Nearly a century and a half old, this Kentucky coffeetree was one of the first plants grown from seed at the Arnold Arboretum.
The seeds for many of the trees in the Arboretum’s landscape were collected on the other side of the world by Arboretum scientists. But for every tree grown from a seed collected on a remote mountainside in China, there is a tree grown from plant material collected much closer to home. This Kentucky coffeetree, added to the Arboretum’s collection in 1873 along with two of its siblings, is one such plant, collected by an amateur American botanist in Liberty, Virginia.
When Arboretum founding director Charles Sprague Sargent began planning for the Arboretum, he corresponded with botanists at botanic gardens and research facilities around the world to gather plants. He received plant material from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in the United Kingdom, the Garden of Plants in France, and the Imperial Botanic Garden at Saint Petersburg in the Russian Empire. These contributions from large institutions played a crucial role in supplying material to form the collections.
But the bedrock foundation of the collection came from botanists and citizen scientists in North America. By 1874, just two years after the establishment of the Arboretum, Sargent was corresponding with and receiving seeds from fourteen botanists, farmers, and estate owners across the United States.
One of these was Allen Hiram Curtiss. Initially groomed for public office by his father Gaston, Allen Curtiss inherited a love of botanizing from his mother, Floretta, a lifelong enthusiast who amassed an impressive collection of dried algae specimens. Together, mother and son braved the heat and humidity of Florida’s east coast as they traveled its rivers, swamps, beaches, and keys in search of botanical specimens.
During his career, Allen Curtiss also corresponded with Asa Gray, the famed Harvard botanist, for several decades, exchanging seed, herbarium specimens, and ideas. Curtiss lived and worked in Virginia and Florida, where he collected specimens (including the tree and its siblings) and sent them to gardens around the world. Through careful and dedicated study, Curtiss established himself as a vital source of information on the flora of the Eastern Gulf Coast of the United States. Today, herbaria around the world hold specimens he provided.
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About Our Collection
Among the three sibling specimens received by Sargent, this tree is the lone survivor. In 1985, it suffered major crown damage during Hurricane Gloria, but persisted. Accession 324*A was uprooted by Hurricane Carol (1954), and accession 324*C met its fate during the devastating hurricane of 1938.
Despite its wide native range through the Midwest and upper South, Kentucky coffeetree is among the rarest forest trees in the United States, preferring to grow among sheltered bottom lands with rich soils. Today, it is a common sight among university campuses, public parks, and botanical gardens.
The common name of this tree is derived from the attempts by early settlers in Kentucky and Tennessee to use the beans as a coffee substitute. This largely unsuccessful endeavor was abandoned as soon as coffee became readily available in the region.
The large seeds of Kentucky coffeetree were once consumed and spread by the large plant-eating mammals that have since gone extinct in North America. Without the means for adequate seed dispersal, these trees have persisted through their ability to reproduce asexually by sprouting from their roots.
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