General: It is a perennial deciduous tree which readily grows in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 to 8. It has moderate to fast growth, tending to grow rapidly when juvenile, but slows with maturity.
The height at 20 years is about 20 feet. The biggest northern catalpa recorded is in Indiana. It is 85 feet tall with a spread of 81 feet and a circumference of 290 inches at 4.5 feet above ground level. Catalpas prefer moist, deep, well drained soil, but adapts to dry or wet soils. The soil pH may range from 5.5 to 7.0. It prefers an open sunny space to partial shade. When it grows from seed the tree trunk rarely divides into two or more branches about the same size. If the tree is cut and grows back there is prolific spouting from the stump. The bole may be straight, but it is usually crooked. It is tall with an irregular, open-rounded to narrow-oval crown. This tree comes into leaf very late in the spring and it is one of the first to lose its leaves in the fall. Its longevity is about 60 years.
The tree bark ranges from scaly to ridged, to blocky plates. On a mature tree trunk the bark may be from ¾ to 1 inch thick, light grayish brown in color, and broken into longitudinal, scaly, flat ridges. On young tree seedlings the bark is thin and easily damaged by impact, or rodents.
Twigs in winter have a unique identifying characteristic. They have sunken leaf scars which resemble suction cups. Their whorled arrangement of 3 scars per node is another trait easily identified.
Leaves are simple, large, ovate to ovate-oblong, from 8 to 12 inches long, are heart-shaped tropical looking without any lobes and are yellowish green in color. The leaf margins are entire, pointed at the tips and rounded to cordate at the bases. The top of the leaf is darker green than the underside which is also pubescent. Leaves are generally opposite on large branches and often whorled in 3 on young stems. Leaves may scorch and drop during droughts. They turn an undistinguished yellow in the fall before dropping. The leaves do not emit an unpleasant aroma when bruised as is the case with the southern catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides Walt.), which are also more abruptly pointed.
The flowers of catalpa are perfect. Flowering takes place in late spring to early summer. They occur as large clusters of showy, white, bell-shaped corollas of 5 lobes with ruffled edges and yellow, orange or purple interior spotting or streaking. Individual flowers are showy, tubular up to ½ inch broad. They are branched in about 10 inch clusters at the stem tips. The northern catalpa flowers about 2 to 3 weeks earlier than the southern catalpa, which also has more spotted flowers. Flowers are good for honey production.
Seedpods are slender and green in the summer growing from 10 to 24 inches long, looking similar to an exaggerated green bean. They mature in the fall, turn dark brown, split open lengthwise to let seeds fall in the spring. The whole pod is often blown off the tree. The shape and color of the mature seedpod gives rise to the common name of cigar tree.
The southern catalpa seeds are drawn out more to a point while the northern catalpas seeds are blunter at the end. Seeds are about 1 inch long and 1/3 inch wide. They have a light brown coat and wings rounded at the ends terminating in a fringe of short hairs. There are approximately 20,480 seeds per pound. Seeds which are collected after overwintering in the mature seedpod have a higher germination rate than those collected in the fall and stored.
The wood is of moderately light density (specific gravity 0.42 oven dry), with pale gray sapwood and grayish brown heartwood. It has a faint, aromatic, non characteristic odor and no characteristic taste. It is ring porous, coarse-grained, soft, not strong, but very durable in contact with the soil.
Distribution: For current distribution, please consult the Plant Profile page for this species on the PLANTS Web site.
Habitat: Prior to European settlement it was native to a small area of the central Mississippi Valley basin, western Tennessee, north east Arkansas, the lowlands of south east Mississippi and southern Illinois and Indiana. Farmers once planted catalpas in groves to provide shade for hog lots. It is now readily found from Kansas south to Texas and eastward to Louisiana.
Hardy catalpa, western catalpa, Catawba, Catawba-tree, cigar tree, Indian bean tree, Indian cigar, Shawnee wood, early-flowering catalpa. The name ‘catalpa’ comes from the Cherokee Indian language as the word for the tree. ‘Speciosa’ means “showy” for the large and numerous flowers.
Range and Habitat in Illinois
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Global Range: Native range not well determined, in central U.S., now widely naturalized in northern and eastern U.S. as well. According to Weakley (1996), the native range was apparently from southern Indiana and southern Illinois south to southern Tennessee and eastern Arkansas. There is also a record for catalpa wood from an archaeological site in West Virginia (Strausbaugh & Core, addenda), but that could have been a trade item.
It has been extensively propagated for over 200 years. It can now be found in most eastern states, and planted to some extent in Europe and New Zealand.
