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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tree the British Play With: Horsechestnut

The World Conker Championships have been held since 1965.

Horsechestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum), also known as Conker Tree in England, are in the same genus as Buckeyes. Both are part of the same order as the Soapberry tree.P5180061

These trees are planted as street trees for ornamentation as well as shade. Both the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees and North American Trees (Preston and Braham, 2002) report them as “escaped.” The USDA maps show them as introduced in both the East and the Northwest. The tree originated in the Balkans but has been planted widely throughout Europe and other parts of the world. They may have been introduced in the United States as early as 1576.

Monumental trees lists the widest trunked tree in England, the tallest at over 120 feet in the Netherlands, and the oldest as a specimen in France, which might be as old as 500 years. The leaves are palmate, radiating out from a central point. This species isn’t listed in the National Forest Registry, but the Colorado Tree Coalition lists the largest and tallest tree in the state as one in Cedaredge. The largest Red Horsechestnut can be found in Denver.

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The leaflets radiate from a central post

The trees flower in May in what look like cones of white flowers. P5180054Sibley reports the interior yellow spots turn red when fertilized. The fertilized flowers produce what are known as conkers, or the “nut.” This is NOT the same as a sweet chestnut, and the outer casings look quite different. The two should not be confused as conkers are considered poisonous to humans, although they may be edible once boiled. Sweet chestnuts are encased in a spiny looking ball while the outer coating of a horse chestnut looks like bumpy leather. The interior “nuts” look similar but the edible version has a discernible and palpable point while the poisonous conkers are flat. Horsechestnuts are edible for many animals and are fed to horses and other livestock.

Apparently horsechestnuts are used in homeopathy. They are touted as useful for various circulatory problems such as venous insufficiency, phlebitis, and varicose veins when properly prepared. The leaves and bark may also be useful in a number of other conditions. Lupus is mentioned.

As they are not native to North America or The British Isles, there aren’t many myths associated with them. There is a game played in England called Conkers. This game is reported to have been a favorite of Roald Dahl. Currently, Britain’s trees are threatened by a combination of moths and disease. The loss of the trees may impact the World Conker Championship, which has been held in Northampton since 1965.

A notable characteristic of the Horsechestnut are the distinctive winter buds, which are large and sticky. P4120076

 

 

 

Below is a short video about the Horse Chestnut in the United States.

 

The Red Horse Chestnut (Aesculus x carnea Briottii) is a cross between a Red Buckeye and the common Horsechestnut.P5180013

The flowers are red or pink and it is the most common large red-flowering tree in temperate zones (The Sibley Guide to Trees). The flowers are quite stunning. P5180006

City Park’s  Horsechestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) (B115) can be found just west of the intersection of Jackson and Oak streets, across from 1312 W. Oak. This tree was planted in 1997 and had a diameter of about 3.5″

To locate the Red Horse Chestnut (Aesculus x crane Briotii) (A93), continue west on Oak Street to the first turn into the park. This street is a continuation of Roosevelt Avenue.  The tree is one of the few deciduous trees in the NE triangle formed by Roosevelt and Sheldon Drive.

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Close up of the Red Horse Chestnut blossoms.