When we were kids, we called them "Stringbean Trees". Then we would call them "Indian Cigar Trees." Finally, I learned the true name: Catalpa speciosa. Mine is a Northern Catalpa. It is only three years old, and already it has had its first cluster of flowers followed by two long "stringbean" seed pods.
What's not to like about the Northern Catalpa? It's a fascinating tree. It starts out in the spring rather stark and bare for a while, then it "leafs" out with remarkably large heart-shaped leaves. Then flower bud clusters appear. The flowers are large and frilly and call attention to the tree in late spring, qualifying this tree to be one of the most attractive at that time of the season. The flowers fall like snow at the base of the tree when they are spent. Some folks find that event charming; others call it a mess. I vote for charming.
After the flowers fade, long seed pods begin to appear, small at first and then growing longer and heavier to stay attached to the tree for fall and sometimes even during winter.
There's more: This tree is a fast grower, reaching a potential height of 100 feet to make a lasting statement of strength and beauty in the landscape. Folks of all ages seem to like the Northern Catalpa for all of its pleasant features. This specimen had long been on my personal list of trees to acquire when I began to landscape my home in the 1990s because I have fond memories of its blossoms and "beans" from the days when my sisters and brothers were young. We would climb in the Catalpa in our front yard at the beach.
In winter of 2010, out of fondness for the Northern Catalpa, I set out in the car to search for some of those long seed pods. The plan was to pull the car over, jump out, and pick a few from one of the many Catalpa trees that grace the local highways, byways, and back alleys. These trees seem to be everywhere once you know how to spot them, in season and out.
It is in the off-season well after summer and fall have passed when chances are high that these seed pods will have viable seeds inside. It seems that the longer the seed pods stay on the tree, the better. A dry seed pod found on the ground or taken from the bare Catalpa at winter's end is the best way to get seeds.
It worked for me. Once I got the crackly, dry pods opened, I expected seeds to fall out; however, the pods were empty. But wait—they had to have seeds, but where? Oh, my goodness! I had to look closer. Snug against the inside of the round pod casing were little cloth-like sacks cleverly designed in the same exact color as the inside walls of the seed pod. They had to be coaxed out with my finger. Inside of each beige sack were a few seeds. These were saved in a paper bag to wait for spring.
When springtime came, ten little Catalpa seeds were gingerly planted at the edge of the vegetable garden where they would get the benefit of the daily water sprinkler. All of the seeds germinated. All was well.
The seedlings quickly took on the form of miniature adult Catalpa trees except with skinny, flexible trunks. They were adorable. Then, during that first winter, the baby trees looked like little sticks in the ground, but I protected and loved my little sticks even so.
The little trees grew strong and remained in the garden for two years in their own special row, getting taller by the minute:
In late summer of 2012, the group of young Catalpa trees was clearly stressing due to being overcrowded. I marked out a trench to explore where the roots were and left it there until the following spring.
In spring of 2013, it was time to transplant the two-year-old Catalpas that were in need of growing space if they were ever to become handsome trees. The chore should have been done a year earlier, but since it was not taken care of in a timely manner, a sense of urgency prevailed: transplant or eliminate. There was only one thing to do: start digging.
I selected the strongest tree to remain at the garden's edge; this one would be my special Northern Catalpa, the tree that reminded me of my youth. All of the other trees would be carefully removed to ensure that they could be transplanted and given away to whoever wanted them.
This worked like a charm. I dug very deep and began to understand that trees make lateral roots as well as vertical ones. The Catalpa in particular makes a mass of roots that is easier to manage while the trees are very young.
Finding the taproot was important to me and was the hardest root to dig out. Sometimes I just had to dig as far down as I could reach and then tug at the taproot to urge it forth. Sometimes the taproot broke off. After Googling it, some of the information about young Catalpas said that it would not be a dealbreaker if you broke the taproot near its terminal end; that is never my intention, but sometimes it happens that way with young trees.
Most of the young Catalpas were given to a friend to line his long driveway. The remaining trees were propped up next to the shed, swaddled in porous material and watered frequently until homes could be found for them.
The spot where the digging took place was smoothed over and began to look attractive once more after filling the long shallow hole. I gave special care and attention to the one tree left standing: my strongest Catalpa that was now "released" from any obligations to share the ground with its buddies all entangled together.
It seemed as though the one remaining tree gave a hearty "Thank you!" and then increased in height, girth, and fullness to my utter amazement. The Catalpa digging project was accomplished, and a sense of peace settled over the garden.
My Catalpa is now only three years old, but I can already envision its eventual size (perhaps 100 feet tall) every day when I go out to the garden to visit and inspect the plants. It is no longer at the edge of the garden; it is in the middle. The garden is growing around the tree.
This situation will not last long since Northern Catalpa is often grown for its ability to become a shade tree very quickly. This is proving itself to be true. We will need to relocate and redesign our vegetable garden by next spring. Since I have other favorite trees in that area, the sunny garden will soon become a shady grove.
And that is quite alright with me.
Tree Notes, a blog with information about the difference between Northern Catalpa and Southern Catalpa
Catalpa Speciosa: The Rodney Dangerfield of Shade Trees, by Douglas L. Bishop (2008) for Gardenvoice.com
Photo credit to Dave's Garden member rntx22 for the Catalpa "stringbean" seed pods that are hanging on the tree. All other photos are my own.