Range and Habitat in Illinois
When placed as an ornamental in a yard setting, care must be taken to ensure it is not too close to a building, fence, property line or septic system. Ample space should be provided to let it reach a mature height.
Flower-Visiting Insects of Northern Catalpa in Illinois
(Bees suck nectar or collect pollen, while other insects suck nectar only; according to Stephenson, honeybees, skippers, and ants are not effective at cross-pollination; the nectar is toxic to ants and skippers, but not bees and moths; most of the moths were nocturnal visitors; except for a single observation from Fleming as indicated below, all observations are from Stephenson or Stephenson & Thomas)
Apidae (Apinae): Apis mellifera sn np; Apidae (Bombini): Bombus bimaculatus sn cp; Anthophoridae (Xylocopini): Xylocopa virginica sn cp
Formicidae: Camponotus nearcticus sn np, Camponotus novaeboracensis sn np, Crematogaster cerasi sn np, Formica lasioides sn np, Formica nitidiventris sn np, Formica pallidefulva sn np, Prenolepis imparis sn np
Hesperiidae: Poanes hobomok sn np
Ctenuchidae: Cisseps fulvicollis sn, Ctenucha virginica sn; Geometridae: Eubaphe mendica sn, Euchlaena effecta sn, Euchlaena serrata sn, Eusarca confusaria sn, Itame sp. sn, Lytrosis unitaria sn, Scopula limboundata sn, Tetracis crocallata sn, Xanthotype sospeta sn; Lasiocampidae: Malacosoma americanum sn; Noctuidae: Diachrysia balluca sn, Plusia sp. sn; Sphingidae: Sphinx eremitus (Flm) sn
Life History and Behavior
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Catalpa speciosa
Public Records: 0
Specimens with Barcodes: 2
Species With Barcodes: 1
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: NNA - Not Applicable
Rounded National Status Rank: N4 - Apparently Secure
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G4 - Apparently Secure
Reasons: Difficult to determine native range in central United States, and hence difficult to rank, nevertheless locally frequent in portions of presumed original range. More characteristically in backwater swamps, rather than along riverbanks (L. Stritch, pers. comm., 1998).
Please consult the PLANTS Web site and your State Department of Natural Resources for this plant’s current status (e.g. threatened or endangered species, state noxious status, and wetland indicator values).
Pests and potential problems
Larvae of the catalpa sphinx caterpillar (Ceratomia catalpae) eat the tree’s leaves. This causes significantly more nectar than normal to seep out of the damaged leaves. Almost complete defoliation may occur in some years. This increased nectar attracts various species of ants, ladybird beetles and a parasitoid. These predaceous insects attack and/or remove the eggs and young larvae of the catalpa sphinx. The secretion of extrafloral nectar and its subsequent harvesting by insects is mutually beneficial to both the catalpa tree and the predaceous insects.
Rabbits are especially damaging in their girdling of young stems.
Immature seeds in the pods are often destroyed by a small yellow grub, the larva of a gnat.
Catalpa midge (Cecidomyia catalpae Comstock) causes leaf spots, injures terminal buds and branch tips, as well as seeds in the pods.
Brown leaf spots on leaves are often created by the fungi Macrosporium catalpae. This is rarely a serious problem so no chemical treatment is recommended. Catalpa is also susceptible to the decay fungus Polystictus versicolor. It can severely damage catalpa trees after about 20 years of age in the western part of its planted range.
Powdery mildew causes a white powdery coating on the leaves. When severe the leaves turn yellow and drop.
Verticillum wilt will make the branches die, and can eventually kill trees. A hard to find symptom of verticillum wilt is discoloration of the sapwood.
Biological Research Needs: Study of early accounts needed to determine pre-cultivation range.
Please contact your local agricultural extension specialist or county weed specialist to learn what works best in your area and how to use it safely. Always read label and safety instructions for each control method. Trade names and control measures appear in this document only to provide specific information. USDA, NRCS does not guarantee or warranty the products and control methods named, and other products may be equally effective.
Cultivars, improved and selected materials (and area of origin)
There are two species of catalpa native to North America, northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) and southern catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides). They appear very similar but are two distinct species. One variety of C. speciosa has been documented: pulverulenta from Paul & Son.
Contact your local Natural Resources Conservation Service (formerly Soil Conservation Service) office for more information. Look in the phone book under ”United States Government.” The Natural Resources Conservation Service will be listed under the subheading “Department of Agriculture.”
Catalpas can readily be grown from seed. Research shows seeds collected after overwintering in the seedpods had better germination than those collected in the fall and stored inside. Root cuttings may also be used to propagate trees.
