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The Peculiar Pleasures Of the Catalpa Trees By RON SULLIVAN Special to the Planet

Tuesday October 11, 2005

There are a couple of catalpa trees a few blocks from where I live, crowded into a narrow curb strip so tightly they’ve started bulging over the sidewalk. I’d wondered about them for years, and figured they were something planted by a homeowner years ago, for whatever reason. I got a partial explanation from a friend of ours who grew up on that block and still lives there–that rare bird, a Berkeley native of about my advanced age. He said that that part of Grant Street used to be lined with magnolias; the catalpas, another emblem of the Southeast, therefore fit right in. And yes, they were evidently planted by the person who owned the house they’re in front of. 

Catalpas are handsome trees that get big—50 to 90 feet—and look splendid in a meadow, in their native home. There are a couple of species back east, Catalpa speciosa, called “northern” or “western” catalpa, and the “southern,” C. bignoniodes. They’re quite similar, with leaf size and flower color being the visible differences and with considerable overlap in those. Some catalpas’ blossoms look pale lavender overall, though classically they’re white with purple freckles in their long throats. The southern tree’s flowers are supposed to be generally more purple than the northern’s. Some of these have a lilac hue that’s fairly startling and can be seen from quite a distance, almost glowing. 

The flowers appear in upright triangular panicles, and the trees’ branches aren’t crowded or dense, so a catalpa in bloom looks like an elaborate candelabrum. With their big, soft, heart-shaped leaves fluttering languidly, they have a luxuriant, silken-baroque grace.  

Sometimes that grace conceals little surprises. Catalpas are the host of the catalpa worm or catawba worm, a striking black-and white caterpillar that can be a hefty four inches long, with a spiked tail. It’s a favorite fish bait in its home range. Supposedly, users turn the caterpillar inside-out before putting it on a hook, all of which is too disgusting to think about any longer, so you have my permission to close your eyes and think of happy furry puppies. If unmolested by fisherfolks, parasitic wasp larvae, or other micro- or macro-predators, the spectacular caterpillar metamorphoses into a rather more subdued-looking sphinx moth.  

Catalpa fruit is rather odd and long too. It’s a sort of enormous dangling green bean, and gives the tree its other common name, “Indian cigar tree.” Back east, where the trees are usually more productive of flowers and fruit than our lonesome pair on Grant Street, the skinny cigars hang on like bamboo windchimes after the leaves fall, and if there are enough of them, they even rattle a little in the breeze. 

“Indian?” I don’t know why, except that it’s a native American, and maybe people were thinking of wooden tobacco-store icons. Or maybe it’s one of those inventions that seem to cross the Big Rock Candy Mountain, with its cigarette trees and soda-water fountain, and the notion that before the Europeans arrived, everything on the continent was uncultivated. If a cigar-store Indian had cigars, they must have grown on trees, right?  

I’m told that kids actually smoke the beans back East when they’re dried out: break off both ends, light one and suck the other. Or they did before tobacco smoking got to be something people of all ages are supposed to purse their lips and get all scoldy about. (I’m not a smoker; never have been. But I think I’m allergic to that cat-butt face.) Kids used to smoke cornsilk, too, wrapped in a handy bit of cornshuck. I’m trying to remember what, if anything, we used to try smoking in my suburban neighborhood fifty years ago. (That, if you need to be told, was before banana skins.) Maybe we made do with those weird white candy cigarettes … uh-oh. Evil white sugar!! 

The best way to tell northern from southern catalpa is to crush a leaf and smell it. Northern has no scent, other than that moist green leaf scent; southern has one, described as “faintly rank.” The pair on Grant Street still have leaves but have dropped a lot, so now’s the time to smell it for yourself. They’re senior trees, and I suspect they’ll be with us for only a few years more, if that. Check them out and remember to look for flowers next spring.  

[Editor’s note: In Missouri 50 years ago they were called “lady’s cigars.”]