Northern Catalpa Tree

June 18, 2017 lawanda Newspaper Columns

       There was one northern catalpa tree in my neighborhood when I was a child.  I didn’t know what it was, but I loved that tree.  In June, it had clusters of large bell-shaped, ruffled white flowers with yellow stripes and purple spots inside, kind of a combination of petunia and iris and orchid, not at all the usual flower you find on a tree.  In summer, the tree developed long thin pods, up to 2 feet long that we called “beans.”  In fall, the pods turned brown and after the leaves fell from the tree, the pods crackled in the wind like wooden wind chimes, sometimes remaining on the tree through winter and looking like brown icicles.

      Catalpa is a deciduous tree that grows 50–80 feet tall and up to 40 feet wide with an irregular shape.  Massive trunks support multiple crowns of large upward reaching limbs.  Catalpa wood is a light weight, soft wood that doesn’t rot. 

      Catalpa is native to a very small area north and south of the confluence of the Mississippi, Ohio and Wabash rivers.  It grows just fine in our area though, surviving to USDA Hardiness Zone 4.  Lifespan is approximately 60 years.

      Heart-shaped tropical looking leaves are 12 or more inches long.  Catalpa is one of the last trees to leaf out in spring and one of the first to lose its leaves in all.  At the first hard frost, leaves turn brown and fall off.

      Catalpa is a survivor.  It tolerates flood and drought, sun or part shade, and pretty much any soil pH.  It can suffer from several diseases and pests, but most are minor.  Only one insect might become a problem.  Catalpa’s leaves are the sole food source of catalpa sphinx moth larvae.  If you are a fisherman, you won’t look at this as a problem – the large spotted caterpillars are considered prime fish bait and require no digging.  There isn’t enough space to go into detail here, but in the long run, an attack by catalpa sphinx moth larvae actually benefits the tree.

      Although the wood is decay-resistant, it is brittle, so branches do break in wind and with ice cover.  As it is a relatively large tree, it is best for rural areas, or larger city yards.  Catalpa should not be planted near buildings, fences, sidewalks or septic systems.  It is going to get big and cast a broad shadow, so plan for that if you decide to plant one.

      Young tree trunks should be protected from rabbit damage.  Flowering begins at about 7 years.  Flowers attract hummingbirds and are a nutrition source for bees early in the summer before most other sources are available.

      As a I child, I saw only the beautiful flowers and the bean-like seed pods of the catalpa.  I wasn’t the person responsible for cleaning up the fallen flowers, small twigs, seed pods and the winged seeds inside them.  However, if I had the space, I’d still plant one today.

Trees and Shrubs


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