It is an invasive, weedy tree which escapes cultivation easily. The flowers, long seedpods and seeds fall down from spring through winter, and create a mess on the ground anywhere near the tree.
Its brittle wood makes its branches subject to wind and ice damage.
The biggest management problem with a catalpa tree used as an ornamental is litter. It will drop a heavy load of flowers in the spring, then a plentiful supply of leaves in the fall and finally a lot of large seedpods in the winter.
This plant may become weedy or invasive in some regions or habitats and may displace desirable vegetation if not properly managed. Please consult with your local NRCS Field Office, Cooperative Extension Service office, or state natural resource or agriculture department regarding its status and use. Weed information is also available from the PLANTS Web site at plants.usda.gov.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Horticultural: Northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa (Warder) Warder ex Engelm.) is primarily used today as a large ornamental shade tree. It is widely planted in urban areas as a street and lawn tree. When flowering, it has abundant showy blossoms.
Conservation: Conservation uses include being planted in mined-land reclamation projects and shelterbelts.
European settlers planted it to produce fence posts. The wood is lightweight, and the heartwood is resistant to deterioration when placed in the ground for several years. Railroad companies grew plantations of it for use as track ties and fuel wood. It was also used for making packing materials. Carpenters commonly used it for interior trim in houses. Craftsmen used it to make furniture. It has also been used as telephone or power line poles.
Ethnobotany: In some of the older medical journals (19th century) there were speculations that catalpa gave off poisonous emanations. However, there is no scientific evidence to prove those speculations.
Pioneer doctors used the seed pods and seeds to make a decoction for chronic bronchial affections, spasmodic asthma, labored breathing and heart problems. The juice from either the leaves or roots was used to treat swelling of an eye or cutaneous affections. Green leaves were crushed and placed on swollen lymph glands. The bark was dried then ground to a powder and taken, or brewed in a tea and taken for swollen lymph glands.
Modern pharmaceutical research has shown catalpa trees have diuretic properties.
It is sometimes planted to attract the green catalpa worms, which are prized fish bait. These caterpillars can be frozen and used as bait at a later time.
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.
Catalpa speciosa was originally thought to be native only to a small area of the midwestern United States near the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. However in 1976, investigation of an archeological site of an island in West Virginia's portion of the Ohio River revealed Catalpa speciosa to be present on the island around the time period of 1500-1700 AD. This suggests that Catalpa speciosa may have experienced a decline in range before European settlement. Today, its range has widely expanded east of the Rocky Mountains outside of its restricted pre-settlement location, further obscuring the true native range.
Cultivation and uses
It is widely planted as an ornamental tree. It is adapted to moist, high pH soil and full sun, but has been able to grow almost anywhere in North America.
The wood is soft, like white pine, and light, weighing only 26 pounds per cubic foot when dry. It also does not rot easily; in earlier years it was used for fence posts and less than successfully as railroad ties. More modern uses that highlight the wood's beautiful grain include furniture, interior trim and cabinetry. Catalpa has one of the lowest shrinkage/expansion rates of any U.S. hardwood. Only northern white cedar and redwood have lower shrinkage/expansion rates, and not by much. The wood's unique properties make it excellent for carving and boat-building. Often regarded as a weed tree, its wood is under-appreciated and underused. The tree's tendency to grow crooked does not help its reputation as a source of usable lumber.
Northern catalpa has been extensively cultivated in Ohio for over 200 years, and is now naturalized in urban and rural areas. Farmers introduced the rapidly growing northern catalpa to Ohio to produce large amounts of timber for fenceposts.
Three liabilities exist in urban areas where it is found as both a shade and an ornamental tree. Northern catalpa rains down fragments of its long fruits and fringed seeds from winter through spring, creating a cleanup chore. In addition, it often gets far too big for its allocated space in the landscape, and crowds out or casts too much shade on other desirable plants. Finally, its brittle wood, coupled with tree height, makes its branches at times subject to wind or ice damage.
The tree is often sought out by fishing enthusiasts, not for the plant itself, but for a common parasite that is used as bait. The catalpa moth caterpillar, Ceratomia catalpae, is widely regarded as one of the best live baits, and the tree may be planted strictly for this purpose, and has earned the tree common names of worm tree, or bait tree.
Although northern catalpa can have several diseases and pests, most are usually minor and pose no serious threat. The exception is the caterpillar of Ceratomia catalpae, which can on occasion defoliate the tree.
Tree in flower in Winnemucca, Nevada
Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Native range not well determined, in central U.S., now widely naturalized in northern and eastern USA as well. According to Weakley (1996), the native range was apparently from southern Indiana and southern Illinois, south to southern Tennessee and eastern Arkansas.
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