Varieties of the Catalpa Tree

Catalpa bignonioides (Indian Bean Tree), mature tree in parkland
Harley Seaway / Getty Images

The Catalpa tree's name (Catalpa sp.) made it into English and Latin via Creek Indian tribal language describing the tree's flower. Folks in the southern United States prefer to pronounce the tree "catawba" and that has survived as a common name along with cigar tree and Indian bean tree.

Species History

Catalpa was used by Native Americans in the American South as a poultice and purgative from leaves and bark. These medicinal properties were never developed but the tree was promoted to railroads as the perfect "crosstie" and planted on their rights-of-ways throughout the United States. That also flopped because of poor soil conditions near railroads, insects (catalpa worms) and disease (butt and heart rots). Trees naturalized from these plantations and are now nearly everywhere.

Quarreling Catalpas

There are actually two species in the United States and are hardy natives that tend to grow on one or the other side of the Mason-Dixon line, Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) and Southern Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides). Still, there is a lot of overlap of these species but can be identified by some very different and unique characteristics.

Northern Variety

The Northern Catalpa is a larger tree with a thinner leaf and a longer point on its valentine shaped leaf. Catalpa speciosa grows much taller than Southern Catalpa and its panicle flowers are typically white. For massiveness, Northern Catalpa has the edge.

Southern Variety

The Southern Catalpa is a smaller tree with considerably more blossoms that are lavender or purple in color, probably more attractive than its northern cousin. Catalpa bignonioides is the preferred landscape tree.

Actually Used As Fish Bait

Both trees are fish favorites. The catalpa caterpillar of the catalpa sphinx moth feeds on the catalpa leaf which will often defoliate the tree. Fishbait collectors visit these trees starting in mid-June and use this larva as prized fish bait. These defoliations generally do not harm the Catalpa.