By: Jim Earnest
More than fifty-percent of the 300 acre Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Gardens is covered by naturally planted woodlands. Along with the elm, hackberry, walnut, ash, Osage Orange and many others is my favorite tree (one of them anyway), the Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioica). While it is not common here in the Arboretum, or in any other forest, there are several coffee trees along our mulched woodland paths, one or two with tree markers. In mid-January Ken O’Dell and I strolled along the path in the Marder Woodland Garden and spotted four Coffeetrees of varying sizes one of which had a tree marker. I would encourage you to explore our woodlands and look for these special trees. They prefer to be near the edge of the woodlands, growing there with less competition. The Coffeetree tends to grow in small clusters as a result of root sprouting. My home golf course has a very nice grove of 30 or so Coffeetrees, no doubt due to root sprouting. I have never seen fruit on any of the trees so it is likely they are all males arising from the roots of other male trees.
The Kentucky Coffeetree is native in Kansas and Missouri, as well as every other state in Eastern America except for Florida and Louisiana. It is not very common in any of them, however. There are only two other species in the Gymnocladus genus, and both are native to Asia. The scientific name Gymnocladus dioica comes from the Greek gumnos (naked) and klados (branch) referring to the large coarse branches with no twigs after the rachis and petiole of the bipinnately compound leaves have fallen. Dioica (or dioicus), meaning the tree is dioecious – that is, male and female flowers are borne on separate trees. The Kentucky Coffeetree is a member of the pea or legume (Fabaceae) family.
The alternate leaves of the Kentucky Coffeetree are bipinnately-compound. The leaflets are arranged like a feather along a central rachis that is red in color. While the individual leaflets are less than 2 inches long, the entire leaf assembly of the Coffeetree is the largest of any North American tree, often attaining a length of 3 feet. They are among the last leaves to emerge in the spring allowing sunlight to reach the emerging vegetation below. The new leaves are an attractive pink-bronze color and by summer they become a dark bluish-green. Fall color is yellow, and contrasts nicely with the red color of the central rachises that remain on the tree for a while after the leaves have fallen. Positive identification of trees in the winter is often difficult. Spotting these long rachises on the ground below, however, confirms you are standing under a Kentucky Coffeetree.
The Coffeetree grows about 10-14 feet in 10 years, ultimately becoming to 60-80 feet tall with an open irregular oval crown. Its bark is rugged and rough with scaly ridges curling outward along the edges creating a very unique bark pattern.
Flowers on the Kentucky Coffeetree occur in long terminal clusters, and the females are mildly fragrant. The panicles of the male flowers are about 3 inches in length, and the females 12 inches long. They are not particularly conspicuous, as they get lost amongst the new foliage. Female flowers give rise to the fruit. The large leathery seedpods are harder, shorter and straighter than the pods of the honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos) and create interest as they persist on the tree through winter. Inside the pods are very hard, dark brown, marble-sized seeds surrounded by a gooey pulp. Native Americans cooked these seeds to make a coffee-like drink. Although drinkable, early settlers quickly realized it was a poor substitute for the real thing. It is from this that the common name “coffee tree” was derived. The seeds of the Coffeetree are toxic when consumed without roasting. Wildlife must sense this, or they avoid the hard seed coat, as none seem to feast on them. Livestock have died from consuming the seeds. Native Americans put large quantities of the seeds in streams, lakes and ponds to stun or kill fish.
Unfortunately, the Kentucky Coffeetree is under-utilized in the landscape industry. It has no serious disease or insect problems. With its bold form, contorted branching, large handsome leaves, interesting bark and fruit it has ornamental value in all seasons. There is a stake marker at the foot of a very nice, young Coffeetree that was planted by humans in Stous Promenade. Check it out, and if you have plenty of room you should also consider planting my favorite tree in your yard.
