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Catalpa Tree Planting: How To Grow A Catalpa Tree

Catalpa Tree Planting: How To Grow A Catalpa Tree


By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist

Across the midwest United States, you may find a bright green tree with lacy panicles of creamy white flowers. The catalpa is native to parts of North America and frequently grows in hot dry soils. What is a catalpa tree? It is a softly rounded tree with lovely flowers and interesting pod-like fruit. The plant has an interesting use for fishermen and is an important tree for land reclamation. Try growing a catalpa tree in your yard and admire the attractive leaves and showy spring showers of white flowers.

What is a Catalpa Tree?

Catalpa trees are 40- to 70-foot (12 to 21.5 m.) tall trees with arching canopies and an average lifespan of 60 years. The deciduous plants are hardy to USDA planting zones 4 to 8 and can tolerate moist soils but are more suited to dry areas.

The leaves are arrow-shaped and glossy bright green. In fall they turn a bright yellow-green before dropping as cold temperatures and chilly winds arrive. Flowers appear in spring and last into early summer. The fruit is a long bean-shaped pod, 8 to 20 inches (20.5 to 51 cm.) long. The tree is useful as a shade tree, along streets and in dry, hard-to-plant sites. However, the pods can become a litter problem.

How to Grow a Catalpa Tree

Catalpa trees are quite adaptable to different soil conditions. They perform well in both full sun to partial shade locations.

Growing catalpa trees is easy but they have the tendency to naturalize in areas where the tree isn’t native. This potentially invasive potential is more common in border states around the plant’s natural range.

Trees may start from dropped seed but this is easily avoided by raking up the dropped seed pods. The tree is regularly planted to attract catalpa worms, which fishermen freeze and use to attract fish. The ease of catalpa tree care and its rapid growth make it ideal for areas where a quickly maturing tree line is desired.

Catalpa Tree Planting

Choose a bright sunny location for growing Catalpa trees. Ideally, the soil should be moist and rich, although the plant can tolerate dry and inhospitable sites.

Dig a hole twice as deep and twice as wide as the root ball. Fluff out the roots to the edges of the hole and fill in around them with well worked soil.

Use a stake on young trees to ensure straight growth. Water the plant well and every week until it has established. Once the tree has rooted, water is only needed in periods of extreme drought.

Catalpa Tree Care

Young trees should be pruned to encourage good growth. Prune in spring one year after planting. Remove suckers and train the tree to a straight leader trunk. Once the tree is mature, it is necessary to prune it to keep low growing branches from impeding maintenance under the plant.

These are tough trees and don’t require much babying. Fertilize in spring with a balanced fertilizer to promote health.

Watch for insects and other pests and avoid overhead watering, which can cause mildew and fungal problems.

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A Catalpa Tree in My Garden

There is a Catalpa Tree in the middle of my vegetable garden because I planted it in that spot from a little seed in 2011. While it is doubtful that many folks would choose to plant trees from seeds like I do, it is rewarding to nurture a tree along from seed to maturity.

When we were kids, we called them "Stringbean Trees". Then we would call them "Indian Cigar Trees." Finally, I learned the true name: Catalpa speciosa. Mine is a Northern Catalpa. It is only three years old, and already it has had its first cluster of flowers followed by two long "stringbean" seed pods.

What's not to like about the Northern Catalpa? It's a fascinating tree. It starts out in the spring rather stark and bare for a while, then it "leafs" out with remarkably large heart-shaped leaves. Then flower bud clusters appear. The flowers are large and frilly and call attention to the tree in late spring, qualifying this tree to be one of the most attractive at that time of the season. The flowers fall like snow at the base of the tree when they are spent. Some folks find that event charming others call it a mess. I vote for charming.

After the flowers fade, long seed pods begin to appear, small at first and then growing longer and heavier to stay attached to the tree for fall and sometimes even during winter.

There's more: This tree is a fast grower, reaching a potential height of 100 feet to make a lasting statement of strength and beauty in the landscape. Folks of all ages seem to like the Northern Catalpa for all of its pleasant features. This specimen had long been on my personal list of trees to acquire when I began to landscape my home in the 1990s because I have fond memories of its blossoms and "beans" from the days when my sisters and brothers were young. We would climb in the Catalpa in our front yard at the beach.

