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New Economies for Anachronistic Fruit (the jawbreaker syndrome)
You can find them along the streets of Chicago’s north side: fat, brown bean pods. This is the Kentucky Coffeetree, Gymnocladus dioicus.
Who on Earth eats such fruit? Plants produce pods and other fruit as gastronomic lures, promising of flavor and nutrition to an animal who will eat them, carry them, and pass them out in a new location; plant and animals are essential partners and mutualists within an ecology of needs. But the pods of the Kentucky Coffeetree would seem to lack alimentary appeal. Not only are they very large and tough, but “seeds and pulp are poisonous and are toxic to livestock, humans, and pets... Cattle have reportedly died after drinking from pools of water contaminated by fallen leaves and seeds from the tree..."
A seemingly contrary fruit, its qualities might be for wilder tastes: In 1982 biologists Dan Janzen and Paul Martin proposed that such fruits were in fact ecological anachronisms whose natural partners in eating and dispersing them were now extinct. The absurdly tough seeds of the Coffeetree make adaptive, evolutionary sense as part of a plant’s “megafaunal dispersal syndrome” - they must be strong enough to withstand the crushing bite of a mastodon or similar behemoth. The equivalent of candy jawbreakers, the Coffeetree seeds needed to be something that an giant animal wanted to eat, but nothing that its teeth could really ever break into.
Coming across thousands of Coffeetree pods and seeds littering the streets today begs existential questions for the tree: What new form of mutualistic exchange might fill the void of extinct megafauna in the dense urban environs in which the Coffeetree is found today? One option is to cater to the only large mammals left, Homo sapien.
The gumball stand:
A modest proposal for a new economo-ecology. Filled with evolution’s original jawbreakers, the machine provides a novel dispersal syndrome for the Coffeetree’s seeds. Adaptive to contemporary conditions, it prioritizes eye appeal, monetary exchange, and games of chance - a prosthetic intervention for a plant that hasn’t managed to quite keep up with the times.
What can these seeds offer you in return? Early European colonists supposedly roasted the pods, neutralizing their poisonous alkaloids and grinding the seeds up to make a coffee substitute. Various Native American tribes are reported to have throw piles of pods into ponds to stupefy and harvest fish, pulverized the root bark into snuff to revive comatose patients or as an enema that was an “infallible remedy for constipation.” With the seeds you can grow a Coffeetree that - like so many plants - is a veritable pharmacopia barely explored. Then there are the aesthetic properties of the tree itself: its spring leaves “a striking pink-bronze color, turning to a dark bluish green above in summer. Fall color is often a golden yellow,” while in the winter, “decorative clusters of the large pods rattling in the wind make for an exceptional winter ornamental.”
Drought resistant and tolerant to pollution as well as hardy in clay and poor soils, the Coffeetree is a natural choice for urban parks and have been used as bio-remediators of old mine waste lands as well. A tree of and for the Anthropocene.
PDF of booklet from Sector 2337 exhibition Imperceptibly and Slowly Opening
an essay on this project in Why Look At Plants
an entry about this tree in becoming-Botanicals