Northern Catalpa Tree

Catalpa Tree and Flower.png

A couple of years ago I spotted city workers cutting holes into the
sidewalk around the street from my house. The next day a different set
of workers showed up and plopped Catalpa trees in each of the holes
and watered them with water from tanks the trucks were carrying. When
the trees remained nothing more than twigs, with barely a leaf on them,
I was certain the trees wouldn’t get a chance to establish themselves
without proper watering before the fall and winter set in.

Imagine my surprise the next spring when one day I turned the corner
and noticed both of the trees looked like they were covered in snow.
What looked like snow was actually huge clusters of mostly white
flowers. Since the trees were pretty young, many of the branches were
still at eye level so I walked up to the tree to inspect the flowers.
For a moment I thought it was a tree I had never encountered before.
Then memories of being a school kid and walking home with friends late
in the spring and walking down sidewalks covered in spent blossoms from
the Catalpa tree came back to me. The flowers make a bit of a slimy
mess and are a pain to clean off of brand new white sneakers your mother
warned you not to get dirty. The tree grows to 40′-60′ feet so as a
kids we never new where the flowers came from–they, literally, just
fell from the skies while we were in class.

Catalpa Tree Leaves.png

The heart-shaped
leaves of the Catalpa tree were familiar to me, as kids we used to take
the fallen leaves and make them pop. How does one make leaves “pop?”
Take one hand and place your fingers together as if you were holding an
ice cream cone- make sure it doesn’t turn into a fist. With your other
hand lay a leaf of the Catalpa tree over your imaginary ice cream cone.
Now take your free hand and smack the top of the leaf with an open palm
and you’ll make a pop in the cavity in your hand created by holding the
imaginary ice cream cone. A good-sized leaf is large enough to get
several pops out of it before you reach your house and have to start on
your homework.

Another characteristic of the Catalpa tree is the
slender pods that form after the flowers have been pollinated. The seed
pods look like bean pods and like the flowers eventually end up
littering the sidewalks. The dried pods make great weapons to fling at
your enemies during block wars or to use as a whip to hit your friends
in the back of the legs with.

Besides being a source of
entertainment and mischief for kids, the Catalpa tree is a really good
urban tree. The limbs are strong, the height and spread of the branches
make them good shade trees and they can withstand hot & dry conditions.
When you’re outdoors look up and see if you can spot the blossoms on
the Catalpa tree, they’re putting on a show right now around Chicago. There’s a cool B&W photo of a Catalpa tree outside the Field Museum from 1913 on the museum’s Flickr pool.

What’s your favorite urban tree?  

Tree Resources for Chicagoans:

you want a tree planted in your neighborhood? Call 3-1-1 and have the
Bureau of Forestry come out and take a look and see what tree would be
appropriate for your location. Take a look at this PDF with a list of the City of Chicago Urban Tree Planting List.

property owners who want a new tree planted on their parkway can call
City Hall to register for the Public Offered Parkway Tree program. Call

Dead or Damaged Trees. The Bureau of Forestry handles the
removal of parkway or trees planted in the public way that are diseased
or dead. You can request a tree that is not on private property be
removed by calling the city’s request line at 3-1-1.

Code 10-32-030(g) gives the Bureau of Forestry the authority to
prohibit and regulate the planting of certain varieties of trees and
shrubs. To read about the tree diversity goal see this PDF.

tree trimming in Chicago is the responsibility of the Bureau of
Forestry. If a tree on city streets and boulevards needs trimming don’t
do it yourself Call 3-1-1.


Leave a comment
  • I[ve heard of catalpa trees but I don't know that I've ever seen one--the white flowers look so exotic and non-tree-flower-like. Cool!

  • In reply to gardenfaerie:

    Garden Faerie,

    It is funny that you say that because according to Wikipedia the largest living Catalpa tree is in Lansing on the state capital grounds.

  • Ha! More synchronicity - seems to be around every corner I turn lately. I don't think I'd ever seen a Catalpa tree, until last weekend when I went on a Master Gardener field trip to Possibility Place, a native plant nursery in Monee (south suburb off I57.) Catalpa trees were in bloom there.

    I was amazed how beautiful they were and how huge the leaves are. The blooms are like a cross between petunias, iris, and orchids. They're gorgeous and remarkable trees - how wonderful that they thrive in an urban environment and add a little magic to the life of urban children. Popping the leaves looks like even more fun than bubblewrap.

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:


    I edited out of the entry how I thought the blooms looked like orchids. I said to myself: "I really need to expand my floral vocabulary." Last year when I took my first photo of a Catalpa blossom I thought they looked a lot like Gesneriads and wondered if there was a connection.

  • In reply to ssgardengirl:

    I moved into my appartment in mid July a few years ago, and looked out the front (south) facing window with some regret. The two large trees standing in front of my first floor balcony were soaking up all the sunlight I needed for city tomato growing. Early last spring, when the two trees literally burst into bloom, I fell in love. My first thought was that they might be related to orchids as well. In part I made this assumption because I read somewhere that a tree in England is a close relative to all orchids; a fact that was presented as a way of demonstrating that the creation of genus, families, and species based on observation, and not genetics was flawed, but that's a different story. At the same time, the catalpa seed pods look an awful lot like vanilla pods.

    In bloom, these are wonderful trees, and because my street is east / west, I get to watch the sunrise and the sunset on the blooms, which is stunning.

    The flowers have really taken a hit this year with the rain and wind. The trees are still pretty, but only about half dressed.

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