Catalpa Tree Facts, Uses, and Planting Tips

Updated on May 1, 2019
Zeph1 profile image

The author has an interest in the outdoors and the health benefits of what's found in nature.

The catalpa tree is an ornamental shade tree.
The catalpa tree is an ornamental shade tree. | Source

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 are white with purple spots on the inside.
Catalpa flowers are 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 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

  • My great grandfather planted numerous catalpa trees on our farm over 100 years ago. To this day, not one sapling has ever germinated from the millions of seeds that have fallen. Why is this?

    The likely answer is that catalpas naturally grow in the rich, well-drained soils found along streams, creeks, and rivers. Outside of that environment, it is good to grow it in soil with similar attributes.

    The section "Planting-Site" in the document at https://www.ksre.k-state.edu/historicpublications/... provides more details on the soil and growing environment that the Northern catalpa prefers.

  • 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....

  • My Catalpa tree is several years old and about 8 foot tall, but has never bloomed, any suggestions?

    It's hard to tell but the likely answer is that the tree may not have reached that growth stage. Which is usually around when the tree is three to five years old or so. You could contact a tree care company local to you to look at the tree. As long as the tree looks healthy it will have its first bloom sooner or later within the coming years.

  • We have two catalpa trees. The first one we planted about fourteen years ago has been getting fewer, and smaller leaves the past two years. The other one that we planted more recently is very lush, with large leaves. Do you have any idea what may be wrong with the older one?

    It's hard to tell without seeing the tree in person and it may be best to contact a professional in your area to look at your tree. With that said, one thing that can cause the semi-sudden loss of foliage could be catalpa worms. If the defoliation caused by these worms continues for a few seasons, it's possible that it could kill the tree. More on catalpa infestations can be read at: https://ask.extension.org/questions/268066.

    As for other diseases that affect catalpa trees, visit: https://extension.psu.edu/catalpa-diseases.

© 2014 Ron Noble

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    • profile image

      Dana 

      4 weeks ago

      I live in Kansas and I have what I believe is a Catalpa tree in my yard. It used to be a beautiful dense umbrella shaped tree. Over the last 3 years it is slowly dying. I want to save it, but not sure I can. I would also like to grow another tree from it, but it doesn't produce beans, or flowers. Any help would be appreciated.

    • profile image

      Larry 

      7 weeks ago

      The worms that eat the leaves are great fish bait.

    • Zeph1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Ron Noble 

      8 weeks ago

      Here's a good guide on pruning a catalpa: https://www.hunker.com/12526734/how-to-prune-a-cat...

    • profile image

      Theresa 

      8 weeks ago

      How do you prune these trees? Ours has a lot of dead limbs

    • BWD316 profile image

      Brian Dooling 

      2 months ago from Connecticut

      Hi Ron, great article! It's so funny because I just came across a Catalpa tree for the first time last week at a nature center in Connecticut. I was drawn to the long seed pods and wondered what it was. There was a plaque near the tree that referred to it as a "cigar tree" and then I log into HubPages and came across your article. Such great information! Thanks for sharing.

    • Zeph1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Ron Noble 

      2 months ago

      Mendi, this may describe why water is dripping from the leaves of your catalpa. Especially since you've said that you've received a lot of rain this year.

      https://www.quora.com/Why-do-we-feel-some-water-dr...

    • profile image

      Mendi 

      2 months ago

      I have a catalpa tree and I noticed it's dropping a substance from it. It's not sticky but looks like a mini rainfall under it. I know we've gotten a lot of rain this year and wondered if that was the problem but there's no dieing or brown leaves no wilting no nothing. Any ideas?

    • Zeph1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Ron Noble 

      4 months ago

      It's likely, as you have guessed, that your catalpa is in decline. There may not be much you can do but you may want to contact an arborist to inspect your tree to look for any cracking, splitting, or other problems.

    • Zeph1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Ron Noble 

      4 months ago

      You may want to contact a local arborist to physically inspect your tree and to recommend any treatment for the fungus and to limit the damage to your catalpa.

    • profile image

      Ed Sach (edsach@gmail.com) 

      4 months ago

      My catalpa tree is rotten in the division of two branches and has a hole in one of those branches, it seems as if the fungi had ocacionado this. What I can do ? I love my tree!

      Thank so much !

    • profile image

      frank davidson 

      4 months ago

      after reading these comment i am stunned.. first of all these folks dont know they a money tree the worms are highly prized by fishermen put several dozen in a paper sack with leaves to your local tackle shop they will pay you them

    • Zeph1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Ron Noble 

      5 months ago

      Karey L, Northern Catalpa trees aren't toxic to horses. If they happen to consume the leaves, flowers, or beans it won't harm them.

      Here's a list of trees that are safe, and a list of those that are unsafe, for horse pastures: http://lemen.com/qa253.html

    • profile image

      Karey L 

      5 months ago

      I have horses and need to know if the Catalpa tree, or it's leaves or flowers are poisonous to horses. Thanks for your help.

    • Zeph1 profile imageAUTHOR

      Ron Noble 

      7 months ago

      Denis Kitner, you can use any insecticide that's suited for caterpillars to control them. One such insecticide can be found at https://www.gardensalive.com/product/green-step-ii...

    • profile image

      Denis Kitner 

      7 months ago

      We have many large beautiful catalpa trees in our yard in VA that are attacked by the catalpa worms every year. How do we protect our trees from this vicious predator?

    • profile image

      keith mitchell 

      11 months 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 

      11 months 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 

      12 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 

      13 months ago

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

    • profile image

      DianeLP 

      13 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 

      13 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 

      13 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 

      13 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 

      18 months ago

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

    • profile image

      Bill Bromley 

      18 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 

      19 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 

      22 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. 

      2 years 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 

      2 years 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 

      2 years 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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