I stopped to stare at some buckets of flowers at a farmers' market last Sunday. The white flowers, their throats speckled purple and yellow and grouped together on stalks like a candelabra, looked almost like orchids. But there's no orchid that showy that could be harvested in such quantities in a cold-winter climate.
Buckets and buckets were overflowing with these flowers; even an average-size greenhouse couldn't supply that many orchid blossoms at once.
The flowers were not orchids, of course. I stared and scratched my head, and then was embarrassed when the farmer told me what they were: catalpa flowers.
Catalpa. One of my favourite trees. I'd always admired the blossoms en masse and from afar, as they decorated enormous trees. Now, here they were, up close and bunched together in buckets.
AFFECTION FOR CATALPA BLOSSOMS
Catalpa has a lot going for it besides beautiful flowers. It tolerates all sorts of growing conditions: heat, cold, wet soils, dry soils, pollution, sun and shade.
Catalpa's leaves, as well as its flowers, evoke the tropics. The leaves are large, up to about a foot long, and heart-shaped.
It's a wonder that more people don't plant catalpa trees. One reason is that catalpa can be a big tree, and a behemoth 75 or 100 feet tall and half that width is too large for many yards. (A southern species, also quite cold-hardy, grows to only half that size.)
NOT FOR EVERYONE
The main reason people don't plant catalpas is because the trees are considered messy. Those large leaves look dramatic hanging on the branches but once they drop ... well, they're not as attractive flopped down on a lawn.
And then there are the fruits. Catalpa is also known as Indian Pipe or Indian Stogie for the foot-long, half-inch-wide brown fruits that dangle in profusion from the stems. They drop in autumn and winter, and some people object to those stogies on their lawn. Some people also don't like the dropped flowers littering the lawn. But wait a second here: I don't consider a lawn awash in orchid-like blossoms to be littered!
I do have other beefs, all relatively minor, against my catalpa tree. The first is that catalpas leaf out late in spring so that, for a time in spring when just about every other plant is green, catalpa appears to be dead. Its bare branches do get to show off how thick, craggy and muscular they are, a look I appreciate more in winter than in spring.
Second, by late summer the leaves usually pick up a thin, sooty covering, the result of a superficial fungus living on aphid honeydew and otherwise doing the tree little harm.
And third, in autumn the leaves do nothing more than fall, never turning anything more than a washed-out green colour.
RIGHT PLANT, RIGHT PLACE
Still, catalpas are well worth planting in the right place, which means a large yard and a portion of lawn that is not manicured, unless you enjoy raking. Catalpas are not long-lived, but they're fast-growing and precocious. Once cut down, their soft wood carves and turns well. The heartwood is also very rot-resistant, ideal for fence posts and arbors.
Catalpa is native to a relatively small area of the central Midwest, but has spread from there, planted mostly for fence posts and landscaping. You won't find whole forests of them; self-seeding ones tend to just pop up here and there — in my yard, for instance.
Considering the tree's white blossoms, muscular form, large leaves and useful wood, I plant to let some of these seedlings grow or transplant, rather than weed out.