The Southern Catalpa tree (Catalpa bignonioides) is a native American tree that is also known as the Indian Bean, Bean Tree, Fish Bait, Catawba and the Cigar Tree. During the fall season the seed pods of the Catalpa tree hang from the tree with the appearance of brown, one foot long cigars. These Catalpa bean pods are filled with hundreds of winged, flat seeds that are wind dispersed during the fall and winter months.
The American native Catalpa tree was found growing in 1726 by Mark Catesby, and later the Catalpa was discovered by the great American botanist and explorer William Bartram, when he explored Liberty County, Georgia, and wrote that in 1773, he observed 'Catalpa' growing among “tall and spreading trees” near Fort Barrington, near the Altamaha River, a Fort that had been built to protect the colonists from the Indians, French and Spanish populations.
Many, huge specimen trees were known to exist in the Northern States - growing around Philadelphia, Pa., that were presumed to have been planted there by William Bartram or his father, John Bartram who was also a famous botanist who lived in Philadelphia.
Because of the large, heart shaped green leaves, that often measure one foot long, the Catalpa tree is prized as a shade tree that provides a deep dense shade, faster than most other shade trees. Under ideal growing conditions, the Catalpa tree can grow up to four feet per year, but the wood is quite soft resulting from its rapid growth. Most soft wood trees are susceptible to rot, however, all parts of the Catalpa trees are embedded with toxins. The durable wood was used as fence posts by the Indians and early American colonists; some Catalpa posts were reported to have lasted 50 years by a Revolutionary War writer. The toxins contained in the Catalpa trees were also used as a cure for intestinal worms by American colonists and American Indians.
Other than its use as a shade tree, perhaps the most important use of the catalpa tree is for growing worms or caterpillar worms that hatch out on the leaves from eggs laid by the Catalpa Sphinx Moth (Ceratomia catalpae) The Catalpa leaves are the only food source for the Catalpa Sphinx Moth, and that insect is immune to the toxins in the leaves- leaves that are poisonous to all other creatures. The caterpillar worms usually eat all the leaves off the Catalpa tree in a matter of days, but the tree can shortly regrow another crop of leaves that can be feasted upon by a new generation of caterpillar worms.
The Catalpa caterpillar worms are excellent fish bait that are vigorously collected by fishermen during the summer months. Many river fishing camp owners along the Altamaha River in Georgia plant orchards of Catalpa trees to sell to local fishermen. Wildlife birds flock to Catalpa trees, and the worms gorge themselves on the leaves. Other wildlife animals like squirrels nest and live within the sheltering branches of the Catalpa tree.
Hummingbirds, butterflies and bees flock to the spectacular, white trumpet shaped flowers that dangle in one foot racemes with a delightfully, perfumed fragrance. The large white fragrant flowers are randomly dotted within the trumpet with exotic purple and yellow markings.
Catalpa trees can grow almost anywhere in poor or richly loamed soils and are easily transplanted when dormant. This drought resistant tree is a beautiful specimen shade tree that is well adapted for urban landscape plantings.