|CRAZY FOR CATALPAS
Contact Elisabeth Ginsburg
I have a weakness for plants with heart-shaped leaves. I love common violets—the low-growing kind that fastidious lawn fanatics hate to see in the grass. In the spring I glory in the heart-shaped leaves and heart-stopping fragrance of lilac bushes. The backyard “climbing tree” of my childhood was an Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis), that leafed out every year into a canopy crowded with hundreds of green hearts. Now, staring out at my medium-size suburban yard, I wish I had enough space for a hardy catalpa (Catalpa speciosa), a tree that spends the summer wearing huge hearts on every bough.
Most people have seen a catalpa, though they may not have known what they were looking at. The tree’s most distinctive feature is probably its seed pod, which is brown and cigar or bean-like in shape. The “beans” dangle from the branches, and can grow 16-20” long. Kids love to play with them, though adults may be less enchanted at the prospect of sweeping them up.
According to the pundits at the University of Virginia, “catalpa” is a Native American word meaning “bean tree”. I always wonder why this lovely species did not merit a more poetic name, like “orchid flower tree” or “cloud blossom tree”, because the blossoms are some of the most beautiful around. Held upright, on panicles similar to those of horse chestnut trees, individual catalpa blossoms are frilly and white, their two “lips” adorned with yellow stripes and purplish-brown speckles.
I first noticed the catalpa tree ten or twelve years ago when I found a blossom lying on the sidewalk. I looked overhead and saw a tall, straight-trunked tree with a moderately spreading habit and huge green leaves. Pocketing the flower, I went home and started consulting reference books until I was able to identify the source of my find.
Like the tulip tree, another relatively unsung arboreal hero, the catalpa was loved by Thomas Jefferson. Unlike the tulip tree, the catalpa tends to be short-lived (one human generation, according to the reference books), and this may be why it isn’t more popular as a residential and street tree. There are two catalpa varieties common in the United States: the Hardy Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa), that can be found in the northeast and southern Midwest, and Southern Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides), found in the southeast, especially in the Gulf States. The latter is shorter with a more rounded canopy, and slightly different flowers. The “beans” are the same, and in all other ways, the species are very similar.
As everyone knows, in this age of multi-tasking it is not enough to be beautiful, cast welcome shade, and to have had ancestors who were a part of the nation’s history. Fortunately the catalpa has other talents. Its wood has traditionally been used for fence posts, because it is durable in contact with the ground. Nineteenth century Ohio settlers apparently planted groves of the trees for just this purpose.
Perhaps the best thing about the catalpa tree is its hardiness. It is cold hardy in the North and heat tolerant in the South. It does well in sun or partial shade and is absolutely unfussy about soil. Pollution doesn’t bother catalpa, nor does urban decay or suburban sprawl. Those attributes alone should make it a candidate for Tree of the New Millennium.
Since my first encounter with the catalpa, I have noticed them in lots of places. There is a huge one next to the “Big M” grocery store in the tiny town of Ovid, New York, near our summer cottage. On a recent trip to Connecticut, I counted many of them in wooded areas along Interstate 84, and, when I think about it, I see them most often in out-of-the-way places. There are even a few in my own municipality.
People, presumably those who do not know the tree well, sometimes refer to catalpa as a “trash tree”. Generally, this kind of pejorative is used to describe something that self-seeds freely and is all together a bit too common for the cognoscenti to tolerate. I happen to know that the late Dr. J.C. Raulston, former director of the arboretum at North Carolina State University, and a great American plantsman, respected the catalpa. And any tree that was good enough for Dr. Raulston is certainly good enough for me. Now all I need is the space to install one.