Dear PoPville – DC Planted a Poisonous Tree in Front of my House


“Dear PoPville,

On April 28, 2014, DC planted a new street tree in between the curb and sidewalk in front of my house near H Street. The label on the tree identifies it as a Kentucky Coffeetree. According to the USDA plant guide, Kentucky Coffeetree “leaves, seeds and pulp are poisononous and toxic to livestock, humans, and pets.” The report also notes that “Cattle have reportedly died after drinking from pools of water contaminated by fallen leaves and seeds from the tree.”

I do not want a poisonous and toxic tree in front of my house or in my neighborhood. I have a newborn child and a dog. Many of my neighbors have small children and pets as well. Even with a healthy dose of cynicism towards DC resident services, it still astounds me that DC would plant a poisonous tree.

Additionally, this tree planting is just the latest in a 2 year saga to have a tree planted in front of my house. In Spring 2012, DC dug up a dead tree in the same location and replaced with another tree that was already dead when it was planted. In October 2012, I filed a request via 311 notifying DC that it removed a tree and replaced it with another dead tree. I asked that the new dead tree be replaced. Because I did not receive a response and 311 showed that my request was responded to, I filed a second 311 request in May 2013, again requesting that the new dead tree be replaced. In September 2013, DC finally removed the dead tree during a project to expand tree planting sites along sidewalks. However, DC did not replace the tree until yesterday, and now I learn that the new tree is toxic to humans and pets.

Also of note, there’s a good chance the new tree is dead. It looks like a barren twig stuck in the ground. I am by no means a tree expert, but I would think that if the tree was alive it would at least have some budding leaves (or any sign of life) by late April.

For 2 years I have tried to get DC to plant a tree in front of my house. Now I have a tree that either poses a danger to my and my neighbors’ children and pets or is already dead (or possibly both toxic and dead).

At this point I would gladly pay for a new tree myself, but it is illegal to plant trees on city property and it would likely be difficult to dig up the current tree. I’m curious if anyone else has noticed DC planting poisonous trees or if anyone has any advice on dealing with this issue besides 311 and the ANC rep (both already tried). Thanks!”


77 Comment

  • contact your council member if you choose not to work with 311.

  • Maybe they’re trying to send you a message?

  • I would be sympathetic, but the whole “two year saga” just seems overly dramatic. DC has a budget, they can’t be planting trees for you every month.

    • HA! Ha ha. Is that you, Muriel?

    • austindc

      Well also I learned from Casey Trees that there are really only two windows each year where it’s a good time to pant trees–spring and fall. So waiting is kind of built into the tree-planting game anyway. I remember we had to wait about a year to get Casey Trees to plant our tree for the Riversmart Homes program.

  • I’d say plant your own tree, but based on the Dupont Phantom Planter, I’d say that’s probably also a waste of money. Just go out there and bleach this one to death.

    • pablo .raw

      I think you need a permit from DC arborist in order to plant a tree.

      • The city arborists require permits only to confirm an appropriate species is selected. Often residents may not know a lot about trees and plant very poor species in tree boxes. The city arborists are great and make excellent choices on species selection making DC one of the most heavily “treed” cities in the country. Isn’t that good thing?

  • There are many, many, MANY common plants that are poisonous, decorating your tabletops, desktops, and countertops, your gardens, lawns, and patios, and our parks, treeboxes, and forests.

  • If it was the tree box in front of my house, I’d chop it down and plant a new one. I seriously doubt the tree police will be watching. I had nothing but weeds in mine for years and finally just took control. No one seems to care.

    • Tree police? No. Self Righteous Popville reader police? Maybe-someone posted on here not too long ago about a homeless man hacking into trees in Logan Circle…

  • Calm down and take a breath. So many plants are poisonous that you walk by every single day and probably have even kept in the house before (poinsettias come to mind). These trees are common in lots of parks and there is no epidemic of people or pets dropping dead from encountering them. This is overblown.

  • The Maples want the sunlight but the Kentucky Coffeetrees ignore their pleas!

  • Good lord. Sounds like the kind of person who enjoys getting bad service at restaurants. It’s the tree box—you could have planted anything you wanted. Try not eating the tree and you should be fine.

  • I think you may be overreacting. I mean this in the kindest way and am not trying to belittle your concerns, which are valid.

    Like many have said, so many plants are toxic. And beyond toxic plants, there so are many other toxins in our day-to-day lives that your loved ones are far more likely to encounter: pesticides, cleaning chemicals, automobile exhaust and other air toxins, to name a few. The Kentucky Coffee tree is very low on the list, and it sounds like an interesting tree to have in the neighborhood to boot.

