Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Isaac's Catalpa Trees

Perhaps it was the deep shade cast by the large, heart-shaped leaves of the catalpa trees that made Isaac love them as he did.  What he specifically mentioned in his Journal was the sweet perfume of their blossoms.  Blooming in late spring, the flowers resemble miniature orchids--delicate petals of white surrounding an open throat bordered with a tracery of burgundy accented with yellow.  Isaac found the fragrance of the catalpa blossoms sweet, but others find the scent overpoweringly strong, as I learned when a dinner guest once asked me to remove a catalpa bouquet from the room. 

The blossoms are followed by green seed pods 10" or longer, resembling elongated green beans.  These pods darken to brown by autumn, and their appearance gives the tree the common names of cigar tree, Indian cigar, and Indian bean tree.  A friend of mine understood that name literally as a youngster and tried to smoke one of the long brown seed pods.  It didn't work.

The name catalpa has an interesting history.  The Native American name for the tree was Catawba, but the botanist who wrote the first formal scientific description of the genus made a transcription error which resulted in the scientific name being Catalpa.  In some regions of the country, the Native American name of Catawba is still used. 

Catalpa leaves are the only food source for the caterpillars of the catalpa sphinx moth (Ceratomia catalpa).  The popularity of these caterpillars among anglers for use as live fishing bait has encouraged some fishermen to plant small catalpa groves to assure a ready source of what Southern anglers call "Catawba-worms."

One day, with the catalpa trees in full bloom and a new batch of chicks scratching around the chicken yard with the hens, Isaac had visitors.  The ladies who called were from the Antrim community a few miles to the east of Isaac, and like others sometimes did, they came to admire Isaac's farm, and especially, to enjoy his trees.  Isaac wrote in his Journal:  "[Misses] Gibbs & Mrs. Bushel called in buggy to see place & trees, got chick & catalpa bouquette, & well pleased," the bachelor homesteader offering a bit of prairie chivalry.


The Blog Fodder said...

My wife is hot on the trail of Catalpa to see if it will grow in Ukraine and if it is available from any nurseries.

Michael Hathaway said...

I can see why Isaac loved catalpa trees, they are unique and beautiful. They were my mom's favorite tree. Dad got her one in the 1970s. It's still in the back yard.

Anonymous said...

I was just smelling a blossom from my tree here in northern AZ and thought it smelled like Gardenia, It gets these fuzz fiber balls while it is blooming also, most interesting tree I have ever had, mine is huge already here when I bought this house.