Guest Rants, It's the Plants, Darling

In Praise of the Humble Catalpa

Guest post by Allen Bush

Catalpas are seldom planted anymore. Mike Dirr notes these relics in his Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs: “Ever ask the local nursery for a catalpa? Chances are it has none to offer. Southern catalpa and related species nearly qualify for dinosaur status in the landscape world.”

A few of these dinosaurs still exist around Louisville where they were either planted or found a toehold. Both native catalpas – C. speciosa and C. bignonioides – cross natural paths in Kentucky. Catalpa speciosa is the more northern species while Catalpa bignonioides is principally considered the southern version. (Clue me in if there is better tandem of common names than cigar and fish bait tree.)

Thousand of flowers on an old catalpa look like a colossal chandelier of bulging, white foxglove-like blooms, spotted inside with purple and yellow. They are hard to miss. The northern catalpa has a narrower growth habit and furrowed bark on older trees. The southern catalpa has bark that Dirr describes as being like “burnt potato chip.”

At some point, catalpas developed a bad reputation. It was no longer good enough to be tough as nails or blessed with handsome heart-shaped leaves and beautiful May blooms.  Both native catalpa species were branded as messy. Apart from powdery mildew, munching larvae, and the litter of seed pods shaped like long skinny cigars, let me tell you what messy really is.

Until we bought our house 17 years ago I couldn’t have guessed we’d be tethered to a 60-year-old Southern magnolia that was more work than a blind 15-year-old Boston terrier. We’re near the northern hardiness zone for the southern magnolias, and ours – the tree (the dog passed on) – has survived a few bitter cold winters below – 20 F. The magnolia has credentials for longevity and deliciously fragrant punch-bowl-sized blooms, but our devotion comes at a cost.  We’re stuck, for summer months on end, raking old leaves and picking up seed cones the size of grenades. My wife is trying to find a teenager to take over but hasn’t gotten any takers. Are teenagers working outdoors on the verge of functional extinction?

While gardeners adored  – and continue to adore – Southern magnolias, the poor cigar tree fell out of favor. Richard Olsen says interest in Catalpa bignoniodes (the Southern catalpa) lost ground around the time of the Civil War and is rarely offered in the trade except for the “odd” cultivars ‘Nana’ and ‘Aurea.’ Catalpa speciosa, he explains, was a “great everything tree” following the Civil War until the early 20th century. The railroad barons thought the lumber of Catalpa speciosa would be a valuable renewable resource for fence posts, rail ties and firewood. The Northern catalpa can still be found occasionally in nursery inventories as far west as Denver and as far north as Minnesota.

But Olsen, a research geneticist at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., says catalpas got eclipsed. The American elm “rose to power” as thepatriotic tree to plant before and after the 1876 centennial. It got badly overplanted, and Dutch elm disease eventually carved big holes in the North American landscape. The tragedy of the American elm monoculture is now a textbook lesson for planting a broad mixture of adaptable species.

Besides a few well-known species like maple and elm, Olsen is reassessing a few overlooked native trees for improvements – catalpas and even the forlorn hackberries. We’ve got one hackberry straggler, down by the back alley, that seeds prolifically. (I pull up hackberry seedlings all season). The rugged tree needs some sprucing up. The pimply leaf galls aren’t an endearing feature, but it’s got a future with or without Olsen’s help. I’m confident hackberries will survive the doomsday asteroid.

One local who doesn’t mind catalpa’s messiness at all is fisherman Shawn Benford. He uses the catalpa sphinx caterpillar for bait and has bragging rights to the size of catfish it brings in.

Allen Bush is Director of Special Projects for Jelitto Perennial Seeds and a contributor to Human Flower Project.

Posted by on May 8, 2012 at 4:20 am, in the category Guest Rants, It's the Plants, Darling.
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24 Responses to “In Praise of the Humble Catalpa”

  1. Mary Gray says:

    Thanks for an interesting post on this tree! I don’t think I would plant a Catalpa, but I enjoy them when I see them in older neighborhoods and along the roadsides.

    I think that Southern Magnolias are way over-rated. Besides the mess, they’re so big and dense and dark…they look great down in DC alongside big monuments and neo-classical office buildings and such, but I cringe when I see one planted in somebody’s modest front-yard, obsuring the facade of the house.

    Catalpa, 1 Magnolia, 0

  2. Perfect timing with this post! I’ve seen those flowering trees around St. Louis this week and wondered what they were (I keep forgetting to research). Thanks!

  3. Earth Girl says:

    We planted a few catalpas on our tree farm because we remember them on the old farmsteads (usually along the road or a fence row) in NE Indiana. Quite a few people thought we were crazy, but we want as diverse a tree population as possible.

  4. Donna B. says:

    I LOVE my Catalpa(s)! They make the best stepping stone templates.
    Took two tiny babies three years ago from a property that was going to be mowed down for condos [yes, like we need more in NJ...] offspring from a 100+ year old Catalpa. The mother tree is now gone, but my rescues are 12 and 8 feet tall! One will stay a tree, the other a ‘tall-shrub’.
    I hope I get flowers this year…

  5. My grandma thought the tree next to my house was a catalpa, but after some research, I don’t think it is. I’ve yet to figure out what it is…

  6. Gerry says:

    Susan, Nice post as always. I worked at a wholesale nursery for years, out in the yard WITH the trees. We had Catalpa Trees, but have not heard of the Hackberry Tree, my research subject for the day. Thank You for the info as always !!!

