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Steve Nix

The "Catawba" Tree, North Vs. South

By July 28, 2013

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The catalpa tree's name (Catalpa sp.) made it into English and Latin via Creek Indian tribal language describing the tree's flower. Folks in the southern United States prefer to pronounce the tree "catawba" and that has survived as a common name along with cigar tree and Indian bean tree.

Catalpa was used by native Americans in the American South as a poultice and purgative from leaves and bark. These medicinal properties were never developed but the tree was promoted to railroads as the perfect "crosstie" and planted on their rights-of-ways throughout the United States. That also flopped because of poor soil conditions near railroads, insects (catalpa worms) and disease (butt and heart rots). Trees naturalized from these plantations and are now nearly everywhere.

There are actually two species in the United States and are hardy natives that tend to grow on one or the other side of the Mason-Dixon line - Northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) and Southern catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides). Still, there is a lot of overlap of these species but can be identified by some very different and unique characteristics.

Northern catalpa is a larger tree with a thinner leaf and a longer point on its valentine shaped leaf. Catalpa speciosa grows much taller than Southern catalpa and its panicle flowers are typically white. For massiveness, Northern catalpa has the edge. 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. Fish bait collectors visit these trees starting in mid-June and use this larvae as a prized fish bait. These defoliations generally do not harm the catalpa.


July 27, 2008 at 10:27 am
(1) sharon says:

I have tried everything to control the worms – I want the shade not the bait – what can I do? – my tree is so tall I can’t reach the top to spray.

July 31, 2008 at 7:10 pm
(2) TRISH says:

I just came from the local forestry today we have lived here 30 years, only got the worms in the last 15. I have several trans plants from the original, and they too have them. there is not much you can do this year, but for next year pick up your leaves, and burn or carry away. till the soil under the tree, the eggs are in the ground,to destoy the eggs. unfortunately this doesn’t get them all, because there are eggs in the bark and on small branches, but if you catch them early enough before they get too far up the tree next year, you may save your shade. by the way, they won’t kill the tree and if there is a disease going around on trees they kill the diseases, so not All bad.

October 29, 2008 at 12:43 pm
(3) Pat says:

We have 3 trees and up until this year they have always had worms on them. This year they had no worms at all. What needs to be done to help the trees produce the worms again???? Please help.

June 7, 2009 at 5:03 pm
(4) Randy says:

I planted 4 trees 3 years ago and they are doing well. Will the moths’ find them to lay their eggs or what do I need to do to have the worms? Randy

June 9, 2009 at 3:27 pm
(5) Earline says:

I’m in Central Florida and wonder if the Catawba will grow in Zone 9B (Central Florida). My brother at Smith Mt. Lake, VA, has the most beautiful Catawba tree and I’d like to plant a seedling. I’m thinking his must be a Northern variety, as it’s so tall!

November 2, 2010 at 7:07 pm
(6) timmy handy says:

I wont to know if the catawba tree can be used as firewood. Thanks

July 30, 2012 at 12:05 pm
(7) Tushar Bhatti says:

Always nice to find a new blog this excellent I will be back here for certain

June 12, 2013 at 6:35 pm
(8) Sharon says:

We have two catawba trees at our lake house. They had worms for a couple of years out of 15 years. They are a mess unless you catch them all for bait.
A couple of years we stuck a branch in some pretty good soil and it rooted and made a nice tree in no time. So this year we brought some back home and stuck them in good soil by our creek and pronto. New sprouts!
Wish i could post a pic.

July 8, 2013 at 8:39 pm
(9) Mike/Abbottstown PA says:

I am a big fan of the Catalba. I grow these for topiary purposes. I have mastered these trees over 12 years to discover unique qualities unfound in many trees.. I can produce a few pictures for this group if anyone is interested. All Northern species. I am also able to pack and ship this amazing power grower. Truely a mystical tree.

August 5, 2013 at 6:18 am
(10) Tim says:

Catalpa wood is coveted by turners and wood carvers in some regions. Being planted and utilized by the railroad as the perfect “crosstie” helped spread the tree because farmers found the tree with its rot resistant wood desirable for fence posts as well. As a fire wood, it burns rather quickly.

September 16, 2013 at 11:49 pm
(11) Roy says:

CATALPA. Perhaps, we have two varieties, or some cultvar variation here in northern and central Ohio. One type with similiar but slightly larger leaves seems to exude a heavier air borne perfume. They both have elongated seedpods. Is any definitive research being done on the Catalpa or Cataba trree?

From experience I know that the wood makes fairly long lasting fence posts, is a nice wood for carving–like a cross between Butternut and Basswood–and if you can find lumber or mill it yourself–a nice, light brown, grained cabinet wood that planes and sands well. It takes on a nice finish with oils. Sometimes, you can find cabinet grade and size lumber at local mills. Wood can be worked ‘geen’, and debarked fast with spokeshaves. It is a rather light weight wood with medium strength.
The wood can be burned, of course much better when given a good period of drying. Grows fast…you could start you own small woodlot..

May 5, 2014 at 6:51 pm
(12) Shelby Cox says:

We have a Catawba tree without any worms. I’ve lived here with it for 7 years. Love the beauty while in bloom. I just wished the blooms lasted longer.

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