Not Technically Coffee, But: The Kentucky Coffeetree


A homegrown coffeetree sapling, but will it be home-roasted, too? [Photograph: Gilles Douaire on Flickr]

Kentucky's not all juleps, derbies, and bluegrass: It's also the home to a little corner of the not-quite-coffee world with a lovely native (sort of) botanical contribution, the Kentucky coffeetree.

Grown in a swath of North America that starts in Canada and extends down to the tree's namesake state, the coffeetree was Kentucky's official plant for nearly 20 years before it was unseated of the honor by the tulip poplar tree. (Come on—a poplar?? How pedestrian, if similarly undercaffeinated.)

A bushy, long-lived tree that is classified as a rare species, the coffeetree is a strange choice both as an ornamental plant and as a coffee substitute. The former is peculiar because the plants drop most of their leaves in the early fall, often remaining bare for upwards of six months out of every year. The latter is suspect because when not fully roasted, the "pods" that grow on the tree's thick branches are toxic.


A coffeetree pod. [Photograph: Benny Mazur on Flickr]

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In times of extreme poverty, however, coffee lovers are often forced to be somewhat intrepid and daring in their substitutions, and this is one of many examples where folks have made do to make brews. Described as making a pungent, bitter brew, the pods are widely considered inferior even to other coffee alternatives like chicory and toasted barley.

Kentucky, a friendly word of advice: Stick to the juleps.