I have a weakness for plants with heart-shaped leaves. I love common violetsthe
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
Most people have seen a catalpa, though they may not have known what
they were looking at. The
trees 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 isnt 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 nations 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 doesnt
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
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. Press
CHANGE IN THE GARDEN