  • You should contact Casey Trees for help, It always helps to have an advocate.

    • Casey may have planted it. They like the Kentucky Coffee tree, recommend it for planting, and offer a $100 rebate for it if you buy and plant your own.

    • Also, that tree isn’t dead, it just hasn’t broken dormancy yet.

    • It’s very likely that Casey Trees actually planted this. As for the suggestion for go out and buy an oak or a maple: don’t, unless you know the tree box area is sized to support a tree that size decades down the line. Believe it or not, the DC arborists are very careful about planning which tree species are suitable for which location. They don’t just do down the street with a truck full of trees planting them at random.

      • DDOE plants street trees – Casey trees plants in parks, schools, private homes (and always with permission).

        • Pretty sure that Casey Trees planted a couple of trees on my street.

          • Thanks for the allergies Casey Trees!

          • I’ve been volunteering with Casey Trees for a few years and I’ve not seen any tree plantings on streets. Not to say it couldn’t happen – but the website says specifically that DDOE is responsible for street tree plantings.

      • DDOT UFA plants the street trees in DC. DDOE runs a residential property tree planting program and tree rebate program (casey tree is one of the non-profits that administers those programs).

        Young Kentucky Coffeetrees don’t have small twigs and are often thought to be dead. They aren’t and will start to grow once they get out of the dormancy phase (it lasts about 6 months) and get a bit bigger. Here is a another blog post that describes that:

        Kentucky coffeetrees are good street trees because they aren’t invasive, are medium canopy, and are native.

        As for the poison– don’t let your baby eat a ton of the seeds. Also, only the female trees produce the seeds. The tree in your front yard is probably not female.

  • 1) A google search shows that the tree doesn’t bud until very late Spring: “Even when spring comes, it gives no apparent recognition of light and warmth until nearly every other tree is in full leaf.”

    2) It looks like the pods are extremely durable and hard to break through, eat, chew, or get to the seeds. Doubt either will get to the bark. And hopefully you don’t allow either of them to eat piles of leaves.

    3) There are SO many houseplants that are poisonous to your pets and children and even more in your backyard and park.

    4) It’s a rare tree and one that grows very fast it seems = more shade sooner. Enjoy it!

  • This is a situation where it is better, and easier, to get forgiveness than permission. The tree has not rooted into the ground at all – you should be able to walk over and literally pick it up out of the hole fairly easily. Run up to the Home Depot on Rhode Island Avenue with a truck or SUV or wagon, buy yourself a maple or an oak tree, and put it in the hole when you pull this one out of the hole. Problem solved.

    • Bad idea – tree boxes are tough conditions for trees to grow. Not an ideal spot for many common trees (including an oak)

      • Well, the oak I planted five years ago in front of my house did just fine. Just water it every day for the first summer. Since there are no overhead wires in the photo, a tree that will grow big shouldn’t be an issue.

        • I’m surprised it survived being watered every day, although I guess it depends on what you mean by watering. Once a week watering (slow drip so water can be absorbed) is ideal.

        • I’m sure it’s fine for now, but the root system of an oak is too big for that space (unless you have the world’s biggest tree box).

          The root system of a tree is typically about as large as the canopy. So look at the canopy of a mature oak and that is what you have planted beneath the sidewalk, street and your home. When there is nowhere for the roots to go (ie a hard, paved urban environment) the tree grows with a weak and poorly laid out root system. I live on a street in NW with a lot of 90-100 year old oaks.Have you seen what happens when one of these falls on someone’s home? I don’t sleep in my bed during big storms because I don’t want to be killed by a tree. The UFA takes these things into consideration when planting trees, which is why they don’t plant oaks any more. Not because an oak tree can’t survive 5 years on the side of the road.

          To UFA’s credit they are actually taking preventative action to remove some of the particularly dangerous older trees (though it is sad to lose a huge old tree on my block) and replacing them with species more appropriate to the environment.

    • Problem solved? Aside from the waste of YOUR and MY tax dollars–neither the trees nor the labor to plant or replace them are free–it is also completely unnecessary. Unless you’re grazing cattle where the seedlings are growing, where did anybody get the idea that this tree poses any kind of hazard as a street tree, to either people or to pets??? This is a wonderful tree and the city is to be commended for having a little imagination after decades of planting maples and oaks. (In fact I consider oaks to be among the WORST urban trees: they nearly always grow too big, the acorns are both a nuisance and a hazard, and don’t you just love all that pollen they produce? And don’t get me started on ginkgos!)

