Plants like the Northern Catalpa and people who are slightly out-of-step with the crowd interest me. The catalpa leaves are among the latest to appear among deciduous trees in spring. Late enough, that in a drought spring, one wonders if the tree is still viable.
After most other trees have bloomed, the catalpa’s dramatic white bell-shaped flowers appear among large, heart-shaped leaves in early summer.
Pollinators abound on its flowers, drawn by light fragrance, and markings on each flower. When a flower dies, its crumpled shape could be mistaken for a pollinator, providing insects cover against a white background as they intently gather nectar and pollen.
Less favorable attributes of the catalpa include limb breakage on windy days and seed pods that litter beneath the tree. Catalpa hardwood is valued for carving and boatbuilding, as the wood has low moisture shrinkage and expansion. Because the wood is slow to rot, it has been used for fenceposts, but it is primarily chosen for its shade and ornamentation.
Northern Catalpas have few pests or diseases. The Bignonia family has few other tree members that are widely grown. The trumpet vine that is more common in the region, is a member of this family.
Growing up, we did have a catalpa tree in the yard. It was called a Southern Catalba. Unlike the northern tree of this region, I hardly saw the tree at home covered in leaves. Each year as the leaves began to leaf out, catalpa moth caterpillars appeared and ate the leaves. I recall hearing the rain of refuse hitting the remaining leaves, until they were gone. These caterpillars were highly prized as fishing bait. As soon as leaves and then caterpillars appeared, so did neighbors to collect them by shaking the tree. This process continued when there were caterpillars to feed.
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