Mark Kepler's Newspaper Columns



Rochester Sentinel Article

Article for April 3, 2015

Persimmon and Kentucky Coffeetrees


I am familiar with a persimmon tree that is over 80 years old.  Persimmon trees are found infrequently in Northern Indiana but mostly in the Southern third of the state.  I took some interest in a persimmon article, written by mostly Purdue staff, in the Winter 2014 edition of The Woodland Steward magazine. The article points out that “Mitchell, Indiana has a persimmon festival emphasizing the fine eating qualities of the ripened fruit. It should be noted that un-ripened fruit is highly astringent.”  Astringent, is a fancy word that means it will pucker you up. Eating an unripe persimmon feels like there is a film inside of your mouth that you have a difficult time removing.  Any persimmon, no matter how ripe it looks, should not be picked from the tree. You want the soft, bright orange ones that are on the ground.


The article looks at the tree from a wood stand point.  I find it interesting that there are about three times more cubic feet of persimmon trees in Indiana than dogwood.  Dogwoods are smaller trees but more widespread in the state. They also like partial shade and are found on the edge of woods which limits their distribution.   The article also compared the total volume, in Indiana, of Kentucky Coffeetree to the persimmon. The Kentucky Coffeetree volume is only about 17% of that of the persimmon tree.


I have in my woods, a good-sized Kentucky Coffeetree and also several small ones growing in a fencerow.  This tree species cannot stand shade and accordingly, my large tree is on the south edge of the woods. One of the authors of the article, the Purdue Extension Forester, has seen my tree. I didn’t know I even had it until another forester pointed it out. This tree has a range of most of Indiana and only parts of Kentucky.  Frankly it should be called the Indiana Coffeetree. 


The forester pointed out that there is not much of a market for this tree due to its limited numbers, but it is used by some for hand-turned bowls and relatively small runs of furniture, cabinets, and interior millwork. The wood has a coarse, reddish grain pattern. The tree produces large, tough pods around seven inches long with 6-10 seeds in it.  These seeds can be roasted and used as a poor coffee substitute.  The raw seeds contain a poisonous alkaloid, so they need to be heated or roasted to destroy the toxin. So this tree does not belong in a livestock pasture. It is theorized that the Kentucky Coffeetree was more predominate prior to the last ice age when the big woolly’s roamed the earth eating the pods, slightly digesting the seeds and making them easy to germinate.


Just like there are people that grow heritage or old varieties of seldom-used plant breeds and livestock, it is also good to have some unusual tree species around. In my neighborhood, there is also a yellow wood tree that is a hard-to-find species. But, like the persimmon, it was planted by humans and is not a natural occurrence. Many people cherish having rare items like books, guns, and arrowheads.   I would not call a coffeetree rare, but I sure do like having it.  I wonder if its ancestors were part of a mammoth’s meal. 


Mark Kepler

Purdue Cooperative Extension Service-Fulton County

1009 West Third Street                                                                                                                                   

Rochester, IN  46975                  574 223-3397                        

By Patricia D Drudge, Secretary
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