Catalpa Tree Facts, Uses, and Planting Tips

Updated on September 15, 2018
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The author has an interest in the outdoors and the health benefits of what's found in nature.

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The catalpa tree is an ornamental shade tree that produces dense clusters of white flowers and long seed pods. They can grow upwards of 70 feet in height, although more realistically, they typically grow to be around 50 feet.

There are three common catalpa species—two North American and one Chinese:

  1. Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa): Native to the midwestern United States
  2. Southern Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides): Native to the southeastern United States
  3. Chinese Catalpa (Catalpa ovata): Native to western China

Because they are hardy plants that require very little water, various species are often grown outside of their native regions—particularly for their decorative features.

Catalpas are also deciduous trees, meaning they shed their leaves annually—usually in the fall or after the first frost. During this time, they also shed their long seed pods and flowers, which can deter some people from growing the tree.

Catalpa flowers—white with purple spots on the inside
Catalpa flowers—white with purple spots on the inside | Source

Quick Facts About Catalpa Trees

 
Northern Catalpa
Southern Catalpa
Chinese Catalpa
Scientific Name
Catalpa speciosa
Catalpa bignonioides
Catalpa ovata
Other Common Names
Cigar tree, Catawba Tree, Hardy Catalpa, and Western Catalpa
Cigar Tree, Catawba Tree, and Indian Bean Tree
Yellow Catalpa and Japanese Catalpa
Height
40–70 ft
30–50 ft
20–30 ft
Spread
20–40 ft
30–40 ft
20–30 ft
Leaves
Heart-shaped; 6–10 in long and 6–8 in wide
Heart-shaped; 4–8 in long and 6–8 in wide
Heart-shaped; 10 in long and wide
Flowers
Trumpet-shaped, white with purple and orange patches inside
Trumpet-shaped, white with purple and orange patches inside
Trumpet-shaped, yellowish-white with purple and orange patches inside
Fruits
Bean-like pods 8–20 in long
Bean-like pods 8–20 in long
Bean-like pods up to 12 in long
Lifespan
50–150 years (depending on conditions)
50–150 years (depending on conditions)
50–150 years (depending on conditions)
USDA Hardiness Zones
Zones 4–8
Zones 5–9
Zones 4–8
Distinguishing Features
Slightly larger than its southern cousin
Leaves produces smelly odor when crushed
Smaller than its North American cousins and has a distinct, creamy yellow flower coloration
The most common Catalpa species at a glance.
The dense clusters of white flowers—which resemble orchids—are one of the catalpa tree's most attractive features.
The dense clusters of white flowers—which resemble orchids—are one of the catalpa tree's most attractive features. | Source

What Are Catalpa Trees Used For?

Catalpas are mainly used for their ornamental features.

They make excellent decorative plants for large areas including yards and parks. The large size and broad, heart-shaped leaves also make them great shade trees.

Some of its more notable attributes are the flowers and bean-like pods. Come springtime, beautiful and fragrant clusters of white, trumpet- or bell-shaped flowers cover the tree. The flowers resemble an iris, with its purple and yellow coloration on the inside. The fruits, which resemble green beans, hang down from the branches and provide another visually intriguing feature.

Catalpa fruits are long, slender, and resemble bean pods
Catalpa fruits are long, slender, and resemble bean pods | Source

Can You Eat the Beans on a Catalpa Tree?

The "beans" have no known nutritional or savory qualities.

Although the fruits resemble bean pods (hence the name "Indian bean tree"), they're not usually eaten.

That being said, they are used in traditional medicine as treatments for ailments ranging from skin infections to conjunctivitis to asthma, although there is no scientific evidence backing these claims. According to the USDA, seeds and pods were used by pioneers in the 19th century to treat asthma, whooping cough, and various heart diseases.

Medicinal Uses of Catalpa Tree Parts

Teas and poultices made from the bark and leaves are often used in herbal medicine as laxatives and mild sedatives, and to treat skin wounds and abrasions, infections, snake bites, and even malaria. There is also some scientific evidence for the diuretic properties of Catalpa fruits (pods and seeds).

Although the fruits, bark, and leaves are considered safe, according to The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants by medical herbalist Andrew Chevallier, the Catalpa roots are highly poisonous. Therefore, herbal preparations should be handled by or under the guidance of a specialist.

A catalpa sapling supported by a stake.
A catalpa sapling supported by a stake. | Source

Ideal Growing Conditions for a Catalpa

Sunlight
Soil
Water
Full sunlight or partial shade
Good drainage with pH of 5.5–6.
When young, water only when soil surface is dry. Water less once mature.
Catalpa trees are hardy and can survive and adapt to most conditions, making them extremely easy to grow and care for.

How to Grow a Catalpa Tree From Seed

You can grow a catalpa tree from cuttings, but it's easier to grow them from seeds.

