The Kentucky coffee-tree is native to the eastern parts of North America. It is fairly rare in the wild, usually appearing as single trees in mixed forest. It is a remarkable sight, with strong limbs and large doubly pinnate compound leaves made up of small leaflets. The European pioneers are said to have used the roasted beans as a coffee substitute, although they are poisonous and unpleasant to the taste, at least when fresh.
The Kentucky coffee-tree comes into leaf late, and leaf fall is early. For more than half the year it looks dead, thus the Greek word Gymnocladus, meaning bare branched, in its scientific name. The French-speaking people of southern Canada call the tree chicot, dead tree, apparently for the same reason. In Finland the Kentucky coffee-tree doesn’t burst into life until late June, around Midsummer, when the weather has warmed properly. The short cool summers here seem to be a limiting factor to its success, as it fails to prepare in time for the onset of winter, and the fresh shoots are repeatedly frozen, especially on young plants. Hardiness seems to improve slightly after they reach heights of about 2 metres or more.