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The can't-win catalpa.


A scraggly, broken tree clings to life near the entrance to the midway at the Iowa state fair. Generations of August revelers have trampled the soil at the tree's base and littered the canopy's dripline with Popsicle sticks and paper cups. The tree's broken crown now serves only one obvious function-to hold up the awning of a beer tent.

There is nothing unusual about that Iowa catalpa, for it belongs to a species that is unappreciated, scorned, or ignored almost everywhere it grows. In his comprehensive classic, A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, Donald Culross Peattie paid this species the ultimate insult by omitting it.

Catalpas have ragged crowns of coarse-textured branches adorned with huge heart-shaped leaves, big enough that a catalpa leaf once served as an impromptu umbrella for my two-year-old daughter during an afternoon shower.

Part of the tree's poor reputation is caused by the succession of lawn messes it creates. If it is not shedding leaves, it is dropping flower petals, long cigar-shaped seed pods, or the frass of large green caterpillars that often devour the leaves. Catalpa trees and picture-perfect lawns just don't mix particularly well.

The dangling green pods make identification simple, even from a distance, and give rise to the common name Indian bean tree. By fall the pods dry and brown. Often they stay on the tree through the worst winter storms. Old-timers call the catalpa the cigar tree.

But despite its seeming homeliness, the catalpa is a tree of beauty. If you doubt it, visit the wood shop of Dennis Schlicht, a biology teacher in the small Iowa town of Central City. When not teaching, Schlicht can usually be found carving, sanding, or finishing a duck, ptarmigan, or penguin from bright catalpa wood. Large blanks of rough-cut catalpa share seasoning space in the rafters of his shop with more regal walnut, cherry, and oak, and partially finished carvings perch all over the shop.

Pick up one of Schlicht's catalpa creations, and both the eyes and the fingers are treated to a shimmering beauty unrivaled by any other wood. Lightweight, with the luster of finely polished agate, its grain pattern flutters around as light strikes it from different angles, and after a coat of finish, it has the texture of pure silk.

"Few woods have such an interesting grain pattern or beautiful sheen," says Schlicht. "Catalpa carvings are snapped up in gift shops as quickly as those of cherry or walnut. And they bring just as high a price. "

He reports that though catalpa works easily and sands with no particular difficulty, the wood poses two problems to the carver. Catalpa sawdust irritates the sinuses and inside of the mouth, but wearing a dust mask prevents this problem. Harder to deal with is the general unavailability of catalpa in the marketplace. Few wood dealers stock catalpa lumber, forcing carvers to scour city streets and woodlots on farms for broken branches and windfalls.

Although the native range of the northern and southern catalpa species occupies only a tiny portion of the country, trees are usually easy to find. The tree's amazing hardiness encouraged Americans of a bygone era to plant it in nearly every state.

At one time catalpa growing stock was sold by most garden shops and nurseries. "Years ago they were the cheapest tree you could buy," says Eric Faaborg, city forester of Cedar Rapids. "People with limited incomes planted them in the front yard. Because they thrive even in compacted and infertile soil, and despite air pollution and general abuse, large catalpas are today found in poor neighborhoods and grimy industrial areas all over the country." For this reason, the first tree that many an inner-city child climbed was a catalpa.

But they aren't solely urban trees. Pioneering prairie farmers lugged them across the Mississippi and out on the Great Plains, where they thrived despite drought and blizzard. A catalpa shoot will grow a straight and rot-resistant fence post within a decade, and even though the wood pops and sputters in the hearth, it has warmed many a shivering body and cooked countless pots of stew. Today huge groves of catalpa still scratch the horizon all over the wheat belt. The first tree that many a farm kid climbed was a catalpa.

My first exposure to this gangly immigrant didn't occur until I was an adult and had moved to the Midwest. While driving down a sandy Kansas back road one Memorial Day, I entered a grove of catalpas and was greeted by thousands of showy, white, tropical-looking flowers. A catalpa may have a homely crown, but its bloom will rival the finest orchid at the flower show.

As I examined those blooming trees, an old man in a battered Ford stopped to talk. We chatted more about the trees than we did anything else.

Catalpas belong to the Bignonia family, which are mostly tropical plants. Two species live in the United States, and few people, including many foresters, can tell them apart.

To tell the truth, it doesn't really matter which species of catalpa grows out of a slag heap in a foundry near my home, or graces the hog lot where I hunt pheasants. Each is ignored or shunned for most of the year, but during blooming season, none can resist pausing to admire its beauty.
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Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Tree Profile; characteristics of the catalpa tree
Author:Patterson, Rich
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1991
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