1. Collect the pods and store them in a cool, dry area.

Collect the pods after the leaves fall—once the pods are sufficiently dried but before the seeds have fallen from open pods. Store the pods in a cool, dry area. When you're ready, the seeds may be separated from the pods and placed in packets.

2. Plant the seeds in a pot with good drainage.

Catalpa trees grow best with low moisture, so make sure the pot or ground soil has good drainage.

Fill the pot with potting soil (pH 5.5–7) and place a few seeds on top. Lightly cover the seeds with more potting soil—no more than 1 inch in depth.

If you choose not to grow them in a planter then plant the seeds in the spring in warm, loose, and rich soil.

3. Lightly water the seeds, and place the pot in a shaded area.

The young seedlings won't be able to handle the intensity of full sunlight yet, so keep them in a shaded area with mild temperatures (60–70 ºF).

Continually monitor the seedlings and keep the soil moist but not soaked.

4. Transplant the seedlings to progressively larger pots.

Within a couple of months, the seedlings will be a few inches tall with one or two leaves. You can certainly transplant them to the desired permanent location, but it is recommended to continue growing them in pots over the first winter. This makes it easier to care for the young plant and prevent weeds, pests, and diseases from damaging it.

Use fresh potting soil each time to ensure the plant gets enough nutrients. No fertilizers are required.

5. Transplant the catalpa tree into your garden or lawn.

Spring is the best time to move the young catalpa to its permanent home. Choose a location that receives full sunlight or only partial shade.

Again, the soil should be slightly acidic and have good drainage. Dig a hole that's a little larger and wider than the pot the seedling is in. Remove any roots, weeds, or other debris.

Carefully remove the seedling and place it in the hole. As you cover the roots with soil, adjust the roots so that they point outwards and downwards. This ensures healthy growth and prevents the roots from surfacing in the future.

Continue watering the young tree—just enough to keep the soil moist. Applying mulch can help retain moisture and prevent weeds from sprouting.

Things to Consider When Growing a Catalpa

Mess and Potential Damage

Despite their beauty and intrigue, catalpa trees are large and messy. For these reasons, be mindful of the area that the roots and branches can cover. Avoid planting catalpas near buildings, fences, sidewalks, and plumbing or electrical lines.

The tree sheds heavily in the fall and winter, littering the leaves, flowers, and seeds over sidewalks, driveways, and cars. Regular maintenance is required to keep the mess under control.

Pests

The catalpa sphinx caterpillar (Ceratomia catalpae) is the main pest, whose larvae eat through the leaves. Although a catalpa tree can tolerate this, if the caterpillar population isn't controlled, consecutive generations of larvae can completely rid the tree of leaves and kill it.

Other pests include rabbits that can chew through young stems and grubs that eat young seeds.

Diseases

If you notice that the leaves are covered with a white, powdery substance, the tree may have powdery mildew. If this is isolated to certain branches or areas of the tree, you can prune these parts to prevent the fungus from spreading. Spraying fungicides or a natural alternative can also help control the disease.

Another fungal disease that can affect catalpas is verticillium wilt. The fungus invades the root system and clogs up the vasculature, cutting off water supply and causing branches to die off. Leaves may turn yellow and brown before falling off. The symptoms are similar to dehydration, but more watering will not solve the problem. Applying fungicides at the roots and/or increasing the nitrogen concentration in the soil may help.

Questions & Answers

  • We have a 60-year-old catalpa that my grandfather planted. It is about 50' high and a diameter of 3'. We have to cut it down to rebuild the home that it is next to. Is the catalpa wood useful as flooring, or beams or other types of uses as it might be cut into lumber?

    Catalpa is an excellent wood for flooring and lumber. Also, one if its main historical uses was as wood beams. So it'll be fine for that too. It's a very underrated hardwood that is suited for many uses, decorative and functional.

  • Are there male & female catalpa trees?

    From what I've read, catalpa trees contain both male and female features/'parts' and catalpa trees are best described as being both male and female.

    The flowers are typically pollinated by insects that are attracted by its flowers and their nectar. They distribute the pollen within the flower to pollinate it.

    Some close-up photos of the tree's flowers:

    http://bioimages.vanderbilt.edu/pages/pollination....

  • How long does it take for roots to grow on a Catalpa cutting?

    The amount of time it takes for Catalpa cutting to begin growing roots can vary, but it can be as soon as a few weeks. It is best to keep your young Catalpa growing indoors though and then planting it outdoors during the following spring.

    That is if you feel that it is ready to be planted outdoors. Most Catalpas from cuttings will be ready. Doing so will give it the best chance of survival, while still caring for it properly after you plant it outdoors.

  • What is the size of a catalpa seed?

    Catalpa seeds, out of the pod, are just a little bigger than a dime. As for the seed pods, they can be up to almost two feet long on some trees but are typically 8 to 12 inches in length.

