As I write this, the many catalpa trees surrounding our farmyard are raining leaves. Last night we had our first frost, an occasion that causes all the catalpas to simultaneously shed all their leaves the very next day. Someone, perhaps a hundred years ago, planted evenly-spaced catalpa trees all along our farm lane and all around our farmyard. These trees are a blessing and a curse; why weren’t oaks or maples planted instead?
Catalpas are commonly called “fence-post trees”, Indian bean trees, cigar trees, catawbas, or caterpillar trees. Mature catalpa is a large tree with showy white, fragrant flowers, massive heart-shaped leaves, and dangling bean-like seed pods on a twisting trunk and contorted branches. First cultivated in 1754, they were briefly popular for fence posts and railroad ties due to their fast growth and resistance to rot. Catalpa trees are plentiful on our farm, first settled in 1848. The rows of Catalpa trees along the lane and around the farmyard have since spread their seeds over many acres of meadows and woodlands.
Like most “fast-growing shade trees”, Catalpas have drawbacks. They are tough, adaptable survivors, bearing the battle scars from years of abuse and neglect. No two are alike. Some are hollow, like the “honeybee tree” across from our front door. Woodpeckers have chewed out holes in many of them. The hollows in other are home to raccoons, muskrats, groundhogs and other critters. Starlings nest there if we don’t actively discourage them.
Catalpas have weak wood and a brittle branch structure, so they drop rotten limbs constantly. Each spring they bloom profusely, showering us with big, sticky petals that cover the ground like snow. Next come the Catalpa worms; a boon to fishermen but a real nuisance to us. We have to be careful where we park; catalpa worm droppings resemble sticky peppercorns that cover everything under the trees. Hard frost brings another shower, this time giant sloppy leaves which drop all at once. All winter long the catalpa “beans” drop their seeds and then their husks.
During the settlement era, good, economical fences were some of the most important tools for taming the frontier. Virginia Rail or Snake Rail fences, built with logs split lengthwise into narrow rails, produced effective fences but used a lot of wood. Later, barbed wire fencing replaced rail fences, but they required lots of wooden fence posts. Railroads were pushing westward, consuming 3,520 crossties per mile. The best ties came from slow-growing trees. Since Catalpa grows much faster, these untidy flowering trees seemed to be a fast-growing alternative.
Unlike its closely-related southern cousin, Common Catalpa, Hardy Catalpa grew quickly with straight, tall trunks often 80 feet high. Common Catalpas have short, broad, contorted trunks of extremely soft, light, brittle wood that is useless for fence posts, and for just about everything else, for that matter, including firewood. Hucksters sold bundles of bare-root Catalpa seedlings to farmers eager to produce their own fence posts. They cared not whether they were selling Hardy or Common seedlings.
It took years for victims of this switch to discover they’d been cheated, long after the salesmen got away with their money. I believe that our farm’s former owners made the best of this situation by simply planting sapling Catalpas twenty feet apart, and then stringing barbed wire between the live trees once they grew strong enough. Problem solved.
Sole host of the catalpa sphinx moth, Catalpas are also very popular with woodpeckers, bees and hummingbirds. While they may not be an ideal tree for every location, Catalpas are a unique, hardy, fast-growing tree that is widely grown on residential properties, parks and other open spaces throughout the country. We view ours affectionately; historic reminders of an earlier day, worth preserving. Their very imperfection endears them to us.
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in landscape “makeovers”. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are on the “Garden Advice” page at www.goodseedfarm.com. More information is available at www.goodseedfarm.com or call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.