By Will Summers,
Catalpa, or as it is commonly known “Cigar-Tree,” is one of the few native hardwood trees of south central Illinois. Although most scientific names of all species come from Latin, German or English, the name for catalpa comes from the Cherokee Indian name “Kut-uhl-pah.”
Catalpa gets its common name “cigar-tree” from its characteristic long, bean-like seedpods that appear each fall. It was once thought erroneously that the Native Americans smoked the long bean pods. This appearance makes this tree easy to identify, especially at this time of year. Other traits such as attractive summer flowers, large heart-shaped leaves or durable wood go unappreciated most of the year.
Catalpa makes an interesting addition to any home landscape as a specimen tree with its unique shape, long pods and large leaves. Catalpas adapt to a wide range of soil conditions and are fast growing in early age. Catalpas are reasonably short-lived, 40 – 50 years and may be considered messy when cleaning up spent flowers, seedpods and a generous helping of fallen leaves and twigs each year. Catalpa is one of the last to grow their leaves in spring and the first to lose them in autumn, usually with the first frost.
The catalpa you see in your neighborhoods are likely one of two locally grown species. Catalpa speciosa “northern catalpa” is most common in our area and originates from the lower Ohio valley and the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The species name “speciosa” means “ornamental” in Latin. Catalpa bignonioides is southern catalpa and is only native to the lower Mississippi river valley, Louisiana and Alabama coastal regions. However, southern catalpa is widely planted and now spans as far north as Michigan and east to the New England states. These trees were introduced to England in the early 18th century and are now popular throughout Europe.
Catalpa belongs to the plant family known as Bignoniaceae, the bignonia family, which includes only 11 catalpa species native to North America, the Caribbean, China and East Asia. The name stems from admiration for the librarian of French King Louis XIV’s: Abbe Bignon. This plant family includes our “trumpet creeper” vine and the invasive “Paulonia” or “Empress Tree.” Another family member is the popular and colorful tree native to Mexico, the “Jacaranda.”
Catalpa are deciduous trees usually growing 40 to 50 feet tall but may reach a height of one hundred feet. Catalpa leaves are dark green, heart-shaped 8 to 12 inches long and 6 to 10 inches wide. Its large, bell-shaped flowers, borne in large erect clusters, are white to cream mottled with yellow or purplish dots. The seedpods for both species may grow up to 20 inches long. Crushed leaves of the southern catalpa emit an unpleasant odor.
Catalpa goes under-appreciated as part of the native forest plant community of Southern Illinois. Catalpas tolerate partial shade and contribute to the forest understory. Birds and other aerial species find the cool dark, shaded regions of the trees a good refuge from sun and rain. The flowers attract bumblebees and carpenter bees in daytime and many species of moths at night. Predatory ladybugs and ants are attracted to insects devouring its sticky sap. Other than nesting branches for robins, perches for all other birds and shade for understory forest species, catalpas provide little else for wildlife.
Southern catalpa gets the name of “fish-bait tree” due to the large number of 3-inch-long catalpa sphinx moth caterpillars, known as “catalpa worms” devouring its leaves.
The Catalpa serves well as railroad ties and fence posts due to its resistance to rot. The state record, largest northern catalpa in Illinois, is 6 feet 4 inches in diameter and 68 feet tall and located in Maquon Cemetery in Knox County.
Winter is the best time to identify our local catalpa trees since their abundant seedpods are so recognizable. This is a good tree species to begin teaching children to identify. Make up a game of counting the number of catalpa trees you see as you drive around southern Illinois.
For more information regarding trees, please contact your local University of Illinois Master Gardener, your county Extension Office or your local public library. All the Washington County Master Gardeners and Master Naturalists wish you all a very happy and prosperous new year! We take this opportunity to invite you to become a Master Gardener by enrolling in this year’s Master Gardener Certification class which begins January 24th. Call your local University of Illinois Extension office for more information.
Catalpa Tree: Landscaping Strictly For Non-Smokers