© 2014 Ron Noble

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    • profile image

      keith mitchell 

      3 weeks ago

      We as kids grew up in Indiana and loved our catalpa tree for the caterpillars we used for fishing. Better than worms. The fish loved them. TX

    • profile image

      WillyT 

      4 weeks ago

      Is it normal for the leaves to all fall off in one Day? We purchased a house 2 years ago with 3 mature Catalpa trees, last year and again this year every leaf fell off of all 3 trees on November 7th.

    • profile image

      JWain 

      2 months ago

      I have a 10 year old Catalpa in a pot. It has never flowered. Should I put it into the ground or I’d there something else I can do to get it to flower.?

    • profile image

      Jenny Woodward 

      2 months ago

      is there something all natural i can spray on my catalpa to prevent the caterpillars from eating the leaves?

    • profile image

      DianeLP 

      3 months ago

      I moved into a home with a HUGE catalpa tree in front yard. Neighbors have already hinted that they view the tree as a "nightmare" because of the leaves. I personally love the tree but am wondering the best way to clean up the leaves when they fall. Will a leaf blower even work on leaves that big? Suggestions on best kind of rake?... I am a woman who lives alone so looking for best plan for this autumn (I live in Vermont). Thanks for any help!!

    • profile image

      Jackie Hulbert 

      3 months ago

      I noticed a weed started growing amongst my 3 year old planted lilac bushes first part of May. By end of May the 'weed' was 5' tall w/leaves nearly 8" wide. Found out it is a Catalpa tree, and due to the beautiful flowers it will create, have decided to keep. BUT I need to move to another part of the yard. I am told that I have to wait until leaves fall off, which should be mid-Oct/1st-Nov. (central part of Minnesota). By then the ground will have started to freeze, so I plan to start digging a hole in a couple of weeks. My questions are: how deep, how wide, how to protect this newly planted tree from the cold for now; how badly will this disturb my lilac bushes and what do I need to do to protect them for just this year? Oh yes - the tree is now over 6' and trunk is about 2" wide.

    • Zeph1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Ron Noble 

      3 months ago

      Here are some links that I found that give details on how to transplant a catalpa.:

      https://gardening.stackexchange.com/a/32925

      This second link below also includes links to pdf files, in parts 1 and 2, that provide even more detail on transplanting a tree.

      https://ask.extension.org/questions/418582

      One final pdf document with detailed transplanting instructions is at https://conservancy.umn.edu/handle/11299/51811

      These documents provide details on how to dig your tree out, provide advice on root pruning, and on how to replant your tree for the best chances of surviving the transplant.

    • profile image

      Jim willeford 

      3 months ago

      I have 2 -3 footers that sprouted this past spring. How far around (diameter) and how deeply should I dig to remove the tree from it's chosen spot.

      Also, I have heard that is good to prune the roots. Should I do this on such a young tree? One last thing? Should I build a mound and plant high, or?

      Thanks....jim

    • profile image

      charles gardner 

      8 months ago

      if its a southern catalpa you might be having a problem due to the colder temps

    • profile image

      Bill Bromley 

      8 months ago

      Same issue as Bett : I have tried 9 catalpa seeds. They pop up fast and furious , then die at about 3" in height. I have tried migrating to incrementally larger pots and using plant food. I have one that has not grown at all in height for two months but appears to be alive.

      Kind of like the Monty Python Parrot Sketch. Maybe dead , maybe just asleep.

      Planted this in Ontario , Canada in December , but a fair bit of sunlight on the window ledge facing south.

      Frustrating , because I so badly want two or three on my property.

    • profile image

      Robyn Thornton 

      9 months ago

      Something this article forgot to mention is that a lot of these trees attract a specific type of caterpillars that only eat the leaves of catalpa trees. So don't plant these trees if you don't want a bunch of worms crawling around your yard. They won't hurt you or the tree, but they can defoliate them. They are NOT hurting the tree in any way, and do NOT kill them if they appear!

    • profile image

      bett 

      12 months ago

      I have been trying to grow a catalpa tree from seeds. they get about three inches in height then die. what am I doing wrong? I have tried part sun, low sun. I have used last years seeds and done everything that the different web sites have suggested. if anyone can give advise I would be greatful.

    • profile image

      Pam W. 

      13 months ago

      I would love to have some seeds from the fisherman tree if someone is interested in selling any.

    • profile image

      ain't no thing but a chicken wing 

      15 months ago

      What are some uses you can do with catalpa beans? i have a ton of them but i don't know what to do with them

    • profile image

      jeannette krane 

      19 months ago

      Are catalpa trees affected by drought by winter night frost without extra water after October shut off?

      Do I need to hand water during winter?

      Tank you!

      Jeannette Krane

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