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April 2008
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Growing the Catalpa tree

Catalpa, also spelled Catawba, is a genus of mostly deciduous trees in the flowering plant family Bignoniaceae, native to warm temperate regions of North America, the West Indies, and eastern Asia. Catalpa is a true tree of the people, surviving in all kinds of conditions from polluted cities to windswept prairies. Native Americans utilized the Catawba long before settlers arrived in the New World. But the settlers soon recognized the value of the catalpa and carried it with them across the country. With catalpa’s ability to survive most conditions and grow rapidly, and it’s bonus of beautiful, fragrant flowers, it was the pioneers choice of trees to plant on a new homestead.
There are two recognized species of catalpa or Catawba tree in North America, Southern Catalpa, C. bignonioides, and Northern Catalpa, C. speciosa. There are only subtle differences in the two and they have both been planted far outside their natural ranges. The tree is the food plant of the Catalpa Sphinx moth, the leaves being eaten by the caterpillars. The caterpillars are an excellent live bait for fishing, particularly in the south U.S. where some dedicated anglers plant catalpa mini-orchards for their own private source of “catawba-worms”.
For fast shade in rough conditions, catalpa is a good choice. Farmers plant catalpa for the wood, which makes strong, lightweight, rot-resistant fence posts. It makes a nice specimen tree with showy flowers at a time few other trees are blooming. Fisherpersons plant Catawba because it attracts caterpillars used for bait.
Catalpas grow to 10-25 m tall and 3 ft in diameter, and can be recognized by their large heart-shaped to three-lobed leaves, showy white or yellow flowers in broad panicles, and in the autumn by their 20-50 cm long fruits which resemble a slender bean pod, containing numerous small flat seeds, each seed having two thin wings to aid wind dispersal. Because of the leaves, they are sometimes confused for Tung trees in the south U.S. The leaves grow in pairs of threes which are whorled and opposite at a node. They are 6-12″ long and 4-8″ wide. They are characterized by a dull green above, and a paler green and fuzzy underside.
The Catalpa grows best in sun and partial shade. It is very tolerant of different soil types but it prefers deep, moist, fertile soil. It can withstand wet or dry alkaline coinditions and extremely hot, dry environments. They grow quite rapidly when young. A catalpa tree in a good spot may add 2 foot of growth a year, and trees bloom young, as early as six years of age.
Growing from seed: The seeds do not need any special treatment, such as freezing. Use a shallow container that has drainage and fill it with coarse sand or seed-starting mix. The sand, or mix, should be kept evenly moist and the container should be in a place where it gets some bottom heat or at least, where it is not exposed to chilly drafts. The bottom heat can come from sitting on top of the refrigerator or similar light-heat generating appliance. The seeds may well take 4 to 8 weeks to germinate. Plant them twice the depth of their thickness. After sprouting, the seedling will grow rapidly and after it’s gotten two sets of true leaves, it can be transplanted to a four-inch pot filled with container soil mix and kept in a sunny, warm spot, or under artificial light. If you plant the seeds now, by the time they sprout and are ready to transplant, the days will be getting longer.

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