The catalpas are blooming in my neighborhood. They’re those big leaved trees with the clusters of white orchid-like flowers. In fall they sport long cigar-like pods which sometimes grow two feet long. Some people even call them cigar trees.
The showy pods are green for most of the year before turning brown in the fall. Many often persist for much of the winter before dropping their seeds in spring.
Trees have large triangular to heart-shaped leaves that emerge from stems in groups of two or three. Light green foliage is late to develop in spring. Catalpas are among the first to lose their leaves in fall and their color is an unspectacular dull yellow.
Catalpas are a useful ornamental tree because they can grow on many types of soil. They tolerate both acid and alkaline soils as well as a wide moisture range. Trees grow into a narrow upright shape but they provide dense shade. Flowers don’t last more than a few weeks but they can be spectacular.
Two species of these unique trees are common. The larger of the two is the northern catalpa. Southern catalpa is a little smaller. To untrained eyes the two are indistinguishable. The funny thing is that both species can be found all over much of the country and both grow equally well in the north and south.
The original range of southern catalpa included only parts of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. Northern Catalpa had a much larger native range. Both are fast growing trees that rarely live more than 70 years. Wood is light and resistant to decay, making it ideal for in ground uses such as fence posts. It also rarely splits when nails or staples are driven into it.
Both species are durable as landscape trees but like the sycamore they are very dirty. Flower, leaf and fruit litter removal can be a regular chore. Roots are quite extensive too, so trees should not be planted close to foundations or septic fields. These roots do hold soil well in highly erodible areas.
Catalpas have potential for use as urban shade trees. They tolerate pollution well and in a sheltered environment wind damage is minimal. They also tolerate heat well.
Years ago herbalists used many parts of these trees medicinally. Very little recent information is available now other than leaf and bark teas can be used as a diuretic. Several sources report root extracts are poisonous.
I like catalpas because they are so unique and easy to grow. They require little pruning and can stir conversation especially their long seed pods. Overuse might be a problem in hurricane prone areas like ours, but they aren’t nearly as susceptible to damage as the ornamental pears. Rarely are whole trees or even entire branches destroyed, but litter from storms can be significant.
One specimen tree in the yard is a nice change of pace. However, these trees are in the same family as the trumpet vine and like that noxious weed they can invade adjacent areas.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.