I’d like you to meet one of my favorite trees, the Northern Catalpa Tree. Its rich history and botanical legacy are unique and fascinating. This article was originally posted in 2014 and has been updated.
I’m getting to know my backyard neighbors!
As hard as I try, I can’t figure out any way to become the knowledgeable naturalist I want to be except by reaching out to meet my nature neighbors one at a time. Identification is the first step, but when I dig a little deeper to learn more about each of these living creatures, I gain not only knowledge but a deep affection and appreciation for their unique features and their history. Today I want to introduce you to my catalpa tree.
Meet Catalpa speciosa, the Northern Catalpa Tree
Right now, two days away from June, the catalpa tree in my yard is in full bloom, and what a magnificent sight it is! “Thousands of flowers on an old catalpa tree look like a colossal chandelier of bulging, white foxglove-like blooms, spotted inside with purple and yellow,” describes writer Allen Bush, and he’s exactly right. The sweet fragrance rivals that of honeysuckle, and its showy blossoms make the catalpa trees easier to spot than they are any other time of the year. I was amazed today how many catalpa trees I noticed in yards and woods along the highways and byways here in Shenandoah County, Virginia.
Besides the blossoms, the catalpa’s leaves and fruit are also unique. Its leaves are large and often compared to elephants’ ears or large hearts. They can grow up to 12 inches long and eight inches wide, emerging from the branch directly opposite each other. The catalpa fruits are long, hanging pods up to 18 to 20 inches in this species. They’re green early in the summer, but they eventually change to a dull brown, hanging onto the trees through winter until opening in the spring to release their seeds. My lawn-mowing husband says they’re hard on the mower blades, so he tries to rake most of them up before mowing.
This marvelous tree has long been a favorite of mine (but don’t tell the Canada Maple tree, who thinks she’s my favorite. I’m fickle that way.). At 80-90 feet high, it towers over most of the other trees in my yard and must be quite old, because its diameter is four feet and its circumference is over 12-1/2 feet (yes, I dusted off my geometry formulas to figure the diameter from measuring the circumference with a piece of string). This species can grow to 100 feet high, but it averages between 60-80 feet, so I clearly have a marvelous specimen! The largest living catalpa tree in the world was once said to be the one on the grounds of the Capital of the State of Michigan in Lansing. It was planted in the year of its dedication in 1879 and is 60 feet high and seven feet in girth. After first publishing this post, I learned that the catalpa tree in Michigan is no longer the largest on record. Now the largest recorded northern catalpa resides in Indiana, USA with a height of 85 feet, expansion of 81 feet, and a circumference of 920 inches (see Glen Arboretum). I wonder if I should contact someone about seeing if mine might hold a record.
The oldest catalpa tree is thought to be in England. Some sources claim it is a tree in Rochester at the foot of England’s second oldest cathedral (“The Rochester Catalpa”), but others say it’s the specimen in the Minster graveyard of St. Mary’s Butts in the town of Reading, Berkshire. I was unable to corroborate either claim.
A catalpa by any other name…
My tree, it seems, has many nicknames. Many believe the word “catalpa” is a misspelling by an early botanist of “catawba,” the Native American (Seminole) name for the tree, and indeed it is still called a catawba tree, especially in the South. That’s the name my Louisiana-born husband knew when he was growing up. Other names based on its conspicuous fruit/bean include Indian Bean Tree, Cigar Tree, and Cigarette Tree.
What about the worm?
Two other nicknames, Worm Tree and Fish Bait Tree, come from a hungry caterpillar called the Catalpa Sphinx, a.k.a. the catalpa worm, that loves to feed on catalpa foliage. It is greenish-yellow with black lines and markings. These caterpillars are greatly prized as fish bait, and I remember as a child hearing of anglers who paid kids to fill jars with these prized caterpillars or “worms.” I read they can be preserved alive by freezing them in an airtight jar filled with cornmeal or “pickling” them in a jar with corn syrup (see Nix below), but I think I’ll pass on that activity. I don’t recall seeing them on my tree here. Apparently, infestations don’t necessarily occur every year, but when they do, the caterpillars are capable of stripping the tree of its leaves, supposedly without long-term damage to the tree.
Let’s get technical
The catalpa tree is a genus of flowering plants in the family Bignoniaceae. They’re native to warm temperate regions of North America, the Caribbean, and East Asia.There are two North American species, and the one we have here in Virginia is Catalpa speciosa or Northern Catalpa. The other is Catalpa bignonioides or Southern Catalpa. This tends to be smaller than its northern cousin. Worldwide there are as many as eleven species of catalpa. Its first English notation is thought to have been by Mark Catesby in about 1731 in his book The Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. So there you have it.
I confess to some concern after learning that my catalpa may be close to the end of its life expectancy, but if she has the same longevity as the oldest specimens on record, she’ll still outlast me.
Do you have a catalpa tree in your yard?
My Backyard Nature challenge
I challenge you to select a favorite tree in your yard or neighborhood and get to know it. If you don’t know its identity, ask around. Or take a specimen of the leaf to your nearest Master Gardener, Extension Office, or nursery. Then do a little research, notice its changes over the four seasons, and before you know it, you and your tree will be old friends.
Bush, Allen. “In Praise of the Humble Catalpa.” Garden Rant: Uprooting the Garden blog. May 8, 2012.
Catalpa Tree Facts. GardenGuides.com.
Gladden, John. “The Big Tree contest: Northern Catalpa is subject of annual challenge.” The Medina-Gazette Online, May 10, 2011.
Glen Arboretum (Towson University): “Northern Catalpa.”
Nix, Steve. “The Catalpa Tree and Its Caterpillars.” About.com – Forestry.