The Northern Catalpa is a fascinating tree in so many ways that I am surprised at its lack of fame. Even its scientific name is unique – Catalpa speciosa. Usually these scientific names are Latin and identify key points of uniqueness. Catalpa is not Latin, in origin, but Cherokee. It simply means’ tree’. Speciosa is Latin meaning, showy, in reference to its showy flowering.
Historically, this tree was considered to be native to a relatively small area of the central Mississippi valley. By the 1750’s, farmers were cultivating this tree up into northern Ohio and Illinois in order to produce large amounts of relatively lightweight timber. This timber was highly prized for fence posts because of its very resistant nature to rotting. Medicinally, the seed pods of the tree were used by pioneer doctors to make remedies for bronchial infections and labored breathing. Modern pharmaceutical companies are looking at researching Catalpa for diuretic properties.
So we come to the first fascinating point of this tree. If the Catalpa was native to only a small area in the Mississippi valley, how did this tree genetically develop to withstand -30F temperatures? What scientists discovered is that the Catalpa may be similar to the black Locust where the black Locust was in the northern region prior to the Ice Age. So, really, these trees are just simply reclaiming their original, lost territory.
Nowadays, this tree is slowly starting to gain a reputation for its truly adaptive traits. The Catalpa tolerates both dry conditions and even some standing water. It is considered drought resistant and makes an excellent choice for a moisture conserving landscape. It is not particular to soil pH and is able to handle environmental salt. In the United States, this tree is used in reclamation projects for mined lands and shelter belts.
In late spring or early summer there is a very showy flower display. The tree is covered in orchid like white flowers with purple and yellow spotting. Actually, these internal flower spots act as runway markers for the many pollinators that visit the flowers. Everything from hummingbirds, native bees. honeybees, bumblebees, ants and moths visit this tree for the abundant nectar crop. As a beekeeper, this is a highly prized honey tree.
So maybe it is time to reconsider this tree. The city of Toronto has – they are actively planting it. This beautiful, adaptive tree deserves a second look. Maybe other city forestry departments will give the Northern Catalpa a second chance.