Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Catalpa
Nature Bulletin No. 343-A   May 3, 1969
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

During the summer of 1905 we were hired by the T. P. & W. Railroad, which runs east and west across central Illinois, to tend the thousands of young Catalpa trees planted along its right-of-way. Other railroads had similar plantations in various parts of the country, some of them very large, from which they expected to grow their own timber for ties, telegraph poles and fence posts. Thousands of farmers, especially in the treeless midwestern prairies, had or were planting windbreaks and orchard-like woodlots of Catalpa. It was known to be a very fast growing tree in the Ohio valley where it was native, and erroneously supposed to be exceptionally durable in contact with the soil -- equal to cedar, black locust, mulberry, osage orange and other species notable for this desirable quality.

Most of these plantations proved disappointing and were abandoned or destroyed. The catalpa boom collapsed. The fad was largely due, apparently, to the fanatical efforts of one man: an Indiana engineer who was secretary of an organization called the International Society of Arboriculture. He tirelessly publicized the virtues of the "Hardy Catalpa", making extravagant statements which he sincerely believed. At the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, in 1904, he placed an elaborate exhibit, including the interior of a Pullman car, to demonstrate the many uses which he insisted could be made of this tree and why it should be extensively planted.

Catalpa is the Cherokee Indian name, adopted by early settlers, for the Common Catalpa -- a species native in the South Atlantic states and the lower Mississippi Valley. Although they flourished widely during the Ice Age, there are now only seven species: two native in the United States and five in the West Indies and China. Several hybrid and horticultural varieties, such as the Umbrella Catalpa, have been developed for ornamental and formal effects.

The Northern or Hardy Catalpa has been widely planted for ornamental purposes, or as a street tree, and has become naturalized throughout most of the northeastern states. It is extensively used for windbreaks and shelterbelts in Nebraska, Kansas, and other western states. It attains a maximum height of about 120 feet and diameters of four or five feet in the rich bottomlands of the Wabash and Ohio River Valleys but is ordinarily much smaller and makes very unsatisfactory growth on poor clay or gravelly soils, This and the use of seed from the other species -- a smaller, less hardy tree -- were two of the reasons why most of those early plantations failed. Further, catalpa is subject to severe damage by insects -- especially the larvae of a sphinx moth -- to a fungus that causes wilt, to root rot, and to a white spongy rot that enters through a wound or a dead branch and decays the heartwood. Unless kept carefully pruned, many catalpas are killed by such damage before they mature.

Northern catalpa, growing in the open, usually has a rather short crooked trunk and thick straggling branches. Its course-grained wood is very light, soft and weak. The pointed heart-shaped leaves may be from 7 to 12 inches long and 5 to 8 inches wide. They turn black after the first hard frost in autumn. In June the tree is literally covered with clusters of large trumpet-shaped flowers -- white but flecked with lavender and yellow -- that have a cloying odor. They are followed by very long bean-like pods that hang on until nearly spring, when they split open and liberate quantities of flat winged seeds. As boys, we tried to smoke these "cigars" but they made us sick.

The larva of the catalpa sphinx moth is a favorite bait for panfish.

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