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Northern Catalpa Catalpa speciosa


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Northern Catalpa, blossoms
credit: adamsfelt/CCSA

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Alternate name: Cigar Tree

Family: Bignoniaceae, Trumpet Creeper view all from this family

Description Catalpa speciosa, commonly known as the northern catalpa, hardy catalpa, western catalpa, cigar tree, and catawba-tree, is native to the midwestern United States.

It is a medium-sized, deciduous tree growing to 15-30 meters tall and 12 meters wide. It has a trunk up to 1 m diameter, with brown to gray bark maturing into hard plates or ridges. The leaves are deciduous, opposite (or whorled), large, heart shaped, 20-30 cm long and 15-20 cm broad, pointed at the tip and softly hairy beneath. The flowers are 3-6 cm across, trumpet shaped, white with yellow stripes and purple spots inside; they grow in panicles of 10-30. The catalpa tree is the last tree to grow leaves in the spring. The leaves generally do not color in autumn before falling, instead, they either fall abruptly after the first hard freeze, or turn a slightly yellow-brown before dropping off. The winter twigs of northern catalpa are like those of few other trees, having sunken leaf scars that resemble suction cups. Their whorled arrangement (three scars per node) around the twigs is another diagnostic.

The fruit is a long, thin legume-like pod, 20-40 cm long and 10-12 mm diameter; it often stays attached to tree during winter (and can be mistaken for brown icicles). The pod contains numerous flat, light brown seeds with two papery wings.

It is closely related to southern catalpa, and can be distinguished by the flowering panicles, which bear a smaller number of larger flowers, and the slightly broader seed pods.

Habitat Canyons & valleys, Cities, suburbs & towns, Fields, Watersides (fresh).

Range Great Lakes, Texas, Southwest, Florida, New England, Plains, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast.

Comments Rapid growing and relatively short-lived, northern catalpa is adaptable to many different soils and sites, but is not particularly drought-tolerant. Catalpas are major litter producers, shedding flowers, small branches, large leaves and seedpods. Brittle branches break easily in wind storms. It is susceptible to defoliation by leaf blight and the sphinx moth caterpillar.

Exposure Preference Sun to partial sun.

Flower April - June

Native Distribution Originally native from w. Tennessee & n.e. Arkansas, to s.w. Indiana & e. Missouri; now widely naturalized in s.e. U.S.

Site Preference Moist, lowland woods; roadsides; waste places; uplands

Soil Preference Deep, rich, moist soils.