    • That tree is going to have a large heavy rootball and it would take more than one person to lift the tree out of the hole. Then what do you do with the tree once you’ve taken it out?
      As others have said – just leave it alone. You’ll be fine.

  • jim_ed

    But my treebox tree is 100% locavore organic, and was lovingly planted by a bearded tree artisan! Its basically a super food!

  • I wonder if the city would even notice if you removed it and replaced it with something you find less objectionable.

  • in the time it took you to write this, a simple Google search would have shown that this type of tree is very common. as another comment said, there are many poisonous things around us. make sure your kid doesn’t eat it, just like red berries on a bush or mushrooms in the yard…

  • Wikipedia says: Gymnocladus dioicus is cultivated by specialty tree plant nurseries as an ornamental tree for planting in gardens and parks. The peculiarly late-emerging and early-dropping leaves, coupled with the fact that the large leaves mean few twigs in the winter profile, make it a tree that is ideal for urban shading where winter sunlight is to be maximized (such as in proximity to solar hot-air systems).

    It sounds like a decent tree for the city to plan. Perhaps the OP could contact Casey Trees or another arborist to get an educated opinion.

  • +1

    Also, after you fertilize your grass, don’t let said baby or dog eat that either.

  • Get your 311 dialing finger ready, because you’re going to be busy!

  • I appreciate the trees but there is absolutely no thought put into what is planted.

    • Why do you think this is the case? I have the opposite view – that they do think about the right tree for that particular space.

    • I think you are incorrect. The DC Forestry team is one of the best run units in the city. They know a lot about trees and actually do analyze which variety would be best for a particular space. Many of the trees suggested by posters here would be completely inappropriate for a small tree box.

      This particular tree is well suited to the urban, street-tree environment. And it promotes diversity of species so if a particular blight or pest attacks your block you won’t lose all of the trees in one fell swoop.

      • Well-said and high five, new anonymous internet bff.

      • austindc

        Yeah! They pick great trees–appropriate for the climate and the city environment. I love DDOT’s urban forestry team. They have done a great job in Columbia Heights filling in all the treeless space.

    • ImpermeaBubbles for sale! Keep even the most miniscule and remotely potentially dangerous things away with ImpermeaBubbles! Get your ImpermeaBubbles today!

  • Also – I’m pretty certain we used to use these seed pods as maraca type instruments as kids all the time. I’m still here.

  • This is the city’s latest salvo in the fight against the DC Tree Cutter.

  • I’m happy to take care of the tree for you. What’s your address?

  • As long as you aren’t letting your toddler gnaw on the bark or suck the water out of the tree box and drink it, you should be fine.

  • The coffeetree is a late bloomer, so don’t expect it to show buds or leaves until May. With the colder weather we’ve been having it may even be later than that. My guess is that a lot of these trees are planted in and around the city and region, not just in your treebox. Your concern for pets or humans accidentally ingesting the seeds or leaves is justified however I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

  • Most of the tree on my end of the block were planted by residents in the last 10 years without going through the city.

  • We got a maple and planted in front of our house in NW. No one has bothered it for two years. I worked for Dc government for a couple of months and know they dont track these things (worst job I had my whole life bunch of lazy and incompetent people)

  • These trees are as harmless as the local Tomacco plant

  • This is a great tree, poses no threat to you or your pets, and you should be happy the city planted it rather than a maple, oak, or ginkgo!

  • Technically you’re supposed to have a permit to plant trees in tree boxes, but I’ve planted seven on my block in NE without a permit. I even signed up to be a “canopy keeper” through UFA (part of DDOT) and got free watering rings from the city. Nobody said anything or complained about the new trees I planted. And now every tree box on my block has a tree in it.

  • To hell with that tree. Go talk to the people who put in that nightmare pop-up across the street.

  • I wish MY house had free poison growing out front. Before you gentrifiers all showed up, we had to make our own poison, and now the City is giving you your own private free supply of poison. So typical.

  • Toxic, not poisonous, but that’s semantics.

    It’s only toxic when you really put effort into it, though. I wouldn’t be too worried. Honestly, eating the leaves and seeds of many trees around the city would probably make you or your kids sick. Eating acorns or oak leaves is a bad idea, as well. It’s not going to sneak up into your room and attack you.

  • The person at DDOT/311 who has had to deal with this person’s many complaints is probably LOVING this post’s comments

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