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.
Catalpa bignonioides is a stunning award-winning deciduous tree, ideal to use in a lawn or wide border as a feature tree. The large, pale-green, heart-shaped leaves (up to 25cm across) are complimented by profuse quantities of showy panicles of orchid-type flowers in late summer. The fragrant flowers are mainly white with orange and purple markings on the throat and are followed by slender bean like pods (up to 40cm long) which can persist into winter.
With a spreading shape, Catalpa bignonioides reaches an estimated height and spread of 6 x 5 metres in 20 years, although can be coppiced to grow as a multi stem. Known as an Indian Bean tree, it appreciate a sunny spot and well-drained, moist soil. Young trees need protection from frosts so a sheltered position is best and will prevent the wonderful large leaves being torn. Indian bean trees cope well with pollution so are great in city gardens - there's a row of mature trees, believed to have been planted in 1857, outside the Houses of Parliament.
AKA Common Catalpa, Indian Bean Tree, Eastern Catalpa, Southern Catalpa, Cigartree, Smoking Bean Tree, Catawba
The bright yellow leaves on Catalpa bignonioides 'Aurea' are perfect for bringing a real splash of colour into the garden. The large, heart shaped, velvety foliage begins with a bronze shade, developing into a clear yellow and then turning yellow/green in late summer. In older trees, creamy white, foxglove-like flowers with purple and yellow spotted throats appear in bundles in June/July and are followed by long, slender seed pods.
The Golden Indian Bean tree, as it is commonly known, is a wonderful slightly spreading small tree that grows to an estimated 5 x 4 metres in 20 years. For smaller spaces, Catalpa bignonioides 'Aurea' can be coppiced and grown as a multistem which will develop even bigger leaves. Best planted in a sunny, sheltered position, 'Aurea' will tolerate most soils, except very damp sites.
AKA Golden leaved catalpa, southern catalpa, Catalpa bignonioides Aurea, Golden Indian bean tree
This marvelous tree produces large, heart-shaped leaves which, when young, are a deep glossy purple, turning to shades of dark-green and chocolatey-purple as they mature. Unlike some other catalpa varieties, erubescens ‘Purpurea’ produces its foxglove-like flowers even at a young age. The creamy white flowers feature purple and orange markings and are followed by long seed pods.
A small deciduous tree, Catalpa erubescens ‘Purpurea’ has a slightly spreading form and will grow to 6 x 5 metres in 20 years. If coppiced it will stay even smaller, producing even larger leaves. Best positioned in a sheltered situation with full sun, this tree will tolerate most soils except wet sites. This purple leaved Indian Bean tree is a fantastic choice for creating bold contrast in the garden.
AKA Purple hybrid catalpa, Catalpa x erubescens 'Purpurea'