Catalpa trees have beautiful large leaves and prolific blooms of showy, orchid like flowers that make them a superb choice for a specimen tree. They are commonly known as Indian Bean trees or Cigar trees because of the long, bean like pods that follow the flowers.
The subtly heart shaped foliage come in shades of green, bright yellow and dark purple, before taking on a more golden hue in autumn. Once the trees reach about 5 years of age, the striking, bell-shaped white flowers are then followed by long seed pods that contrast beautifully against the colourful foliage.
Catalpa, also known as Indian Bean trees, are part of the Bignoniaceae family, with only eleven species worldwide. These Indian Bean trees are native to the warmer climates of North America, the Caribbean, and East Asia with Northern Catalpa trees displaying larger leaves than Southern Catalpa trees as they are a slightly different species. The name Catalpa derives from the Native American name Catawba, with the spelling Catalpa coming from a transcription error made by a describing botanist. The name of this tree is pronounced Catalpa in North America, but often still Catawba in the South.
Catalpa make a great, relatively fast-growing flowering ornamental tree that provides a variety of interesting features throughout the seasons. They benefit from being suited to most soil types and the bark is rot-resistant. They prefer a sheltered yet sunny site.
Catalpa trees have been known for their medicinal qualities. In the past Native American people used the leaves and bark of the Catalpa as a dressing on wounds and sores. The seeds of Catalpa trees can be used to treat chesty ailments like asthma and bronchitis. Tea made from this tree has antiseptic, laxative, and sedative properties.
This tree is the only source of food for the Catalpa sphinx moth that eats the leaves in large quantities. When there are a large number of these caterpillars, the trees can sometimes be left completely defoliated. Fishermen also use these caterpillars as fish bait, and so often plant these trees to increase their supply of bait.
Catalpas used to be planted near railway tracks in order to provide a source of wood for railroad ties and eventually started to grow naturally around the country.