Catalpa - don’t smoke that pod!
By Lynn Post
Although catalpa is more commonly found in the eastern part of Texas, this large fast-growing tree also makes an occasional appearance in the Hill Country.
The origins of “catalpa” may stem from a mispronunciation of ‘Catawba,’ the name of a Native American tribe in whose territory botanists initially discovered and recorded the tree.
Aka Fishbait tree and Catalpa speciosa, the tree is not particularly long-lived, but its handsome spreading branches offer good shade. In Bandera County, some catalpas have been reported with trunks as large as reach three-feet in diameter.
Reaching 40- to 70-feet high, the tree produces large heart-shaped leaves up to the six- to eight-inches across. When crushed, the leaves apparently emit an offensive odor.
However, in the spring, the catalpa sports showy white flowers with yellow and purple spots on the interiors.
It also makes an curious pencil-like seed or bean pod, which can be up to 15-inches long. The pods often remain on the tree through the winter.
As a aside, as a “yewt” in West Virginia, along with other compatriots in crime, I recall attempting to “smoke” the pods - mainly ‘cause someone said you could. Take my advice, you can’t, and even if you could, you wouldn’t want to. Of course, that was a different place and a much different time. But, back to the catalpa tree …
According to lore, catalpa produces timber with the reputation of being able to lie for a century on wet ground without rotting.
As another characteristic, the tree attracts Sphinx moths. After the moths’ eggs hatch, the resultant caterpillars make an excellent fish bait - hence the moniker “Fish Bait Tree.” Other insects seem amenable to languishing around the tree as well.
Catalpa favors sun to partial shade, and a range of soil types, but prefers deeper soil that’s moist and well-drained.
Although it can tolerate hot, dry sites, it might not be a good choice for xeriscaping since many consider catalpa a weedy - or in Yankee parlance, “trash” - tree.