Catalpa Tree and Its Caterpillars


I have seen a lot of catalpa trees and there are some on Bellevue University campus along the sidewalk as you walk into the library.  The catalpa is sometimes called the Indian bean tree for its production of a distinctive fruit that resembles long, thin bean pods that can grow up to two feet long.  A catalpa does make a statement with its big, bold leaves, masses of fragrant bell-shaped flowers and a grandiose habitat.



Here are some facts about the catalpa tree.

  • Lifespan of up to 60 years.
  • Growth is rapid at first, but slows down with age.
  • Limbs drop as tree grows.
  • Large, heart shaped leaves.
  • Produces clusters of large, trumpet-shaped flowers.
  • Bean-pod shaped fruit.
  • Bark is thin and easily damaged from mechanical impact.
  • Requires pruning to grow strong
  • Sole source of food for the catalpa sphinx moth larva.
  • The sphinx moth larva (catawba worms) are considered a prize fish bait.

There are two species in North America. The northern catalpa, or cigar tree, features a loose heart leaf shape and can grow up to 50 feet tall and occasionally up to 90 feet.  It spreads 50 feet and tolerates hot, dry weather, but leaves may scorch and some drop form the tree in very dry summers.  The leaves grow opposite to each other. There are a pair of leaves on each node, and the leaves grow opposite to each other, rather than alternate.  Recognized by their large, heart-shaped, sharp-pointed leaves, showy white or yellow flowers, and long fruits that resemble a slender bean pod. It is sometimes spelled “Catawba”.

The southern catalpa reaches only about 30 to 40 feet tall. Its leaves are also arranged opposite to each other.  A sunny exposure, well-drained, moist, rich soil is preferred but will tolerate a range of soils from acid to calcareous.

The catalpa worm (Ceratomia catalpa), a type of sphinx moth larva is a distinctive caterpillar with yellow and black markings.   It is highly regarded as fish bait.

The largest living catalpa tree is located on the lawn of the Michigan State Capitol, planted at the time the Capitol was dedicated in 1873. The oldest known living catalpa tree is a 150-year-old specimen in the Minster graveyard of St. Mary’s Butts in the town of Reading, Berkshire, U.K.






Catalpa wood can be used to make lovely Christmas decorations.  Below is one which I have purchased at the Iowa State Fair: Resources:

The Catalpa Tree and Its Caterpillars

Northern Catalpa

Western Catalpa

How to Plant and Grow a Catalpa Tree

Catalpa Trees, Catawba worms, and Southern Love

Tree of the Month: Catalpa

Catalpa Tree Planting: How to Grow a Catalpa Tree

Photo:   (credit for catalpa flowers photo.  all others courtesy of Chris Armstrong)

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