Kentucky Coffeetree: Features of Growing a Tree in Your Garden

Gymnocladus dioicus Gardening

(Gymnocladus dioicus)

The large pinnate leaves and bizarre branches of the antler tree have a strong aura. The tree is one of the beneficiaries of climate change.


The antler tree belongs to a genus of four dioecious, deciduous woody plants that are native to East Asia and North America. Gymnocladus dioicus originates from the north-east of America and is found along the entire east coast from Canada to the USA, preferably in floodplains and riparian areas. The antler tree is also often planted as a street and avenue tree.

Kentucky coffeetree

Growth: How fast Kentucky Coffeetree Grows

The deciduous tree grows slowly – about 25 centimetres per year – to a height of 20 metres. Initially, the crown of Gymnocladus dioicus is ovoid and sparsely branched, then it spreads out to a width of up to 15 metres and looks like the antlers of a capital twelve-ender. The initially smooth bark of the relatively short trunk is rough at a later age and marked by a strong, striking grey to anthracite-coloured bark. The trunk often shows twisted growth. The root develops heart-shaped and reaches deep into the soil. Please take care when working the soil: injuries lead to runner formation. The wood of the antler tree was once used by the indigenous people for canoes, today it is popular for posts and furniture.

Leaves: Colour and Length

The large, bipinnate leaves of Gymnocladus dioicus are up to one metre long and sprout very late. Each leaflet is divided into 8 to 14 ovate dark green leaflets that are finely hairy on top. The underside shimmers into bluish. The leaves are reddish when they emerge late in spring and turn golden yellow very early in autumn. The red leaf spindles often remain on the twig.

Gymnocladus Dioicus Poisonous

Flowers: When and how often Kentucky Coffeetree Blooms

The small, star-shaped flowers, varying in colour between greenish white and cream, are arranged in large panicles. The sweet-smelling female panicles are up to 30 centimetres long, the male ones around ten centimetres. Both appear in early summer and only form when it is sufficiently warm. The flowers of the antler tree contain a lot of nectar – similar to those of the closely related robinia. They are therefore very popular with bees and beekeepers.

Fruits: Are the Seeds of Gymnocladus Dioicus Poisonous?

The female flowers ripen into pods that are 25 centimetres long and hang downwards. Caution: The seeds of Gymnocladus dioicus are poisonous! Nevertheless, American settlers used them as a coffee bean substitute – but only roasted! Kentucky coffee tree is therefore another name. “Shot-fruit tree” also refers to the hard seeds that can be used for shooting – that is, for playing marbles.

How fast Kentucky Coffeetree Grows

Location: How to Choose a Place to Plant a Tree

Gymnocladus dioicus likes a full-sun location, dry air is well tolerated, as is an urban climate. A wind-protected growing site is advantageous. Once established, the tree is frost hardy.

Soil: How to Choose a Soil for a Tree

Gymnocladus dioicus has demands! The soil should be deep, nutritious and moist – but never waterlogged. The alluvial tree tolerates short periods of flooding. The pH value should be in the neutral to alkaline range.

Planting the Staghorn Tree

The planting hole for the roots of the staghorn tree must be deep; sand should be added to eliminate waterlogging.

Care: Where to be Alert?

Be careful when cultivating the soil so that Gymnocladus dioicus does not sprout any runners!

Gymnocladus dioicus

Pruning: Do I have to cut the tree?

It is best to leave the shears in so that the picturesque growth of the antler tree can develop.

Use in the garden

The antler tree is best used as a solitary. As a patio tree, it only casts shade in summer – the time when Gymnocladus dioicus is most needed.

Propagating the antler tree

The very hard seeds of the antler tree are sown in autumn; they germinate better if they are scratched or swollen and stratified beforehand. Root cuttings of Gymnocladus dioicus can also be obtained in winter.

Diseases and pests

The staghorn tree is not affected by any serious plant diseases.

Jonathan Harvey
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