  7. Katy Nicolich says:

    We have a Catalpa in our front yard here in Sandy, Utah! I LOVE it for it’s flowers, leaves and shade. Our neighborhood was built in the 1960′s so I assume it was planted then. There are no others in the area that I have found. There are many in the older areas of nearby Salt Lake City that are probably near 100 years old, or more. Catalpas do well here, tolerating drought and extremes in temperature and humidity.

  8. Todd says:

    I would agree that hackberry trees are hard to deal with. Seedlings everywhere, and some years the bugs get in it and the result is that black sooty mold-looking stuff that results from the insect excretions. I have one of these trees left on my property, but not forever.

  9. DAY says:

    I have catalpas- and lots of other ‘natives’ here in E. PA. Like silver maples, sassafras, and locust, they are considered “weed trees” because of their bad habits (as listed above) and limited commercial uses.
    More’s the pity; they all have their endearing quirks, like sassafras tea, or the quiet poetry of a silver maple, announcing a thunderstorm.

  10. deb says:

    I love catalpas – so majestic and with those large clusters of gorgeous blossoms I’m willing to put up with some mess.

    I agree about magnolias – here in the Northeast it’s a bit of a crap-shoot with timing. Many get frosted just as they bloom, so the trees are festooned with slimy brown blossoms that hang on forever. When they finally fall – now that’s a MESS!

  11. Jason says:

    We have a few catalpas in Chicago, and even a Catalpa Street.

    In Evanston, the suburb where I live, the City Forestry Dpt is doing a good job of diversifying the street trees. When a tree needs replacement, the homeowner gets a choice of about five trees. If no preference is given, the City chooses.

    I did choose a hackberry because of its wildlife value – it’s a host for lots of butterflies. In terms of the seedling problem, they can’t be any worse than maples or Siberian elms.

  12. Liz says:

    Catalpa seed pods can be as much fun as they are messy. My husband relates that as kids they would place the seed pods in mud on the road so they stuck up. Then they would sit back and watch cars swerve around the “nail” in the road. They also make great swords for smaller kids. I’ve always loved this tree.

  13. DK Colihan says:

    We just planted one at our new house because we missed the one at our old house. Messy? No more than Maples that send out a million volunteers every year. The huge leaves are hard to forget. Love these trees.

  14. Kay says:

    My grandfather in Arkansas had a huge Catalpa. We loved the flowers and playing with the leaves when I was a child.

  15. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Our catalpa is at peak bloom now. I just love it and hope to never be without it. The bees and bugs all love those blooms and the birds nest amongst those big leaves. If someone wanted a tropical looking tree this sure would fill the bill. They aren’t near as messy as say a Maple or Ash trees with all of those whirly gigs that clog up the gutters and sprout everywhere.

  16. Gail says:

    We have a catalpa. Bought a few years ago. Its one of the last trees to leaf out every year-just starting now. And after the first hard frost the leaves drop in like 5 minutes! But the flowers are gorgeous. Don’t see many of these trees plants around though.

  17. Virginia Field says:

    Thank you for an enlightening and entertaining post.

  18. Suze says:

    We offer the Northern Catalpa every year at the nursery I work for (Denver area) and we sell almost out by the end of each season. We call them “coat racks in a pot” when they come in dormant in the spring, but by the time those huge leaves are out in the July and August heat, they almost walk themselves out the door. It helps that there are a lot of parks and street medians in the area that have catalpas planted, and they look beautiful!

  19. Carolyn Wylie says:

    I suppose our tree is a southern catalpa. We planted it ca. 30 years ago. There are a lot of catalpas in Austin, but I don’t know whether the nurseries still carry them. Ours struggles in drought years (most years lately) and would probably die if we quit watering, but we are very fond of it. By the way, I still miss your mail-order plant catalog (whose name my addled brain has misfiled).

  20. Lillian says:

    I have been wondering what this tree was in my front yard until reading Dirr’s book last year,and it is a catalpa! The kids just call it “Bean tree”. Thanks for highlighting this wonderful creature !

  21. marcia says:

    I’m a Catalpa lover as well. When I was a little girl in Nebraska we would gather the flowers and string them on clover or grass stems for leis.
    Don’t get me started on the acursed Chinese Hackberry. My city planted them on the street parkways. Every seed is fertile and they have their own wooly chinese hackberry aphid that will candy-coat any vehicle parked on the street. So far the only remedy is to use Bayer’s Imunoclopid early in the spring when the sap is rising. We have four of them.
    I’d trade them all for one Catalpa.

  22. Allen Bush says:

    Thanks, Carolyn. The nursery was called Holbrook Farm. A pity I wasn’t so taken with catalpas way back then. Marcia, there are a bunch of North American hackberries. It’ll be fun to see what Richard Olsen cooks-up with his breeding.

  23. tropaeolum says:

    My brother bought a house and 5 acres a couple years ago. The first tree that went in the ground was a Catalpa. I think Mom bought it at Gee Farms in Stockbridge, Michigan. It’s only 8ft tall now, but one day it will be magnificent!

  24. Claudia says:

    We have four Catalpas on our property; 3 up in the woods and one that is right outside our house. I love them all. Their blooms are glorious, their heart-shaped leaves beautiful.

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