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.