Catalpas are seldom planted anymore. Mike Dirr notes these relics in his Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs: “Ever ask the local nursery for a catalpa? Chances are it has none to offer. Southern catalpa and related species nearly qualify for dinosaur status in the landscape world.”
A few of these dinosaurs still exist around Louisville where they were either planted or found a toehold. Both native catalpas – C. speciosa and C. bignonioides – cross natural paths in Kentucky. Catalpa speciosa is the more northern species while Catalpa bignonioides is principally considered the southern version. (Clue me in if there is better tandem of common names than cigar and fish bait tree.)
Thousand of flowers on an old catalpa look like a colossal chandelier of bulging, white foxglove-like blooms, spotted inside with purple and yellow. They are hard to miss. The northern catalpa has a narrower growth habit and furrowed bark on older trees. The southern catalpa has bark that Dirr describes as being like “burnt potato chip.”
At some point, catalpas developed a bad reputation. It was no longer good enough to be tough as nails or blessed with handsome heart-shaped leaves and beautiful May blooms. Both native catalpa species were branded as messy. Apart from powdery mildew, munching larvae, and the litter of seed pods shaped like long skinny cigars, let me tell you what messy really is.
Until we bought our house 17 years ago I couldn’t have guessed we’d be tethered to a 60-year-old Southern magnolia that was more work than a blind 15-year-old Boston terrier. We’re near the northern hardiness zone for the southern magnolias, and ours – the tree (the dog passed on) – has survived a few bitter cold winters below – 20 F. The magnolia has credentials for longevity and deliciously fragrant punch-bowl-sized blooms, but our devotion comes at a cost. We’re stuck, for summer months on end, raking old leaves and picking up seed cones the size of grenades. My wife is trying to find a teenager to take over but hasn’t gotten any takers. Are teenagers working outdoors on the verge of functional extinction?
While gardeners adored – and continue to adore – Southern magnolias, the poor cigar tree fell out of favor. Richard Olsen says interest in Catalpa bignoniodes (the Southern catalpa) lost ground around the time of the Civil War and is rarely offered in the trade except for the “odd” cultivars ‘Nana’ and ‘Aurea.’ Catalpa speciosa, he explains, was a “great everything tree” following the Civil War until the early 20th century. The railroad barons thought the lumber of Catalpa speciosa would be a valuable renewable resource for fence posts, rail ties and firewood. The Northern catalpa can still be found occasionally in nursery inventories as far west as Denver and as far north as Minnesota.
But Olsen, a research geneticist at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., says catalpas got eclipsed. The American elm “rose to power” as thepatriotic tree to plant before and after the 1876 centennial. It got badly overplanted, and Dutch elm disease eventually carved big holes in the North American landscape. The tragedy of the American elm monoculture is now a textbook lesson for planting a broad mixture of adaptable species.
Besides a few well-known species like maple and elm, Olsen is reassessing a few overlooked native trees for improvements – catalpas and even the forlorn hackberries. We’ve got one hackberry straggler, down by the back alley, that seeds prolifically. (I pull up hackberry seedlings all season). The rugged tree needs some sprucing up. The pimply leaf galls aren’t an endearing feature, but it’s got a future with or without Olsen’s help. I’m confident hackberries will survive the doomsday asteroid.
One local who doesn’t mind catalpa’s messiness at all is fisherman Shawn Benford. He uses the catalpa sphinx caterpillar for bait and has bragging rights to the size of catfish it brings in.
Allen Bush is Director of Special Projects for Jelitto Perennial Seeds and a contributor to Human Flower Project.