In winter of 2010, out of fondness for the Northern Catalpa, I set out in the car to search for some of those long seed pods. The plan was to pull the car over, jump out, and pick a few from one of the many Catalpa trees that grace the local highways, byways, and back alleys. These trees seem to be everywhere once you know how to spot them, in season and out.

It is in the off-season well after summer and fall have passed when chances are high that these seed pods will have viable seeds inside. It seems that the longer the seed pods stay on the tree, the better. A dry seed pod found on the ground or taken from the bare Catalpa at winter's end is the best way to get seeds.

It worked for me. Once I got the crackly, dry pods opened, I expected seeds to fall out however, the pods were empty. But wait—they had to have seeds, but where? Oh, my goodness! I had to look closer. Snug against the inside of the round pod casing were little cloth-like sacks cleverly designed in the same exact color as the inside walls of the seed pod. They had to be coaxed out with my finger. Inside of each beige sack were a few seeds. These were saved in a paper bag to wait for spring.

When springtime came, ten little Catalpa seeds were gingerly planted at the edge of the vegetable garden where they would get the benefit of the daily water sprinkler. All of the seeds germinated. All was well.

The seedlings quickly took on the form of miniature adult Catalpa trees except with skinny, flexible trunks. They were adorable. Then, during that first winter, the baby trees looked like little sticks in the ground, but I protected and loved my little sticks even so.

The little trees grew strong and remained in the garden for two years in their own special row, getting taller by the minute:

In late summer of 2012, the group of young Catalpa trees was clearly stressing due to being overcrowded. I marked out a trench to explore where the roots were and left it there until the following spring.

In spring of 2013, it was time to transplant the two-year-old Catalpas that were in need of growing space if they were ever to become handsome trees. The chore should have been done a year earlier, but since it was not taken care of in a timely manner, a sense of urgency prevailed: transplant or eliminate. There was only one thing to do: start digging.

I selected the strongest tree to remain at the garden's edge this one would be my special Northern Catalpa, the tree that reminded me of my youth. All of the other trees would be carefully removed to ensure that they could be transplanted and given away to whoever wanted them.

This worked like a charm. I dug very deep and began to understand that trees make lateral roots as well as vertical ones. The Catalpa in particular makes a mass of roots that is easier to manage while the trees are very young.

Finding the taproot was important to me and was the hardest root to dig out. Sometimes I just had to dig as far down as I could reach and then tug at the taproot to urge it forth. Sometimes the taproot broke off. After Googling it, some of the information about young Catalpas said that it would not be a dealbreaker if you broke the taproot near its terminal end that is never my intention, but sometimes it happens that way with young trees.

Most of the young Catalpas were given to a friend to line his long driveway. The remaining trees were propped up next to the shed, swaddled in porous material and watered frequently until homes could be found for them.

The spot where the digging took place was smoothed over and began to look attractive once more after filling the long shallow hole. I gave special care and attention to the one tree left standing: my strongest Catalpa that was now "released" from any obligations to share the ground with its buddies all entangled together.

It seemed as though the one remaining tree gave a hearty "Thank you!" and then increased in height, girth, and fullness to my utter amazement. The Catalpa digging project was accomplished, and a sense of peace settled over the garden.

My Catalpa is now only three years old, but I can already envision its eventual size (perhaps 100 feet tall) every day when I go out to the garden to visit and inspect the plants. It is no longer at the edge of the garden it is in the middle. The garden is growing around the tree.

This situation will not last long since Northern Catalpa is often grown for its ability to become a shade tree very quickly. This is proving itself to be true. We will need to relocate and redesign our vegetable garden by next spring. Since I have other favorite trees in that area, the sunny garden will soon become a shady grove.

And that is quite alright with me.

Tree Notes, a blog with information about the difference between Northern Catalpa and Southern Catalpa

Photo credit to Dave's Garden member rntx22 for the Catalpa "stringbean" seed pods that are hanging on the tree. All other photos are my own.


The Southern Catalpa is a smaller tree with considerably more blossoms that are lavender or purple in color, probably more attractive than its northern cousin. Catalpa bignonioides is the preferred landscape tree.

