The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

September 19, 2013

Respect our trees -- trees have families, too

By Tom Powell Columnist
The Clinton Herald

---- — Most of the time we take trees for granted. We just expect them to be in the same spot year after year. Leaf out in the spring, burst into bloom, be green and fluffy in the summer and give us a beautiful fall show.

There is no thought to the hot dry weather, summer storms, insect attacks and frigid winter winds they endure year after year.

Trees have families, individual characteristics, special needs and their own kind of plant personality that we in the animal kingdom should appreciate and respect.

The Kentucky Coffee Bean Tree (Gymnocladus dioicus) is of the Legume (Pea) Family. Other members of the family include green beans, soybeans and peanuts. It has a bean pod that somewhat looks like a coffee bean and is full of seeds. These beans were used by Kentucky pioneers to make a coffee substitute by drying and roasting the beans. These pods are very poisonous before the roasting process. The leaves, seeds and sprouts are also poisonous.

Some of the other names for this tree are: American Bean Tree, American Mahogany, Chicot, Canada Coffee Bean, Dead Tree, Stump Tree and Kentucky Mahogany. These trees can reach a height of 100 feet and 3 feet in diameter.

It has the largest leaf of any tree found in North America with each being up to three feet long and a compound of many leaflets. The fall colors are a light green to a dull yellow and are not very attractive.

This tree is native to the central United States. It has a rich dark grain and the trees are used for fence posts, furniture, rail road ties, bridge timbers and fuel. When the United States started the railway expansion westward the wood from these trees was used to make sleeper cars.

This tree is located by the Rock Garden near the Learning Center at the Bickelhaupt Arboretum.

The Catalpa Tree (Catalpa speciosa) also known as the Catawba, Indian Bean, Cigar tree or fish Bait Tree are from the Bignonia family a group of tropical plants and was derived from the Catawba Native American (tribal totem). The name Catalpa was due to a transcript error (Catawba) on the part of the describing botanist (Scopoli).

These short-lived trees may be as small as 40 feet up to 100 feet. In June, the trees in the area burst into bloom. The blossoms are white, orchid like and with a mild fragrance. Long seed pods follow the flowers and will hang on the tree into winter. It is the main food source for the Sphinx Moth (Ceratomia catalpa). The Catalpa Tree is the only tree that these caterpillars attack. There are two recognized species of Catalpa or Catawba. The Southern Catalpa C. bignonioids and the Northern Catalpa C. specious. The Southern Catalpa is smaller than the Northern Catalpa with leaves that grow in a whorled pattern rather than those opposite each other as in the Northern Catalpa.

Because of the shape of their leaves they are often confused with the Tung Tree (Vernicia fordii) in the southern U.S. or the invasive Paulowuia tomentosa imported from China.

They have brittle lumber that generally is used for fence posting and other wood structures, such as furniture or beams.

The roots of the Catalpa Tree are poisonous. The seeds contain a mild narcotic and should not be consumed.

Tom Powell is a Master Gardener Intern Volunteer at the Bickelhaupt Arboretum, retired construction manager, city of Camanche zoning enforcement officer and past Tree Board member for the city of Camanche.