Volunteer Spotlight: Ken O’Dell & Jim Earnest
Part of what makes the Arboretum such a special place is its commitment to educate others.Our mission statement reads, “The Overland Park Arboretum & Botanical Gardens exists for the advancement of environmental education, recreation, and the appreciation of nature, and to provide both a cultural center and a nature preserve for the community.” Here at the Arboretum, we are fortunate to have many intelligent volunteers who are willing to share their knowledge to help us achieve our mission statement.
This month, we are featuring two gentlemen you often see together…trekking through the woods with clipboards, taking pictures and making notes. Ken O’Dell and Jim Earnest spend countless hours identifying, tagging and researching trees, shrubs and other flora. They are very passionate when it comes to trees and nature and selflessly give their time to educate others.
Last year they held several classes indoors as well as had hikes where visitors were able to observe growing patterns, bark appearance, leaf shape and flowers/fruit of numerous trees. They have even been known to meet science students at the Arboretum to help them better understand their research and answer questions. They are hosting a seed sharing event on Feb. 21st where guests can collect seeds on various species of trees, shrubs, wildflowers, vines and grasses; They have also scheduled a Woodland Trails hike on March 28th where guests will get to see most of the 50 species of trees that grow naturally at the Arboretum. Their powerpoint presentations and tours are phenomenal and always draw huge crowds.
Ken O’Dell is one of our most tenured volunteers; he has been serving the Arboretum for 17 years and is known as “The Tree Meister”. Ken was born in Alberta, Canada and moved to Kansas at the age of 7. His love of nature started as early as age 13, when he started working in a greenhouse in Missouri. After his return from four years in the Navy following high school, he started growing plants and never stopped. He owned a large retail nursery and a small wholesale growing nursery where he grew starter plants such as tree seedlings and shrubs and perennials from seeds and cuttings. He retired in 1980 and moved back to Kansas to be with the love of his life.
Ken has three children, two step children and 11 grandkids and loves them all. He says his greatest pleasure is “to see those grandkids growing up and making their way in the world.” He proudly boasts about his oldest grandson graduating from the University of Iowa and having a successful career in the advertising business in Chicago and about his oldest granddaughter, who just graduated from KU with a 4.0 and is now working for the University. He states, “she no doubt will be President of the University in a couple of years.” It is obvious that Ken adores his entire family. When asked what makes him most happy he says “seeing his grandchildren grow up and fit into the American system and be an important part of this great country of ours.” Ken would like to see the Arboretum and its pool of volunteers continue to grow. He recognizes how fortunate we are to live in such a great community where its people truly care.
Jim Earnest is our other tree expert whose nickname is “The Tree Doctor”. He has served on the Education Committee the entire three years he has been an Arboretum volunteer. Jim was born and raised in Oklahoma City and attended Oklahoma State University. After college he went to Baylor Medical School in Houston, TX, followed by 2 years at Vanderbilt University Hospital and then a two year stint in the USAF. His three year cardiology training was completed in Denver, CO at the University of Colorado Medical Center in 1973. After completion of his medical training, he and his wife Pam moved to Kansas City where he practiced as a cardiologist for the next 26 years. They have three children and seven grandchildren – all of which they get to see often.
About a year prior to retiring, Jim and Pam purchased a farm south of Louisburg, built a home on the land and began planting. Jim planted over 200 trees on their farm, some from seed, but admits, even though he loved trees, he wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about the science of them. Jim and Pam later sold the farm but was asked by the new owner years later, to install tree markers; Jim was able to do this task, with Ken’s help and said it was “great to see how the trees had grown- they were beautiful.” Jim states that his “big break” came when the Education Committee suggested he contact Ken to help develop educational programs like tours, presentations, etc. for the Arboretum. He notes he and Ken botanize regularly and states “he has been a terrific mentor and teacher for me.” Jim says that learning about, looking at and photographing trees has fully replaced his previous hobby of golf…and boy aren’t we glad!
We are so lucky to have these two gentlemen contribute their expertise. Their passion and knowledge are valuable assets and one of the reasons our educational programs are so well received. Their classes are full of insightful data and always get great reviews. Thank you Ken and Jim for all you do to enhance the Arboretum and our entire community.