Catalpa—the Fish Bait Tree

Some consider the long seed pods and large leaves of this tree to be messy

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Flower from a Northern Catalpa

The genus Catalpa contains ten or eleven (North American Trees, 5th Edition) different species of trees. The Chinese variety, Catalpa ovata, which is on the City Park tree tour, is a native of China but has been introduced in the eastern part of North America.

Two species are native to this continent, Catalpa Speciosa and the southern version, Catalpa bignonioides Walt. Even though neither of the other species is tagged in the park, I am going to discuss them because catalpas are one of my favorites. The trees look very similar with their large leaves and long bean-like seed pods. Each also has clusters of flowers, with the native trees blooming earlier with larger blossoms than the Chinese variety.

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Developing leaf of the catalpa.

The Northern Catalpa (C. speciosa) is native to all but eight western states and Florida and has been introduced into Ontario. The Northern Catalpa is the largest of the three trees, normally growing to 60′. The National Champion tree in Indiana is 78′ and  with a 81′ crown spread. C. bignonioides, the southern catalpa, has a range which overlaps that of the northern. It can be found in most of the states where the larger tree doesn’t grow as well as in North Dakota. Although the Southern catalpa is normally only 30-40′ in height (The Tree Book, Dirr and Warren, 2019) the champion tree listed in 2017 is not much smaller than its northern counterpart (75′ x 82′).

The moniker fish-bait tree technically applies to the southern variety of this tree, but the catalpa doesn’t want for other names. They include the cigar-tree, Catawba, Indian-bean tree, caterpillar tree, and Western Catalpa, with the Northern and Southern species sometimes sharing the same alternate name.

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The developing leaves of the Chinese Catalpa with a few of the seed pods from last year

The wood of the northern tree has been used as railroad ties, trim carpentry, telephone poles, fences, and furniture. The southern catalpa wood has been used for similar purposes, but its most interesting use is in plantations where it is grown to attract the the catalpa sphinx moth, which is used for fish bait! (The Tree Book, Dirr and Warren, 2019).

Bark from C. Bignonioides has been used to treat malaria. Other parts of the plant have been used for medical reasons, including the roots, although the current writeup from the USDA includes a warning in red that the roots of this plant are poisonous!  Plants for the Future rates only the Chinese Catalpa as having possible edibility. The USDA does warn that the native trees may be invasive and weedy. Many people complain that the seed pods are messy and many don’t like the large leaves. My feeling is that the larger leaves make them easier to pick up! Even the New York Times took up the case of the catalpa with the story of its spread in the 19th century.

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Bark of the Chinese catalpa

The Chinese Catalpa is smaller than the native trees. An  additional use of its wood is in the making of a traditional Chinese instrument, the Qin.

The Chinese catalpa C 175 in the City Park Arboretum is along Sheldon Drive, just south of the Indian Magic Crabapple on the eastern side of the road, catty corner from the latrine on the west side of the road. The catalpa trees in town seem to leaf out and flower late in the season, so much so that if you own one, you start to worry it has died, yet the Chinese catalpa is even later. It looks quite scraggly even this late in June this year.

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The Chinese catalpa in mid June

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mayday tree: Inadvertent Meaning to a Name?

In Scotland this was once known as the Witches’ Tree

The Mayday tree is a member of the rose family, in the same genus as cherries and plums. Another common name for it is European Bird Cherry. This name gives a clue as to its origin. According to a Canadian website, it grows in countries near the Arctic but is native throughout Europe where its berries attract birds. It has been introduced in the US and is most prevalent in Alaska and parts of the east, including Canada.

The tree is grown as an ornamental in the states. It is on more than one list of preferred trees for Colorado and is included as a good choice for the Front Range by the Colorado Tree Coalition.

There is no doubt that it is a gorgeous tree when it blooms. It also has a distinctive, spicy smell which wafts over large areas.

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Blooming Mayday Tree

The lovely scented flowers of this tree become dark colored “cherries,” also called

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Flower Clusters of the Mayday Tree

chokecherries, although the berries usually eaten in the US with that name are from the same genus but a different species. These are said to be very bitter, but may still be made into jams and jellies. One source says they can be used to make cherry brandy. Mention is made that Koreans eat the boiled leaves.

The various parts of the tree have been used for the usual medicinal remedies for internal problems such as gall stones; colds, and fevers. A more unusual mention is a concoction of an eyewash for conjunctivitis. The leaves and berries may be made into green dyes, as well as a reddish dye for fishing nets. Some sources say the lumber is prized in woodworking, but the Wood Database doesn’t list it.

Although this tree does not currently appear to pose a threat to the lower 48, it has become invasive in Alaska. It may cause difficulty in growing other shade trees as well as adversely affect the willow population. Moose often feed on willow trees, possibly decreasing a food source. The leaves, twigs, and drupes contain hydrogen cyanide and can be deadly for horses and other large animals. Recently this has caused problems for moose. Eaten in small amounts, humans normally will not be harmed by the hydrogen cyanide in the berry’s seeds.

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Mayday Tree bark

A photo of the trunk of the tree is included to help in identification.

D74 May Day Tree (Prunus padusis located on S. Bryan Drive between Oak Street and City Park Drive. It is very close to the street, across from the playground. This specimen was planted in 1993.

As indicated, this tree is called variously the May Day Tree, Mayday tree, European Bird Cherry, Cluster Cherry, and Hagberry. (The Sibley Guide to Trees.) At first I thought it was named the May Day tree as the flowers bloomed around the beginning of May. After reading of the danger to native trees in Alaska and the poisoning of large mammals, I wonder of it was inadvertently given a name mimicking a call for help!