The Southern Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides) is a truly Southern tree native to the Southeastern United States that makes an attractive addition to your backyard or landscape.
This tree, which can be grown from seed if need be, offers beautiful flowers that are trumpet-shaped, white, with purple and orange patches inside. Later in the fall, its seed pods hang delightfully and sway in the breeze.
It’s relatively easy to grow, doesn’t require a lot of water or maintenance, and can reach heights of about 50 feet. It can sometimes be confused with the invasive Royal Paulownia. Paulownia has similar heart shaped leaves but has 2 leaves opposite each other on the stem. Catalpa has a three leaf whorl that grows around the stem. Two leaves, cut it, three leaves, let it grow!
Even after the leaves fall on both these deciduous trees, it’s easy to tell which is which by the scars left by the leaf stem(petioles). The Catalpa flowers are white, Paulownia is purple. Lastly Catalpa fruit is long, Indian beans, Paulownia has a cluster of nutlets.
Now the good part, Catalpa trees are a host tree for the caterpillars of the Catalpa Sphinx moth (Cerotomia catalpae). This is a gray, night flying insect that would never win a beauty contest, like a lot of our butterflies and moths would. However its caterpillar stage is a delight to catfish, bream, bass, and lots of other of our finny friends that lurk in the depths of Guntersville Lake.
When first hatched, these larvae are very pale, but they darken as they age. The yellowing caterpillars will usually have a dark, black stripe down their back along with black dots along their sides. At two inches long, they have a black spine on their rear end. Their tough texture makes for easy hooking and the worms also ooze a bright fluorescent green liquid that’s an amazing fish call. You can pick 'em and preserve them in the freezer in a zip lock with corn meal. Thaw them and throw 'em out on a hook. A jar in the fridge with corn syrup also works, I’m told.
Don’t worry about your tree, these worms can defoliate the entire tree and it bounces back next year to live again.
Big shade tree, fish bait, pretty flowers, low maintenance, what’s not to like about Catalpa? Plant natives, folks. You will be glad you did!