The catalpa tree, also known by the common names of Indian bean tree, cigar tree and Indian cigar tree, is a large, deciduous ornamental tree cultivated primarily in the Eastern part of the country. It is often used for planting in urban areas along streets, and in the right environment can even become an invasive nuisance due to the prolific number of seeds produced in its bean-like pods.
The cigar tree is a medium to large sized tree, averaging 40 to 60 feet in height. The crown is an open oval shape, with a typical spread of up to 40 feet. The leaves are large, heart-shaped and a bright green, but it produces little fall color, with leaves turning a dull yellow-green and then brown. It flowers late in the spring and has copious amounts of blossoms. The bark is gray and ridged, and susceptible to damage when young, especially from rodents. The tree grows quickly at first, reaching 20 feet in its first two decades, then growth slows for its remaining 40-year life.
Flowers and Beans
The flowers are about 2 1/2 inches long, trumpet-shaped and white. They appear on the tree in clusters, each flower having five frilly-edged lobes, speckled or streaked with purple and orange. They attract all the usual pollinators like bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, and are good for honey production. The seed pods appear as over-grown garden beans, sometimes as long as 24 inches. The seeds are small, taking over 20,000 of them to make up a pound. The pods dry and turn brown as they mature, hanging on the tree and splitting open to drop seeds until they are knocked down, usually by wind.
While largely an ornamental in modern days, the tree was once prized and grown for use as fence posts, railway fuel and ties and power poles. It was also used to make furniture and trim homes. The heartwood is strong and resistant to rot. It also had early medicinal uses, with the beans being used to treat asthma and heart problems, the leaves taken for eye problems and swollen lymph glands and the bark also used for swollen glands.
Although the catalpa tree is a beautiful tree to have in your yard, there are some drawbacks to planting one. The main disadvantage is the mess it makes. It sheds its flowers in the early summer, leaving numerous white petals around the tree. In the autumn it loses its substantial number of leaves all at once, and in the winter, the dried bean pods drop and litter the lawn. It also has a relatively short season, being the among the last deciduous tree to leaf out in spring, and the first to shed, without any show of color in the fall.
Angela Baird has been writing professionally since 1995. She has a wide range of life experiences from work with abused animals with the Humane Society, to more than 20 years of hands-on experience in the culinary arts. In addition, she keeps horses and does her own home improvements and home gardening.