Winter Botany Study, Part 5a: Kentucky Coffeetree

What a wonderful find in Albuquerque! While waiting for Roy to visit his doctor, Luna and I set off on a neighborhood walk within sight of the Balloon Fiesta park. We watched as 6 hot air balloons played in the early morning air currents, which caused me to look up. And there, right next to the sidewalk was a peculiar looking tree loaded with seed pods. I knew immediately the pods belonged to the legume family, but they were bigger than any I’d seen before. Big, big pods, clattering in the morning breeze, and luckily a handful within reach. So curious about this peculiar somewhat stumpy looking tree with grey bark flaking away from the main trunk like fat book pages, I grabbed half a dozen while Luna looked bored. But I was anything but bored. Time to geek out!

Excited to get home with my discovery, I immediately began researching answers to my questions, and the inevitable follow-up questions that led me down many rabbit trails.

The most important thing I learned, after confirming the tree was a native Kentucky Coffeetree, was that the pods and seeds (and leaves, when present) are toxic! So no taste testing. But wait …. early settlers in the Appalachian Mountains used to roast the seeds and brew a chicory flavored coffee. Fortunate for them the roasting process neutralizes the cytisine toxin. (More fortunate that real coffee beans finally made it to North America.)

But wait ……. Native Americans used the pulp inside the pods to treat insanity. And …… Native Americans brewed a tea from the leaves and pulp that was used as a laxative. And ….. cattle have been known to die after drinking from water holes with fallen leaves and pods.

Oh my gosh, golly goodness!

Note to self: Whether it was a coincidence or not that I experienced an “exquisitely” painful stomach ache after my day of seed pod dissection, remember to use gloves when handling the pods and seeds next time!

Work in Progress (WIP) showing initial watercolor pencil color buildup

Interesting Stuff

Now for a bit of Paleobotany: The Kentucky coffeetree is considered an example of evolutionary anachronism (a new term to me which I explain below). Because the tough, leathery seed pods are too difficult for many animals to chew through (in addition to being poisonous) and they are too heavy for either wind or water dispersal, paleobotanists believe the tree leaves and seed pods may have been browsed upon by now-extinct mammalian megafauna. While munching, they would’ve nicked the seeds with their large teeth, breaking the very hard seed coat, aiding in germination. If this was the case, the prehistoric range of the Kentucky coffeetree may have been much larger than it was in historical times. Today, in the wild (and in the absence of large herbivores), the tree only grows well in wetlands where seed pods can rot and the soaked seeds can germinate.

WIP …. adding more and more layers of color

Evolutionary anachronism refers to attributes of species living today that are best explained as a result of having been favorably selected in the past due to coevolution with other biological species that have since become extinct. So the Kentucky coffeetree, seed pods and all, coevolved with large prehistoric herbivores. When those herbivores became extinct, the natural attributes of the coffeetree appear as unexplained energy investments by the coffeetree, with no apparent benefit to the survival of this species. Hmmmmmm! Seems to make sense. I’m going to investigate further by reading The Ghosts of Evolution (2000) by Connie C. Barlow, who named evolutionary anachronism as a concept in evolutionary biology. Fascinating stuff!

Seed pods watercolor pencil painting complete

After thoroughly enjoying the research (and there’s so much more I discovered about this tree species), I really enjoyed recreating watercolor pencil renditions of the beautiful seedpods, inside and out, and the seeds, inside and out). And after whacking a few seeds with a hammer (not too hard lest the innards become yellow dust) I’m going to germinate a few and grow myself a Kentucky coffeetree!

For more about the Kentucky coffeetree, read the notes included in my journal page. Please let me know if you enjoyed this kind of information -dense post, and would like to see more. Meanwhile, stay tuned for updates on my germination attempts. If successful, there should be seedlings in 2-4 weeks.

Final journal page with dissected pod and seed


  1. peacefulbird says:

    Oh, Barb… enjoy is not a strong enough word for my reaction to this type of information-dense and art-rich post! It’s like chocolate decadence and fresh roasted coffee after a long time tent-camping in the woods! I so admire your talent, with words, with information selections, and with art. Your pods, for example… showing the start and then the finished works makes my appreciation for the latter that much greater. Keep this up… it feeds me well!!!! And I hope the researchers/textbook writers/publishers find you! Waiting for the 3 week germination report! Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow, Robin! Again, you’ve blown me away with your comments, but most especially your appreciation of this post. We are of like minds in our search of knowledge. I hope some day to share journaling experiences with you, in person! How fun that would be. I’m excited and hopeful about a mini forest of Kentucky coffeetrees. Thanks for reading this very long post, top to bottom.


      1. peacefulbird says:

        Yes! That would be grand. I have a hankering to take a road trip to AZ, so maybe it could be on your turf. Or, you’re welcome to come sample island life in the NW!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Helene Engle says:

    Love this! I can just hear the rattle!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t get that castanet clacking out of my head! Thanks Helene! And hello!


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