Northern Catalpa Tree
These beautiful trees line the pathway going down into the Amphetheatre at Crieff Hills.
Thanks to Marion Robertson for writing this blog that tells us so much more about these trees. Marion is co-owner of B Sweet Honey Nature Company and Puslinch Naturally Native Trees. Along with her family Marion volunteers, educates and supports staff and guests at Crieff Hills.
Trees invoke feelings deep inside us. Have you ever felt how quiet a forest feels; almost like standing in an empty, quiet church. Or sometimes we feel sad when we plant a tree for a deceased one in an arboretum. We have memorial trees, here, but they make us smile and relive fun moments with loved ones. One such tree is our beautiful Northern Catalpa. Every summer when she blooms we remember Grandpa Bill and smile and recount the story as we have coffee admiring the blooms.
Twenty years ago, Grandpa Bill, had an oddly shaped Catalpa in the backyard. Every year his wife would shout at him to chainsaw down that misshapen tree but Bill would say, ' Look how beautiful it is blooming. Let's wait till it has finished flowering before we saw it down. ' Of course, it got hot then and maybe we should wait till the Fall to chop it down.
This went on for many years and the tree still remains in the backyard – misshapen. Bill passed away and before the house and property were sold we dug up some baby Catalpa and transferred them to our house. Four are placed all around the house and when they bloom his grandchildren remember Grandpa and his Catalpa. There are no tears, just smiles, as we retell the story. The story never seems to get old. So you see, memorial trees need not be a sad affair. I think they remind us of loved ones; it is up to us what feelings the tree will invoke.
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.
Yours in conservation - Marion Robertson, Co-owner of B Sweet Honey Nature Company and Puslinch Naturally Native Trees