Catalpa (‘Catalpa bignoniodes’) is a native tree that bursts into showy bloom in our area in June. A medium size tree, catalpa grows 30 to 40 feet tall, with a broad spreading crown.
Catalpa has distinctive and fascinating features that are useful in tree identification, including the following:
Leaves: Up to 7” long, heart-shaped, light green in summer. Leaves are “whorled” or “opposite”, meaning they sprout in whorls of three leaves from the same point (“node”) on a stem, or in pairs, one leaf across from another.
Flowers: Individual flowers are about 2” long and wide, in big clusters, bell-shaped with edges spreading and frilled. Overall effect is a dazzling bright white. On closer inspection, flowers have gorgeous yellow splotches and specks that look to me like the exact same color of the yolk of a newly laid, farm fresh egg. Complimenting that intense shade of yellow are deep purple dots and dashes that remind me of purple color splotches on the inside of mussel or quahog shells. (I have a sudden surge of appetite for seafood!)
Fruit: We usually think of fruit as those we eat, like apples, oranges, etc. But with trees and plants, the word “fruit” refers to seed-containing structures. Trees make fruit so they can reproduce. Catalpas produce very distinctive fruits, called pods, which are 8 to 10” long, slender, hanging, resembling really long string beans or slim cigars, containing numerous seeds. Pods often remain on the tree through winter.
A fun fact about catalpas is that they go by lots of different common names, often with regional influences. Up North, we might call them “Catawba Tree”, “Indian Bean” and “Cigar Tree”. In southern states, some people call them “Caterpillar Tree” or “Fish-Bait Tree”. Evidently, there is a particular type of moth that only feeds on catalpa leaves. The moth produces a caterpillar that is highly prized as excellent bait for some fresh-water fish. Who knew!?
The catalpa in the photo is in full bloom at Medford’s historic Royall House on George St. The handsome red-brick walls and entry columns, with the traditional white picket entry gate swung wide open, combined with the flowering branches of the catalpa extending over the wall like a welcoming arm, seem to invite us in to visit.