees have the most graceful shapes, beautifully symmetric, with limbs that taper off into finer and finer branching. There’s nothing like that in our woods, but I still enjoy the lurching, misshapen, half-dead trees that populate our reject forest.*

(*Dear forest, I didn’t mean it. I love you, honest.)

And the Kentucky coffee tree is one of my favorites. I’ve seen some nice specimens in landscape settings, like on the U of M’s St. Paul campus, but out in the wild they look scraggly. Everything about them is a little disheveled. The bark flakes up in strips — you can see a bit of that in the above photo — and the odd pod and rachis persist in funny angles. (The rachis is like a stem that bears the tree’s leaflets, which are compounded to form a single leaf. These are the shorter, finest protrusions in the branches you see in the above picture.) A fun story about the Kentucky coffee tree: it is so named because early European settlers in the east supposedly used the seeds of the tree as a substitute for coffee beans. This wasn’t a very good idea because the beans are toxic.

I was just saying to my dad today that there seems to be an incredible number of trees with something wrong with them in our woods. I saw bacterial wetwood; huge, dead limbs littered with woodpeckers’ holes, half-rotted trunks; parasitic plants wrapped around host trees. Below is the decaying remains of one tree.

And a woodpecker domicile:

Get a load of this vine riding this poor little tree’s coattails.

Someone made their home in the midst of some rather inhospitable-looking thorny shoots:

Something softer to round it out:

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