A Tree With Attitude

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Our native Northern Catalpa – Catalpa speciosa — seems to demand the attention of anyone near it.

With its huge heart-shaped leaves — 6to 12 inches long and 4 to 8 inches wide — this guy will cast a very dense shadow. In May and June, beautiful, slightly fragrant bell-shaped orchid-like flowers will appear in 4- to 8-inch panicles and soon be visited by hummingbirds, honeybees and other pollinators. These flowers will then give way to the fruit or pods that can be up to 20 inches long and persist well into the winter months until it eventually splits open to release the many flat-winged seeds.

Just like the people that always seem to be talking about themselves and need our full attention, Catalpa speciosa lacks humility!

Catalpa is a Native American name and speciosa literally means “showy.” Other common names for this rapid-growing tree are Indian bean tree, Worm tree, Cigar tree, and Catawba. The Northern Catalpa can reach 40 to 70 feet in height and 20 to 40 feet in width. The largest one in Ohio is in Fairfield County at 246-inch circumference, 65 feet tall by 68 feet wide. The plant is adaptable to many soil types, its wood is very resistant to rotting, and is one of the few trees with a whorled leaf arrangement (three leaves emerging at the same point around the stem).

Another unique aspect of this prideful tree is that it’s the host plant for the Catalpa Sphinx moth a.k.a. Hawk moth (Ceratomia catalpa) and apparently has some sort of symbiotic relationship with it. The moth’s larvae, which is also a highly desired bait for fishermen, will feed on the leaves and at times completely defoliate the tree. Oddly this doesn’t seem to be harmful to the tree; in fact, the tree in the photo was defoliated completely last year!

So the next time you are in the woods or driving down the road and you see this proud giant, thank it for all it has to offer and all that it has been through. Oh, and try not to stare.

Tim Osborne

Shaker Trace Nursery Technician