Both trees are fish favorites. The catalpa caterpillar of the catalpa sphinx moth feeds on the catalpa leaf which will often defoliate the tree. Fishbait collectors visit these trees starting in mid-June and use this larva as prized fish bait. These defoliations generally do not harm the Catalpa.


Plant Library

Northern Catalpa in bloom

Northern Catalpa in bloom

Other Names: Western Catalpa

A medium sized shade tree with enormous leaves resulting in a very coarse texture, use where this is required very showy white and purple orchid-like flowers in early summer, long narrow beanpod-shaped fruit in fall are very ornamental

Northern Catalpa features showy panicles of fragrant white orchid-like flowers with yellow throats and purple spots rising above the foliage in mid summer. It has green foliage throughout the season. The enormous heart-shaped leaves do not develop any appreciable fall color. The fruits are showy brown pods displayed from mid summer to late winter. The fruit can be messy if allowed to drop on the lawn or walkways, and may require occasional clean-up.

Northern Catalpa is a deciduous tree with a shapely oval form. Its strikingly bold and coarse texture can be very effective in a balanced landscape composition.

This tree will require occasional maintenance and upkeep, and is best pruned in late winter once the threat of extreme cold has passed. It is a good choice for attracting birds, bees and hummingbirds to your yard, but is not particularly attractive to deer who tend to leave it alone in favor of tastier treats. Gardeners should be aware of the following characteristic(s) that may warrant special consideration

Northern Catalpa is recommended for the following landscape applications

  • Accent
  • Shade

Northern Catalpa will grow to be about 45 feet tall at maturity, with a spread of 40 feet. It has a high canopy with a typical clearance of 7 feet from the ground, and should not be planted underneath power lines. As it matures, the lower branches of this tree can be strategically removed to create a high enough canopy to support unobstructed human traffic underneath. It grows at a fast rate, and under ideal conditions can be expected to live for 70 years or more.

This tree does best in full sun to partial shade. It is an amazingly adaptable plant, tolerating both dry conditions and even some standing water. It is not particular as to soil type or pH, and is able to handle environmental salt. It is highly tolerant of urban pollution and will even thrive in inner city environments. Consider applying a thick mulch around the root zone in winter to protect it in exposed locations or colder microclimates. This species is native to parts of North America.


Plant Finder

Northern Catalpa in bloom

Northern Catalpa in bloom

Other Names: Western Catalpa

A medium sized shade tree with enormous leaves resulting in a very coarse texture, use where this is required very showy white and purple orchid-like flowers in early summer, long narrow beanpod-shaped fruit in fall are very ornamental

Northern Catalpa features showy panicles of fragrant white orchid-like flowers with yellow throats and purple spots rising above the foliage in mid summer. It has green foliage throughout the season. The enormous heart-shaped leaves do not develop any appreciable fall color. The fruits are showy brown pods displayed from mid summer to late winter. The fruit can be messy if allowed to drop on the lawn or walkways, and may require occasional clean-up.

Northern Catalpa is a deciduous tree with a shapely oval form. Its strikingly bold and coarse texture can be very effective in a balanced landscape composition.

This tree will require occasional maintenance and upkeep, and is best pruned in late winter once the threat of extreme cold has passed. It is a good choice for attracting hummingbirds to your yard, but is not particularly attractive to deer who tend to leave it alone in favor of tastier treats. Gardeners should be aware of the following characteristic(s) that may warrant special consideration

Northern Catalpa is recommended for the following landscape applications

  • Accent
  • Shade

Northern Catalpa will grow to be about 55 feet tall at maturity, with a spread of 30 feet. It has a high canopy with a typical clearance of 7 feet from the ground, and should not be planted underneath power lines. As it matures, the lower branches of this tree can be strategically removed to create a high enough canopy to support unobstructed human traffic underneath. It grows at a fast rate, and under ideal conditions can be expected to live for 70 years or more.

This tree does best in full sun to partial shade. It is an amazingly adaptable plant, tolerating both dry conditions and even some standing water. It is considered to be drought-tolerant, and thus makes an ideal choice for xeriscaping or the moisture-conserving landscape. It is not particular as to soil type or pH, and is able to handle environmental salt. It is highly tolerant of urban pollution and will even thrive in inner city environments. This species is native to parts of North America.


Watch the video: Facts on the Catalpa Tree