Northern Catalpa Tree Profile

Flowers of Catalpa Tree

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A tree that grabs your attention, the northern catalpa is a large tree with white, showy (and fragrant) flowers, massive heart-shaped leaves, and dangling bean-like seed pods (which persist through the winter) atop a twisting trunk and branches. Other common names for this tree include hardy or western catalpa, cigar tree, catawba, Indian bean tree, and caterpillar tree.

First cultivated in 1754, the wood of the northern catalpa was originally used for fence posts and railroad ties due to the tree's fast growth rate and resistance to rot. It's not uncommon to spot certain wildlife visiting the flowers of the northern catalpa, including hummingbirds and bees. It's also the sole host of the catalpa sphinx moth.

Although the northern catalpa doesn't offer any vibrant fall foliage, it does boast large, beautiful leaves and color that are ornamental in the summer. Known for both its beauty as well as utility, the northern catalpa is a Midwest native tree that grows 40 to 60 feet tall. These ornamental trees feature attractive leaves and showy panicles of spring flowers, and their unique and decorative long hanging pods in the winter.

Though it's very adaptable to adverse conditions, it is considered to have weak wood and a brittle branch structure. While it may not be an ideal tree to grow for every location, it's a unique, hardy, fast-growing tree that is widely grown on residential properties and in parks and other open spaces throughout the country.

Botanical Name Catalpa speciosa
Common Name Northern Catalpa, Catalpa, Cigar-tree, Hardy Catalpa, Western Catalpa
Plant Type Deciduous tree
Mature Size 40-60 feet high, 20-40 feet wide
Sun Exposure Full sun, partial shade
Soil Type Moist, well-drained alkaline soil
Soil pH 5.5-7
Bloom Time Late spring/Early summer
Flower Color White
Hardiness Zones 4-8
Native Area Forests from southern Illinois and Indiana to western Tennessee and Arkansas

How to Grow the Northern Catalpa Tree

This tree grows at a medium to fast rate; planters can expect to see height increases of anywhere from 13 inches to more than 24 inches per year. It can also be expected to begin flowering about seven years after planting.

These are tree that will require some cleanup after the flower petals, seed pods, and leaves drop. You'll want to be sure you're not planting a northern catalpa where its fruit and flowers can drop on sidewalks, as they can be slippery.

Though the northern catalpa is a tough, resilient tree that's very adaptable to adverse conditions, this tree is pollution sensitive and can be messy when flowers and fruits fall. Its brittle branches may break and fall in storms. Other potential issues that growers of this tree should consider are Verticillium wilt as well as other minor issues, such as leaf spots, twig blight, mealybug infestation, and powdery mildew.

Light

This tree will grow best in both full sun and partial shade. It prefers a minimum of six hours of direct, unfiltered sunlight every day.

Soil

Tolerant to an array of soils, the Northern Catalpa will grow in acidic, alkaline, loamy, moist, rich, sandy, well-drained, wet, silty loam, and clay soils.

Water

These trees can tolerate a wide range of moisture conditions, including some flooding. When the tree is young, water only when the soil surface is dry, and then water less once its mature.

Temperature and Humidity

The Northern Catalpa is tolerant to both extremely hot and dry conditions. It blooms in both the late spring and early summer, although it does have an attractive winter form and its very long, stout brown pods will continue to dangle on the tree throughout the colder winter months.

Fertilizer

If the soil in your area happens to be rich and loamy, you may not need to fertilize your northern catalpa tree. However, when planting in clay or sandy soil, you should consider applying a standard 10-10-10 fertilizer a few weeks after planting. Fertilize again each spring while the tree is young.

Propagating

The northern catalpa can be propagated by collecting its seeds in the fall of winter after they've turned brown, but before the capsule has opened and released the seeds. Remove the seeds by peeling the capsule apart, and then they can be stored dry for short periods of time (about one to two years) in the refrigerator.

Pruning

You should prune your northern catalpa to cut away broken or diseased branches as well as manage its place within your landscape, remove deadwood, as well as to provide clearance around walkways, structures, and roofs. It's particularly important to remove deadwood in the crown of a mature tree because it can become extremely hazardous during a storm; it also promotes the wind moving freely through the crown, which is important during high winds.