The Catalpa Tree – Beautiful, Messy, And Wormy

The catalpa tree is a popular tree, but if it were not for its beautiful blossoms, it probably wouldn't be quite so popular. The catalpa is native to North America. Of the two species of the tree, the Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) is the larger of the two, growing upwards to 60' in height, and having a spread ranging from 20' to 40'. The southern species (Catalpa bignonioides)is about half the size of the northern species, reaching a maximum height of around 30'. Both species feature attractive white flowers with purple or yellow markings. Both species, if left to their own devices, can become somewhat invasive.

Beautiful Leaves – Beautiful Flowers

The catalpa tree is definitely at its best in the late spring, which is when it bursts into bloom. The large trumpet-shaped flowers contrast nicely with the large shiny leaves. The leaves typically grow to about a foot in length. At this time of the year the tree is definitely a showpiece. The catalpa assumes somewhat of an oval shape during the first years of its growth, but as it matures it tends to take on an irregular though still attractive shape. From early summer on however the tree can at times be a handful to keep attractive.

A Leaf Here – A Leaf There

First of all, unlike most deciduous trees one would want in their yard, the catalpa doesn't drop all of its leaves during a one or two week period in the late fall. It drops its leaves more or less continuously over the summer, so one may be faced with several raking episodes if having foot-long leaves lying around isn't acceptable. The leaves on the catalpa turn yellow before falling. This is natural, except the leaves don’t turn yellow all at once, but bit by bit over the summer and into the fall. They turn yellow before they drop, so in addition to always having some leaves lying around, there will usually be a number of yellow leaves on the tree, which can distract somewhat from an otherwise fine appearance.

Not only do the leaves tend to make a bit of a mess, but when the flowers drop off, they can make a slimy mess of their own due to their large size. Once the flowers drop off, long bean-like seed pods grow in their place. These pods are green at first, but eventually they turn brown. Like everything else about this tree, the pods don't turn brown all at once. You may have a tree featuring a collection of green (attractive) and brown (unattractive) seed pods. Some of the pods also fall to the ground, contributing to the mess the tree can make. Another name that has been given to this tree, because of its brown seed pods, is the “cigar tree”.

The Worms Come

Sometimes, worms take care of the falling leaves problem, at least to some extent. Catalpa trees are quite disease and pest resistant, with one exception.  That exception is the Catalpa gypsy moth. This moth lays its eggs on the leaves of the tree, and soon the tree is host to several hundred gypsy moth larva. These larva, called Catalpa worms, can do a fairly good job of making a Catalpa tree look quite unattractive, if not defoliating it completely. The Catalpa is such a robust tree that even if defoliation occurs, lost leaves grow back quickly.

The wood of the Catalpa tree is noted for its strength, lightness, and durability. Early pioneers used the wood for fence posts because of its resistance to rotting. Railroad companies grew plantations of Catalpa trees, since the wood was ideal for both railroad ties and power poles. Catalpa wood has even been used to make furniture.

The “Fish Bait Tree”

There are some gardeners and homeowners who don't mind a Catalpa gypsy moth invasion. The larva, or worm, is considered one of the best live baits a fisherman could wish for. They are tough-skinned, so they stay hooked, and do a good job of wiggling. They also have a rather sweet smell, said to attract fish. The fish love them. Naturally, the fishermen love them as well. They even freeze well. It's said that once thawed out, they start moving around as if nothing had happened, and they can be stored almost indefinitely. A catalpa tree owner can be a very popular person during fishing season.

If you want to a “fish bait tree” of your own, the catalpa does well in USDA Zones 6 through 10. Some claim it will also do fine in Zones 4 and 5. The tree can be found growing from coast to coast, and is known to exist in at least 40 of the 50 states. It is generally not found in the New England States or Alaska, and it is not allowed in Hawaii. It grows rather rapidly. If you can find a nursery that stocks the plant, a 5' specimen is not terribly expensive, but a 10' tree might cost $100 or more.